From Fors Clavigera
by John Ruskin

From Letter LXXXVI.


VI. The following correspondence requires a few, and but a few, words of preliminary information.

For the last three or four years it has been matter of continually increasing surprise to me that I never received the smallest contribution to St. George’s Fund from any friend or disciple of Miss Octavia Hill’s.

I had originally calculated largely on the support I was likely to find among persons who had been satisfied with the result of the experiment made at Marylebone under my friend’s superintendence. But this hope was utterly disappointed; and to my more acute astonishment, because Miss Hill was wont to reply to any more or less direct inquiries on the subject, with epistles proclaiming my faith, charity, and patience, in language so laudatory, that, on the last occasion of my receiving such answer, to a request for a general sketch of the Marylebone work, it became impossible for me, in any human modesty, to print the reply.

The increasing mystery was suddenly cleared, a month or two ago, by a St. George’s Companion of healthily sound and impatient temper, who informed me of a case known to herself, in which a man of great kindness of disposition, who was well inclined to give aid to St. George, had been diverted from such intention by hearing doubts expressed by Miss Hill of my ability to conduct any practical enterprise successfully.

I requested the lady who gave me this information to ascertain from Miss Hill herself what she had really said on the occasion in question. To her letter of inquiry, Miss Hill replied in the following terms:

“Madam,— In justice to Mr. Ruskin, I write to say that there has evidently been some misapprehension respecting my words.

“Excuse me if I add that beyond stating this fact I do not feel called upon to enter into correspondence with a stranger about my friend Mr. Ruskin, or to explain a private conversation of my own.

“I am, Madam, yours truly,


Now it would have been very difficult for Miss Hill to have returned a reply less satisfactory to her correspondent, or more irritating to a temper like mine. For, in the first place, I considered it her bounden duty to enter into correspondence with all strangers whom she could possibly reach, concerning her friend Mr. Ruskin, and to say to them, what she was in the habit of saying to me: and, in the second place, I considered it entirely contrary to her duty to say any thing of me in private conversation which she did not feel called upon to “explain” to whomsoever it interested. I wrote, therefore, at once myself to Miss Hill, requesting to know why she had not replied to Mrs. ——’s question more explicitly: and received the following reply:

“14, NOTTINGHAM PLACE, Oct. 7th, 1877.

“My dear Mr. Ruskin,— I wrote instantly on receiving Mrs. ——’s letter to say that my words had been misunderstood. I could not enter with a stranger, and such a stranger!! (a) into anything more concerning a friend, or a private conversation.

“But if you like to know anything I ever said, or thought, about you for the twenty four years I have known you, ‘most explicitly’ shall you know; and you will find no trace of any thought, much less word, that was not utterly loyal, and even reverently tender towards you” (my best thanks!— had I been more roughly handled, who knows what might have come of it?) “Carlyle, who never saw me, told you I was faithful. Faithful I should think so! I could not be anything else. Ask those who have watched my life. I have not courted you by flattery; I have not feigned agreement where I differed or did not understand; I have not sought you among those I did not trust or respect;” (thanks, again, in the name of my acquaintance generally,) “I have not worried you with intrusive question’s or letters. I have lived very far away from you, but has there been thought or deed of mine uncoloured by the influence of the early, the abiding, and the continuous teaching you gave me? Have I not striven to carry out what you have taught in the place where I have been called to live? Was there a moment when I would not have served you joyfully at any cost? Ask those who know, if, when you have failed or pained me, (b) I have not invariably said, if I said anything, that you might have good reasons of which I knew nothing, or might have difficulties I could not understand; or that you had had so much sorrow in your life, that if it was easier to you to act thus or thus in ways affecting me, so far as I was concerned I was glad you should freely choose the easier. You have seen nothing of me; (c) but ask those who have, whether for twenty-four years I have been capable of any treasonable thought or word about you. It matters nothing to me; (d) but it is sad for you for babbling tongues to make you think any one who ought to know you, chattered, and chattered falsely, about you.

“I remember nothing of what I said, (e) but distinctly what I thought, and think, and will write that to you if you care. Or if you feel there is more that I can do to set the rumour at rest than the strong positive assertion I have made that I have been misunderstood, tell me. (f) But my own experience of character and of the world makes me resolutely adhere to my belief that though Mrs. —— would vastly like to get behind that, (g) that, and nothing else, is the right, true, and wise position as far as you and as far as I (h) am concerned. Shall I not leave it there, then?

“I am sorry to write in pencil; I hope you will not find it difficult to read. I am ill and not able to be up.

“I have tried to answer both points. First, to show that I have contradicted the statement, and that explanations of what I did say (i) (unless to yourself) seem to me most unwise and uncalled-for.

“And secondly, to assure you, so far as words will, that however inadequate you may feel the response the world has given, an old friend has not failed you in thought, nor intentionally, though she seems to have made a confusion, by some clumsy words. Hoping you may feel both things,

“I am, yours as always,


To this letter I replied, that it was very pretty; but that I wanted to know, as far as possible, exactly what Miss Hill had said, or was in the habit of saying.

I received the following reply The portions omitted are irrelevant to the matter in hand, but shall be supplied if Miss Hill wishes.

“14, NOTTINGHAM PLACE, W., Nov. 3rd, 1877.

“Dear Mr. Ruskin,— I offered immediately, on October 6th, on receiving your first letter, to tell you anything I had ever said about you. Whatever needed explanation seemed to me best said to you.

* * * * *

“I have spoken to you, I think, and certainly to others, of what appears to me an incapacity in you for management of great practical work,— due, in my opinion, partly to an ideal standard of perfection, which finds it hard to accept any limitations in perfection, even temporarily; partly to a strange power of gathering round you, and trusting, the wrong people, which I never could understand in you, as it mingles so strangely with rare powers of perception of character, and which always seemed to me therefore rather a deliberate ignoring of disqualifications, in hope that that would stimulate to better action, but which hope was not realized.

“In Mr. ——’s case, and so far as I can recollect in every case in which I have spoken of this, it has been when I have found people puzzled themselves by not finding they can take you as a practical guide in their own lives, yet feeling that you must mean practical result to follow on your teaching, and inclined to think you cannot help them. Mr. —— and I were great friends: when I was a girl, and he a young man, we read and talked over your books together. I had not seen him for many years till he asked me to come and see him and his wife and children. He is a manufacturer, face to face with difficult problems, full of desire to do right, with memories of ideals and resolutions, building his house, managing his mills, with a distinct desire to do well. I found him inclined to think perhaps after all he had been wrong, and that you could teach him nothing, because he could not apply your definite directions to his own life. The object of my words was just this: ‘Oh, do not think so. All the nobility of standard and aim, all the conscience and clear sight of right principles, is there, and means distinct action. Do not look to Mr. Ruskin for definite direction about practical things: he is not the best judge of them. You, near to the necessities of this tangible world and of action, must make your own life, and apply principles to it. Necessity is God’s, rightly estimated, and cannot be inconsistent with right. But listen to the teacher who sees nearer to perfection than almost any of us: never lose sight or memory of what he sets before you, and resolutely apply it, cost what it may, to your own life.’

“I do think you most incapable of carrying out any great practical scheme. I do not the less think you have influenced, and will influence, action deeply and rightly.

* * * * *

“I have never said, or implied, that I was unable to answer any question. I did think, and do think, the explanation of what I might have said, except to yourself, likely to do you more harm than good; partly because 1 do strongly think, and cannot be sure that I might not have said, that I do feel you to have a certain incapacity for practical work; and all the other side it is difficult for the world to see. It is different to say it to a friend who reverences you, and one says more completely what one means. I was glad when you said, ‘Let the thing be while you are ill.’ God knows I am ill, but remember your proposal to leave it was in answer to one offering to tell you all. And I never have to any other single creature made my health any reason whatsoever for not answering any question, or fulfilling indeed any other duty of my not very easy life. Clearly, some one has received an impression from what I said to Mr. ——, very different from what I had intended to convey, but he seemed in tune with your spirit and mine towards you when I spoke.

“For any pain my action may have given you, I earnestly desire to apologize:— yes, to ask you to forgive me. I never wronged or injured you or your work in thought or word intentionally; and I am, whatever you may think, or seem to say,

Faithfully yours,


To this letter I replied as follows:—

“BRANTWOOD, November 4, 1877.

“My dear Octavia,— I am glad to have at last your letter, though it was to Mrs. ——, and not to me, that it ought at once to have been addressed, without forcing me to all the trouble of getting at it. Your opinions of me are perhaps of little moment to me, but of immense moment to others. But for this particular opinion, that I trust the wrong people, I wish you to give me two sufficient examples of the error you have imagined. You yourself will be a notable third; and at the mouth of two or three witnesses, the word will be established,

“But as I have never yet, to my own knowledge, ‘trusted’ any one who has failed me, except yourself, and one other person of whom I do not suppose you are thinking, I shall be greatly instructed, if you will give me the two instances I ask for. I never trusted even my father’s man of business; but took my father’s word as the wisest I could get. And I know not a single piece of business I have ever undertaken, which has failed by the fault of any person chosen by me to conduct it.

“Tell me, therefore, of two at least. Then I will request one or two more things of you; being always

“Affectionately yours,

“J. R.

“P.S. Of all injuries you could have done not me but the cause I have in hand, the giving the slightest countenance to the vulgar mob’s cry of ‘unpractical’ was the fatallest.”

The reader may perhaps, at first, think this reply to Miss Hill’s sentimental letter somewhat hard. He will see by the following answer that I knew the ground:—

“14, NOTTINGHAM PLACE, W., Nov. 5, 1877.

“Dear Mr. Ruskin,— You say that I am a notable instance of your having trusted the wrong people. Whether you have been right hitherto, or are right now, the instance is equally one of failure to understand character. It is the only one I have a right to give. I absolutely refuse to give other instances, or to discuss the characters of third parties. My opinion of your power to judge character is, and must remain, a matter of opinion. Discussions about it would be useless and endless; besides, after your letters to me, you will hardly be astonished that I decline to continue this correspondence.

“I remain, yours faithfully,


I was, however, a little astonished, though it takes a good deal to astonish me nowadays, at the suddenness of the change in tone; but it rendered my next reply easier:—

7th November, 1877.

“My dear Octavia,— You err singularly in imagining I invited you to a ‘discussion.’ I am not apt to discuss anything with persons of your sentimental volubility; and those with whom I enter on discussion do not, therefore, find it either useless or endless.

“I required of you an answer to a perfectly simple question. That answer I require again. Your most prudent friends will, I believe, if you consult them, recommend your rendering it; for they will probably perceive what it is strange should have escaped a mind so logical and delicate as yours that you have a better right to express your ‘opinions’ of my discarded servants, to myself, who know them, and after the time is long past when your frankness could have injured them, than to express your ‘opinions’ of your discarded master, to persons who know nothing of him, at the precise time when such expression of opinion is calculated to do him the most fatal injury.

“In the event of your final refusal, you will oblige me by sending me a copy of my last letter for publication,— your own being visibly prepared for the press.

“Should you inadvertently have destroyed my last letter, a short abstract of its contents, as apprehended by you, will be all that is needful.”

“14, NOTTINGHAM PLACE, W., 8th Nov., 1877.

“Dear Mr, Ruskin,— I did consult friends whom I consider both prudent and generous before I declined to make myself the accuser of third persons. I send you at your request a copy of your last letter; but I disapprove of the publication of this correspondence. Such a publication obviously could not be complete,* and if incomplete must be misleading. Neither do I see what good object it could serve.

“I feel it due to our old friendship to add the expression of my conviction that the publication would injure you, and could not injure me.”

“I am, yours faithfully,


I saw no occasion for continuing the correspondence farther, and closed it on the receipt of this last letter, in a private note, which Miss Hill is welcome to make public, if she has retained it.

Respecting the general tenor of her letters, I have only now to observe that she is perfectly right in supposing me unfit to conduct, myself, the operations with which I entrusted her; but that she has no means of estimating the success of other operations with which I did not entrust her,— such as the organization of the Oxford Schools of Art; and that she has become unfortunately of late confirmed in the impression, too common among reformatory labourers, that no work can be practical which is prospective. The real relations of her effort to that of the St. George’s Guild have already been stated, (Fors, X., 1871, page 72); and the estimate which I had formed of it is shown not to have been unkind, by her acknowledgement of it in the following letter,— justifying me, I think, in the disappointment expressed in the beginning of this article.

“14, NOTTINGHAM PLACE, Oct. 3rd, 1875.

“My dear Mr. Ruskin,— I send you accounts of both blocks of buildings, and have paid in to your bank the second cheque,— that for Paradise Place, 20 5s. 8d. I think neither account requires explanation.

“But I have to thank you, more than words will achieve doing, in silent gratitude, for your last letter, which I shall treasure as one of my best possessions. I had no idea you could have honestly spoken so of work which I have always thought had impressed you more with its imperfections, than as contributing to any good end. That it actually was in large measure derived from you, there can be no doubt. I have been reading during my holidays, for the first time since before I knew you, the first volume of ‘Modern Painters,’ which Mr. Bond was good enough to lend me these holidays; and I was much impressed, not only with the distinct recollection I had of paragraph after paragraph when once the subject was recalled,— not only with the memory of how the passages had struck me when a girl,—but how even the individual words had been new to me then, and the quotations,— notably that from George Herbert about the not fooling,— had first sent me to read the authors quoted from. I could not help recalling, and seeing distinctly, how the whole tone and teaching of the book, striking on the imagination at an impressionable age, had biassed, not only this public work, but all my life. I always knew it, but I traced the distinct lines of influence. Like all derived work, it has been, as I said, built out of material my own experience has furnished, and built very differently to anything others would have done; but I know something of how much it owes to you, and in as far as it has been in any way successful, 1 wish you would put it among the achievements of your life. You sometimes seem to see so few of these. Mine is indeed poor and imperfect and small; but it is in this kind of way that the best influence tells, going right down into people, and coming out in a variety of forms, not easily recognized, yet distinctly known by those who know best; and hundreds of people, whose powers are tenfold my own, have received,— will receive,— their direction from your teaching, and will do work better worth your caring to have influenced.

“I am, yours always affectionately,


With this letter the notice of its immediate subject in Fors will cease, though I have yet a word to say for my other acquaintances and fellow-labourers. Miss Hill will, I hope, retain the administration of the Marylebone houses as long as she is inclined, making them, by her zealous and disinterested service, as desirable and profitable a possession to the Guild as hitherto to me. It is always to be remembered that she has acted as the administrator of this property, and paid me five per cent, upon it regularly, entirely without salary, and in pure kindness to the tenants. My own part in the work was in taking five instead of ten per cent., which the houses would have been made to pay to another landlord; and in pledging myself neither to sell the property nor raise the rents, thus enabling Miss Hill to assure the tenants of peace in their homes, and encourage every effort at the improvement of them.

(a) I have no conception what Miss Hill meant by this admiring parenthesis, as she knew nothing whatever of the person who wrote to her, except her curiosity respecting me.

(b) I should have been glad to have known the occasions on which I did either, before being excused.

(c) This statement appears to me a singular one; and the rather that Miss Hill, in subsequent letters, implies, as I understand them, that she has seen a good deal of me.

(d) It seems to me that it ought, on the contrary, to matter much.

(e) I greatly regret, and somehow blame, this shortness of memory. The time is not a distant one,— seven or eight weeks. Anything I say, myself, earnestly, of my friends, I can remember for at least as many years

(f) The only thing to be done, when people have been misunderstood, is to state what they said which in this case Miss Hill has just declared impossible for her to do.

(g) She certainly would and so should I.

(h) “As far as I”— am concerned, probably.

(i) Partly remembered then? but with a vague sense of danger in explaining the same, except to myself! I do not think the explanation would have been ‘unwise,’ as it was certainly not ‘uncalled-for.’ But I suspect the sayings themselves to have been both.

* This is not at all obvious to me. I can complete it to the last syllable, if Miss Hill wishes.