The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness: An Epistolary Novel on the Interiority, Performance, and Prophecy of John Ruskin, 1871-1900
Department of English Literature and Creative Writing, Lancaster University
Professor Jenn Ashworth
Dr Andrew Tate
My research takes a practice-based approach to investigating the devices and potentialities of the epistolary novel form, deploying a joint narrative focalisation that encompasses John Ruskin’s final ‘silent decade’ at Brantwood House in Coniston, 1890-1900, and a modern-day, post-pandemic framed narrative in which a trio of workers at Brantwood mediate Ruskin’s enduring legacy alongside their own complex lives. An accompanying reflective thesis examines the novel’s creative and critical underpinnings and its original contribution to knowledge in the context of existing fictions about Ruskin. Differentiating itself from the recent biographical novels Light, Descending (2014) and Unto This Last (2020) for example, my novel features a strong thematic emphasis on resonances of biblical prophethood, grief of various forms (notably ‘ecological grief’), and legacy. Through a hybridized creative-critical outlook I consider the interrelated research questions ‘what ethical challenges emerge from supplying a historical figure with an ‘imagined’ interiority?’,‘how can the epistolary novel convey tension between interiority and performance in the prophetic function?’,‘how is it possible to balance accuracy and authenticity with the need for historical fiction to engage in contemporary issues?’, and ‘is it possible to create a contemporary Ruskinian novel?’ Interpolating Ruskin, past and present time frames overlap like a photographic double exposure. The research illustrates Dinah Birch’s recent assertion that ‘Ruskin is more relevant than ever’ (Birch, 2017). I am influenced by a secular understanding of the Jewish Midrash text, which governs my holistic imbuing of Ruskin and his immediate circle with ‘personal histories, thoughts, desires and motivations’ (Cushing Stahlberg, 2008), breathing factually-informed life into historical figures that have otherwise lost their voice. The practice-as-research will thus demonstrate how the particular devices of the epistolary novel overcome boundaries of private and public, introspective and performative, past and present, to authentically convey literary and Ruskin studies research in an engaging form.
Theology, ecology, epistolary fiction, historical fiction, nature writing, John Ruskin, Neo-Victorian fiction, literary fiction, prophecy, Midrash, legacy, grief, climate activism, 3D-printing, photogrammetry and curation.
(2023) ‘Curatorial Photogrammetry: a Ruskinian Case Study in Digital Modelling and 3D Printing for Conservation at Brantwood, Coniston’, NWCDTP Work in Progress Conference, Lancaster Castle, 6th June 2023.
(2022) ‘To See Clearly’: a Ruskinian View of Fidelity, Focalization, and the Purpose of Fiction’, The Long 19th Century Seminar, Lancaster Castle, 21st June 2022