Victorian Literature and Culture

Research Article

“THE CIRCLES OF VITALITY”: RUSKIN, SCIENCE, AND DYNAMIC MATERIALITY

Mark Frosta1

a1 University of Portsmouth

The days have passed in which John Ruskin's scientific writings were deemed secondary and separate to his art, architecture, or politics, but his science still tends to be viewed predominately via the prism of his later natural history, with its characteristically virulent opposition to Darwin and materialism, and in relation to his application of typological exegesis to landscape study. I would argue that an approach is required that situates Ruskin's response to Darwin against the background of his entire career in scientific writing and that seeks to clarify the relationship between the various influences which informed his engagement with environment. While this article cannot pursue such an analysis in full, it outlines some key reasons for its necessity. Through examination of significant 1843 correspondence and related works, I will call in particular for a re-evaluation of the degree to which Ruskin engaged in modern scientific methods and approaches. In doing so, I will suggest that Ruskin's later anti-materialism did not represent a seamless continuation of a long-established attitude to science and nature, but something of a discontinuity, in which, faced with the implications of evolutionary theory, he attempted to reject not just Darwinism, but many of the elements that had made his own work in science distinctive, convincing, and attuned to modernity, materiality, and process.

(Online publication May 18 2011)

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