Vicky Albritton and Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Green Victorians: The Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District

Vicky Albritton and Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Green Victorians: The Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2016) 209 pp.  £28.00 Hb.  ISBN: 978-0-226-339986

Vicky Albritton and Fredrik Albritton Jonsson open their account of The Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District, as their book is subtitled, with the work of Albert Fleming, who in the early 1880s left behind his life as a London barrister, and moved to the Lake District (1).  Here, he sought to resurrect the production of hand-spun yarn and thread, and from them, create a small-scale, local alternative to a booming economy that generated more social ills then it cured (2-3). For ‘green Victorians’ like Fleming, however, ‘a more thoughtful approach to the use of nature’ (3) also formed an integral part of an approach that sought to remind consumers ‘that there was a different way to think about work and consumption’ (7).

The inspiration for Fleming and his collaborators was, of course, John Ruskin, whose critique of industrial modernity was as profound as it was idiosyncratic; in part, Fleming settled in the Lakes because this was where Ruskin himself had made his home (6). He was not alone. In Green Victorians, therefore, Albritton and Jonsson set out to trace Ruskin’s influence on a group of men and women who sought to substitute a simpler, a sufficient life for the one determined for them by an ‘age of mass consumption’ (9).

Their account of what became a ‘Lakeland arts revival’ (23) begins with a chapter devoted to Ruskin himself, and his own efforts to identify new ways of living, and define new priorities for the modern world, most famously in Unto this Last (‘there is no wealth but life’), perhaps most clearly in Fors Clavigera (37-8). As Albritton and Jonsson explain, Ruskin concluded that true political economy was an ‘inclusive art’, fusing ‘nature and body’ (29) in the ‘skilful making of useful and beautiful things' (28). When he purchased his Lakeland estate at Brantwood, overlooking Coniston, in 1871, he already had in mind a project that was both ‘physical and theoretical’ (29). The great tragedy of Ruskin’s life is, of course, that his fragile mental health was by then already giving way (37).

‘Yet the experiment continued’ (47), and the next chapter, Albritton and Jonsson return to Albert Fleming and his Langdale Linen Industry. In a region ‘alive with [...] handicraft projects’, it was nevertheless the pioneer (55): ‘[t]he Langdale Linen Industry offered a practical experiment in the value of handmade goods’ (57).  But as the authors point out, the success of the venture (which lasted until 1925 [68]) was also contingent on a ‘shrewd understanding of commercial realities’ (59), not least the need to create a (romanticised) brand image that exploited the Ruskinian connection (59-61).

The book’s third chapter focuses on Ruskin’s relationship to a remarkable local gardener, Susanna Beever, whose own home lay near his at the head of Coniston. Something of a disciple (76), hers was, the authors argue, an important example of the kind of lifestyle (72) which Ruskin had in mind. But the nature of their correspondence, intimate, but sometimes also childish, underlines the fact that Ruskin was himself no longer the force he had once been, nor, for that matter, the friend; his behaviour could also be irascible and awkward (90).

In the fourth chapter, Albritton and Jonsson turn to Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, more ‘bulldog’ than ‘sheep in Ruskin’s flock of followers’ (97). Co-founder of the Lake District Defence Society (107) and later the National Trust, he sought to save the natural beauty of the Lakes from the growing tide of tourists and day-trippers (97-8). But what, exactly, was being preserved, and for whose benefit (98-99)? As Rawnsley discovered, local people were often easily persuaded of the benefits of a new railway or even a reservoir (102-3); it was the well-to-do ‘off-comers’ who led the opposition (108, 109). Rawnsley was caught in a similar paradox (105) when he founded the School of Industrial Arts in Keswick in 1883 (97-8); what began as the embodiment of Ruskin’s desire to preserve local handicrafts quickly expanded to encompass purely decorative goods ‘not unlike those seen in the great displays of urban stores’ (105).

The final chapters of Green Victorians concentrate on W. G. Collingwood, Ruskin’s private secretary, and the family Collingwood raised in the Lakes along lines inspired by the idea of a simple life. Although Collingwood was often financially hard-pressed (131-2), his children lived a life of creative, outdoor play (rambling, hiking, sailing), their broad learning reflected in an astonishing home-made magazine, Nothing Much (153-4). As the authors point out, however, the real legacy of that life was the world evoked by Collingwood’s ‘“foster son” Arthur Ransome’ in Swallows and Amazons (121; 171-3).

Beloved as these children’s books may be, there is little left here of Ruskin’s caustic critique of consumer society; it is, at best ‘a vacation version of Ruskin’s ethics’ (173). Herein lies the wider problem, as Albritton and Jonsson point out: the experiments they describe, no matter how worthy, did not in the end affect the trajectory of modern society. Bluntly, ‘[s]ufficiency proved insufficient’ (20). But the question of how best to ‘formulate a viable alternative to modern consumer society’ (176) is, as Albritton and Jonsson point out, no less pressing today (176-7). As they conclude in their final chapter, ‘Ruskin in the Anthropocene’, these ‘green Victorians’ might not have found any obvious answer, but in trying to lay the basis of ‘a good life’, they had nonetheless opened up a critically important and continuing discussion about the wider impact of human behaviours (178).

Carefully argued and rich in insight, Green Victorians is a fascinating effort to build on recent, ecocritically inflected scholarship, and reconstruct the Lakeland lives of those who took Ruskin’s message seriously.  As they stress, however, Ruskin’s influence on his followers was often indirect, particularly later in his troubled life; nor did those like Fleming and Collingwood find it easy to translate his complex and subtle message into simple, sustainable, and practical measures.  At root, however, Ruskin’s belief that ‘“intrinsic value is the absolute power of anything to support life”’ (32) could not be more straightforward, commanding – or pertinent.

Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar