‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’: Reading Men in John Ruskin’s Sesames and Lilies

Front piece of Ruskin's chapter 'Of Kings' Treasuries'
Front piece of Ruskin’s chapter ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’

Despite often using John Ruskin’s famous description of men and women’s ‘separate characters’ in my classes (and even, to the horror of my former gender history students, getting them to read ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’ in its entirety) I have never actually read ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’. This is a bit embarrassing, but I don’t think I’m alone in having privileged the account of ideal domestic femininity to be found in ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’. Many women’s and gender historians appear to have done the same. Yet, as Diana Birch and Francis O’Gorman have argued, ‘Ruskin’s complicated relationship with Victorian gender politics is now being recognized and explored. Assessments of his interventions that stop at a hasty reading ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ (1864) are becoming fewer’ (p.1.). Similarly, Deborah Epstein Nord has noted that ‘without reading the two parts as one, without seeing “Kings” and “Queens” together, as it were, we miss [the] distinctiveness of Ruskin’s social vision’ (Nord; 2002, xv).

Hasty readings may be no more, but I think many of us still have a tendency to overlook Ruskin’s construction and representation of men in favour of the idea that the gender narrative of Sesame and Lilies is only about women and their domestic virtues. How many of us with an interest in gender have extended our close reading beyond Ruskin’s description of men in ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ and set this alongside his chapter ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’ in order to contextualise his well-known account of masculinity?

These questions have recently bugged me, especially as I’ve always wondered what Ruskin meant when he stated in ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ that

[T]he man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discover, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary…The man, in his rough work in the open world, must encounter all peril and trial: to him, therefore, must be the failure, the offense, the inevitable error: often he must be wounded, or subdued; often misled, and always hardened. But he guards the woman from all this; within his house, as ruled by her, unless she herself has sought it, need enter no danger, no temptation, no cause of error or offense.

Last week I finally sat down and read Ruskin’s ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’. This essay was first given as a lecture in December 1864 in Manchester and was published in 1865 as the first chapter of Sesame and Lilies. According to Ruskin in the preface of his 1882 edition of Sesame and Lilies, ‘it must be premised that the book is chiefly written for young people belonging to the upper, or undistressed middle, classes; who may be supposed to have choice of the objects and command of the industries of their life’[p.25.].

Considering Ruskin’s description of men in ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’, I was surprised to find that Ruskin was so critical of his male counterparts in ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’. Men were, according to Ruskin, too bent on ‘passions, and powers’ and expending their ‘masculine energy into the false business of money-making’ to do their Christian and national duty. (59). For Ruskin, men’s reluctance to be ‘faithfully helpful and compassionate’ meant that they had ‘no true emotion’ (59). British middle-class men had simply constructed an artificial masculinity that had infantilised them. Thus, for Ruskin, ‘modern man’ was simply a well dressed empty vessel with no personal soul (60).

‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’ was, as Seth Koven notes, pitched towards the Manchester man and those values that Ruskin thought personified Manchester (Koven; 2002, 169). The Protestant ethic, to use Max Weber’s phrase, had, according to Ruskin, created a masculine identity that was excessively concerned with wealth, praise and social standing. Early in his lecture, Ruskin turned to his audience and asked them if ‘the strongest motive in men’s minds in seeking advancement’ was the ‘love of praise’ or ‘the honest desire of doing any kind of duty’ (30). He reported that more hands went up for the ‘love of praise’ then for duty leading him to conclude ‘Very good. I see you are with me’ (30). The problem with praise, according to Ruskin, was that kings measured their success by size and ‘love-latitudes’ (62) rather than recognising their duty to others as well as the cultivation of their own souls.

As such, he saw them to be cultural philistines, supporting Matthew Arnold’s argument that the middle class were philistines. Ruskin criticised his male audience for their inability to read the right books written by ‘Great men’ like John Milton, William Shakespeare, St. Francis, Alighieri and Dante (39). Instead these men preferred to converse with others;

Will you go and gossip with your housemaid, or your stable-boy, when you may talk with queens and kings; or flatter yourself that it is with any worthy consciousness of your own claims to respect, that you jostle with the hungry and common crowd for entrée here, and audience there, when all the while this eternal court is open to you (33).

By reading a specific canon, men would be able to ‘enter into their Thoughts’ and discover ‘what is True’ (45-46). Rather than simply ‘play with the words of the dead’ (60), he suggested that men should truly read and re-read their words for if they did they would have spiritual and social nourishment. This was important because their role and life choices impacted on the national consciousness. After all ‘No nation can last, which has made a mob of itself, however generous at heart…a nation cannot last as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity, – it cannot with existence, – go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion and concentrating its soul on Pence’ (49). It is perhaps not a surprise then that Ruskin advocated the development of a civic sphere centred on libraries and art galleries.

Yet, the image of the philistine can also be expanded to include the social duty men had towards their inferiors. Ruskin was appalled by men’s inability to take better care of the poor. He used specific cases to highlight his disdain at how the poor were being ill-used and compromised by their poverty. Like the middle classes, the poor lacked not only spiritual nourishment but also, more disturbingly for Ruskin, the means to buy food in a capitalist system that only profited the already wealthy. How could capitalists justify costly wars when their poorer brethren went hungry?

For Ruskin, men had great potential. It just seems interesting to me that they were not quite the Kings implied in his chapter ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ and perhaps that is the point. In attacking men in the first chapter he sought to show them what they could and should be in his second chapter. At the same time it might also show that his idealisation of the ‘separate characters’ revealed that he was an outsider. He was neither the Manchester man nor had great knowledge of women, save his idealisation of women like Adele Domecq, Effie Grey (who he married) and Rosa La Trouche. Despite this, the first chapter enables him to construct his own masculine identity, an identity that positioned him on the same lines as those ‘great men’ he discusses.

Coincidently, I didn’t find this a particularly enjoyable read. This has led me reflect on the difficulties of reading a text which was initially read aloud by its author; what words would Ruskin have emphasised? Would his dense and specific images come alive if they had been spoken rather then read?

All references to John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies are from Deborah Nord’s 2002 edition

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