‘Of Queens’ Gardens’: From John Ruskin’s ‘Sesame And Lilies’

So, we’re continuing to the second lecture in John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. And this one is… I don’t want to sexist, even though it is, but it’s also rather forward thinking for a nineteenth century Englishman. But it is about the best kind of education – and by education, he mostly means reading material – for women.

At one point, he writes that there are no heroes in Shakespeare’s plays – only heroines. By which he means that all the male characters, except for a few milquetoast men, are deeply flawed, while the Bard’s plays are simultaneously full of nearly perfect women. Furthermore, the plots are set in motion by male folly and either there is no happy resolution or else what happy resolution occurs, occurs through the agency of a woman (of course, today, we might say that this is a sort of flaw in Shakespeare’s characterization of women). I haven’t gone back and read all of Shakespeare’s plays again, but based on a cursory recall from memory, it sounds pretty accurate. Cool, huh?

Women, Ruskin believes, should be able to read and study whatever a man might study, except… wait for it…. wait for it… THEOLOGY! Yes, theology. Apparently, the study of theology is so conducive to soul corroding error that it is entirely too dangerous for women to study. Weird.

You know, we just don’t mint essayists like we used to. Ruskin is amazing and while he is a sterling example of the nineteenth century British essayist, he is hardly the only example (Pater, Carlyle, Mill, Cardinal Newman, etc). Even our best contemporary essayists don’t really compare. Even folks like the late Christopher Hitchens and John McPhee still aren’t as good as that crew from 150 years ago. Sigh.

 

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