Mad governess or wise instructor?
This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Sesame & Lilies, the texts on education and gender that have done almost as much as his unconsummated marriage to damage John Ruskin’s reputation today. It is also 45 years, give or take a few months, since the appearance of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, which explosively began the attack from which Ruskin’s name has hardly yet recovered [I was sorry to hear the familiar assault uncritically repeated in Amanda Vickery’s recent TV series on the struggle for female suffrage]
The anniversary is the occasion for a scholarly conference in Cambridge, organised by the university there that, having begun life as Cambridge College of Art, in 2005 re-named itself Anglia Ruskin in recognition of the fact that he gave the college’s inaugural lecture in 1858.
According to the blurb, ‘Ruskin’s work is just as important today as in his own time. He was voted one of the top ‘green campaigners of all time’ by the Guardian in 2006; he was a powerful voice in promoting women’s education, while believing passionately in ‘separate spheres’; he worked tirelessly to promote the education of the working class; he was an artist, and influential art critic and author of a brilliant example of Victorian life-writing, Praeterita.
The fun parts include a special viewing of Ruskin’s watercolours in the Fitzwilliam Museum; and a foyer performance of a comedy called Ruskin’s Women – Effie, Rosey-Posy, Joanie and who else? – by Ros Connelly, whose recent plays include suffragette dramas about Emily Wilding Davison and Lady Constance Lytton.
In fact, RUSKIN’S WOMEN was not about actual women but a witty unpicking of [some] of his writings on the subject as a dialogue between a sculpted Noah and a caryatid. Performers in the photos: Barry Evans, Ben Kidder, Henry Lay, Isabel Rees, Kirsty Harris, Flaviana Cruz and Lydia Cato.
It complemented the academic papers, which were lively and full of humour – I’ve seldom laughed so much at a scholarly conference – and included a couple of songs composed by Ruskin as well as all manner of erudite expositions of rarely-visited texts. So it was all fun.