Oh, Ruskin. What’s a modern girl to do with you?
I don’t know that a work has ever enthralled and infuriated me like Sesame and Lilies did. One part paean to a thing I love, reading books; one part social critique that still rings true today; and two parts essentialist Victorian hogwash that very nearly strains credulity.
Okay, the book is actually two lectures Ruskin gave in Manchester in 1865: “Of King’s Treasuries,” about the necessity of instructing (male) students in literature so that they may be better citizens, and “Of Queen’s Gardens,” about the proper ways to educate female children so that they may serve as support and moral compasses for men.
Beginning with the first lecture and then getting the shock of the second was difficult for me. I am, of course, a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile, and I could read for hours about the pleasures of reading and the proper means for engaging with a literary education. I am also, as a feminist child of the 20th century, accustomed to reading things directed solely at men and shifting them around in my brain so that they’re directed at me too.
Ruskin’s exhortation to students to read the best books they can during their short lives struck me in a particularly powerful way:
But if you read rightly, you will easily discover the true bits, and those are the book.
Now books of this kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men:—by great readers, great statesmen, and great thinkers. These are all at your choice; and Life is short. You have heard as much before;—yet have you measured and mapped out this short life and its possibilities? Do you know, if you read this, that you cannot read that—that what you lose to-day you cannot gain to-morrow?
Oh goodness, I thought, Ruskin is right! I have to stop wasting time on the internet! I’m losing the ability to experience books!
After this startling revelation of education advice, the second lecture came as quite a disappointment. The problematic gender essentialism is rather too tricky to get into in a short blog post — scholars have been arguing Ruskin’s intentions and the proper feminist response pretty much since it came out — but it gave me enough pause that I felt I must mention it.
There is, we acknowledge, a severe danger in delineating male and female spheres of life and action, as well as a wildly unfair burden in asking women to be the moral standard for men and then holding them accountable when men fail. And yet, there is also something revolutionary in calling for parents to stridently educate their female children.
And not only in the material and in the course, but yet more earnestly in the spirit of it, let a girl’s education be as serious as a boy’s. You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments, and then complain of their frivolity.
His preferred method of educating girls is one I would have delighted at:
Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in a field. It knows the bad weeds twenty times better than you; and the good ones too, and will eat some bitter and prickly ones, good for it, which you had not the slightest thought would have been so.
Victorian conceptions of gender aside, something happens when you exhort young girls to read and take education seriously: some of them do so. And some of them take it far beyond what Ruskin counseled or intended, and we have them to thank for suffrage, the ability to wear pants, and any other good thing that has happened in the intervening 150 years.