Emma Street,PR and social media volunteer for Lincoln Book Festival, writes:
The penultimate evening of the Lincoln Book Festival promised to be a delight, looking at the intricacies of Victorian marriages and how different love was, for women, back then. We were promised a look at John Ruskin, and how his way of viewing the world can still be used today to teach us the contradictions in life.
Miranda Seymour introduced us to two women in the Victorian era, Annabella Milbanke who married Lord Byron, and Ada Lovelace who was their daughter. “In Byron’s Wake” was written to show readers how men had the power to affect women’s lives, and the power of reputation with the rise of print media, while making sure to tell the story of the women.
We now know of Byron’s infidelities with his half-sister – who lived with the married couple – and various actresses, causing Annabella to be terrified of him and to leave him after a year. Despite her being known at the time as a great woman who had created hospices, Byron’s reputation meant that she was known purely as his wife; history has often overwritten the many things she did during her life. After she died, a disgraced ex-lover of Byron wrote a book in which she tarnished Annabella, and described Lord Byron as a great man who was not a drunk, and simply did not believe in violence – while Annabella never commented on these rumours while she was alive, she was made out to be the villain in the story.
Her daughter struggled, carrying her father’s reputation with her, especially after having no contact with him while he was alive. History has also overwritten the many talented things that she did, with her mathematics education – including making the first ever computer program.
Seymour wanted to rewrite the story of the brief marriage and the daughter’s supposedly wild upbringing – she did elope in her teens with her shorthand tutor – and tell the story from the side of the women before history erases it altogether. Sometimes heart breaking, it is a story that needs to be told and well worth a read.
“Now we start a second introduction with terrible husbands and virtuous, beautiful, clever wives” – Suzanne Cooper began the second part of our critically romantic evening. Her book “To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters” introduces us to Ruskin through a range of images, showing his paintings and the artists that he was influenced by. She describes him as being “the most accurate and powerful of observers” as he wrote with the idea of truthfulness – that we should see more clearly in what is good or not good.
The link between the time of Ruskin’s writings and drawings to now is reflected in our current world state. As someone who was against the burning of coal and hated the railways and industrialisation – it is amusing to wonder what he would think of our current climate. Being an advocate of taking time to see the beauty in natural things, and not missing out on seeing particular wildflowers outside your window, the book can serve as a reminder to us, even now, that we shouldn’t miss the small beauties in life.
Cooper also touched on the life of Effie Ruskin, who was given no role within her married life, and told us that people looked at her in different ways depending on their views of women. She had no choice, as her role was to marry: the troubling fact of Victorian marriages that cemented the talks together and encouraged the audience to think of the lives of women.
Many thanks to Miranda Seymour, who has written many biographies and novels, and Suzanne Cooper who has worked on major exhibitions and whose work includes a biography on Effie Gray.
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