Choosing Your Literary Hero


Do you have a literary hero, someone who is a little bit more than merely a favourite author, for whatever reason? Maybe its Dickens or Tolkien, or perhaps a Rowling or an Austen? On the other hand it could be Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius, or Churchill or Marx? Fiction or non-fiction, ancient or modern?

Within a few months of my first stint at university and gaining a PhD in Chemistry I felt absolutely ignorant, mostly caused by an inability to answer any questions on the UK TV programme … University Challenge. Most questions were biased towards “the arts” rather than natural sciences, so being hopeless was an understatement! I decided to do something about it. Within a couple of years I had read the complete works of Dickens, Priestly, Zola, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. A few years later I went back to university to take a degree in psychology and read an enormous number of works on philosophy, sociology, economics and politics ….. as well as psychology! I still couldn’t answer much on University Challenge though!

My personal choice of “literary hero” is influenced by more than a single book, or even a collection of books.The author never wrote novels, was born into wealth living in London before moving to Cumbria where he spent the latter years of his life. Probably best described as an aesthete, writing a great deal about art, but also researching and writing on geology, architecture, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economics. He was the leading art critic of the Victorian era.

His writing style was extremely varied as he wrote essays, poetry, lectures, travel guides, manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. He made detailed sketches of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes and architectural structures. In Cumbria his home was at Brantwood which is an interesting place to visit, and in nearby Coniston there is a museum named after him which contains many documents and artefacts related to his life. His name was John Ruskin 1819-1900.

Brantwood, Coniston, home of John Ruskin
Brantwood, Coniston, The home of John Ruskin

I have visited Brantwood and the Ruskin Museum several times having lived only 15 miles away in Cumbria for a significant part of my life, and I have chosen John Ruskin as my literary hero based on the sheer variety of his writing, his efforts to educate the “working man” through some of his writing and lectures, and finally ……. One particular book ….. “Unto This Last”. Let me begin with a simple fact, this book was the greatest influence on Gandhi and his future direction, which he read on a train journey while he was a lawyer in South Africa!

Unto This Last is a book about social justice, or rather Ruskin’s vision of it, and I first read it just 12 years ago as we were setting up our education charity/NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal. I knew a little about the book but I had never actually read it. I was looking for some inspiration to use to “beat the brains” out of the Ministry of Education in the Nepal government whose policy and strategy for equality and justice in their education system is absolutely medieval! And so to the book itself; In Unto this Last, Ruskin set out to define wealth, and then to show that wealth can only be acquired under certain moral conditions, such as honesty and justice.It is organised into FOUR Essays, The Roots of Honour, The Veins of Wealth, Who Judges on Earth, According To Value, each with recurring themes of justice and the relationship between employer and worker.

Across these Essays, Ruskin argued that there were 4 Conditions which must be met if there was to be honesty and justice in our society. Remember, these words were written almost 200 years ago, and as you browse through them see if you can recognise, in modern parlance, what each one refers to?

1. “First,—that there should be training schools for youth established, at Government cost, and under Government discipline, over the whole country; that every child born in the country should, at the parent’s wish, be permitted (and, in certain cases, be under penalty required) to pass through them; and that, in these schools, the child should (with other minor pieces of knowledge hereafter to be considered) imperatively be taught, with the best skill of teaching that the country could produce.”

2. “Secondly,—that, in connection with these training schools, there should be established, also entirely under Government regulation, manufactories and workshops, for the production and sale of every necessary of life, and for the exercise of every useful art. And that, interfering no whit with private enterprise, nor setting any restraints or tax on private trade, but leaving both to do their best, and beat the Government if they could,—there should, at these Government manufactories and shops, be authoritatively good and exemplary work done, and pure and true substance sold; so that a man could be sure, if he chose to pay the Government price, that he got for his money bread that was bread, ale that was ale, and work that was work.”

3. “Thirdly,—that any man, or woman, or boy, or girl, out of employment, should be at once received at the nearest Government school, and set to such work as it appeared, on trial, they were fit for, at a fixed rate of wages determinable every year:—that, being found incapable of work through ignorance, they should be taught, or being found incapable of work through sickness, should be tended.”

4. “Lastly,—that for the old and destitute, comfort and home should be provided; which provision, when misfortune had been by the working of such a system sifted from guilt, would be honourable instead of disgraceful to the receiver. For “a labourer serves his country with his spade, just as a man in the middle ranks of life serves it with sword, pen, or lancet.”

In case you didn’t spot them they are in sequence; full and compulsory education, nationally organised factories for essential goods to provide employment, full employment in government training schools or factories if people are unemployed in private enterprises, a welfare system to care for people in old age. When I first read these four conditions I realised how farsighted Ruskin was and just why it had such an influence on Gandhi. Here was a man ahead of his time, NOT a political activist, but a man who not only worked out what was needed to counteract some of the injustices of the Industrial Revolution, but someone who also provided well attended lectures for the working man too. THIS is why he is my literary hero, especially in this bicentennial year of his birth.

John Ruskin, 1819-1900

15 thoughts on “Choosing Your Literary Hero

  1. He sounds like a man of keen perception and well ahead of his time. My literary hero is Jane Austen, not just because of her entertaining stories but also her depiction of life for women during her time. She cleverly and subtly made fun of the social establishment which produced novels still relevant today. Of course, this can be said of other writers, but I continue to be impressed by her.

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  2. Oh my. How inadequate I feel (especially when watching University Challenge). I’ve been an avid reader from an early age but only in recent years have I taken more of an interest in non-fiction. Biographies inspire me, I have just finished Shackleton’s ‘South’, but your thought provoking article has inspired me to look further afield; sociology, philosophy etc. The works of John Ruskin would appear to be a really good place to start. Thanks.

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  3. I am always happy if I can answer or guess about 10 questions but they get harder as the competition goes on. Same with Mastermind, no point watching the first half and the specialist questions, better to wait until the general knowledge round. I have an arts degree so that helps. Favourite writer is Laurence Durrell. I would like to say someone like Dickens but to my shame I have never managed to get through an entire book!

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    1. Thank you, I thought for a long time about this. I have heroes who wrote books such as Shackleton but nothing compares with the breadth and depth of Ruskin’s thinking.

      Liked by 1 person

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