John Ruskin’s Praeterita is one of the most exhilarating books I know, and I often go back to it. For most of his life the great art-critic-cum-sage was writing books to educate people. Once, when a reader told him how much he enjoyed his books, Ruskin answered, ‘I don’t care whether you enjoyed them. Did they do you any good?’ But at the end of his life, when he feared he was going mad, he felt he must abandon all the religious and aesthetic and social controversy of his life, and write a book that just recalled the happiness of his youth. The result was Praeterita – ‘past things’.
His passionate delight in beautiful places began on his first journey abroad when he was 1 6, and travelling with his family to Switzerland in a fine coach hired for the occasion. They had got no further than Abbeville before he was entranced. ‘My most intense happinesses have of course been among mountains,’ he writes in Praeterita. ‘But for cheerful, unalloyed, unwearying pleasure, the getting in sight of Abbeville on a fine summer afternoon, jumping out in the courtyard of the Hôtel de l’ Eu rope, and rushing down the street to see St Wulfran again before the sun was off the towers, are things to cherish the past for – to the end.’
Symbolically, at least, he was jumping out of coaches and rushing down the street for the rest of his life. But mountains were also not far away, and his memories of that journey in 1835 take us past ‘the long blue surges’ of the Jura hills (with the family ‘lunching on French plums and bread’), to his first view, from the Col de la Faucille, of the lake of Geneva and the Alps stretching a
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