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Ruskin on political economy, or ‘Being Preached to Death by a Mad Governess’


Willie Henderson has drawn upon recent literary theory to write a good book on a much neglected topic, namely John Ruskin’s views on classical political economy, and consequently the arguments and conclusions contained in this publication deserve to be reviewed at length. Before proceeding to my highly qualified criticisms of this book, however, the now relative obscurity of its central character, at least within the narrow world inhabited by economists, calls for some prefatory biographical remarks. Ruskin was one of the most influential art and social critics of the nineteenth century and, indeed, his writings conveniently frame the Victorian Age, his first piece appearing in 1830 and his last in 1900. He was also a tragic figure of theatrical, if not Greek, proportions. He was delicate, exceedingly thin and possessed an unshapely mouth, having been savaged by a dog in early childhood; his unhealthy filial devotion to his grim evangelical mother and doting vintner father, which continued into middle age, clearly retarded his emotional development; and his disposition to morbidity and hypochondria constantly threatened to push him over to madness, as the following passage, written at 43, reveals: “I feel as if I were living in one great churchyard, with people all around me clinging feebly to the edges of open graves” (quoted in Harrison 1911:310).



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