Photo by Iorwerth Allison
This last April I went to the Boston Athenaeum to hear Octavia Randolph speak about her new historical novel, “Light Descending” recounting the life of the nineteenth century art and social critic, John Ruskin. I was drawn to Octavia’s lecture in hopes of learning more about Ruskin whose own writing I had found difficult to follow even though he was a constant reference in many of the cultural concerns of the Victorian era which I have studied over time.
Octavia delivered a compelling talk that appeared to be entirely extemporaneous spoken with eloquent authority that drew her audience into an intriguing narrative about a complex genius whose personal life was intellectually and artistically exalted but emotionally perplexing. She liberally quoted from her prose by reading excerpts from her novel and these passages seemed to seamlessly extend the narrative of her lecture and be of one piece leading us on and to want to read more.
My Mother used to tell my brothers and I of Grandmother Gwendolyn reading her five daughters “into” a novel. She would start reading aloud a new book after dinner while the girls were doing the washing up and before the last dish was wiped dry and stacked in the pantry they would all be clamoring for first dibs at the book. My mother did the same with us but because she was a dramatic actress with an enchanting voice we would urge her on to read the whole story and so she did, bits at a time, each night.
Essentially this is what Octavia has done for me, first with her lecture at the Athenaeum and then with the novel of Ruskin itself, making the pithy subject come to life with so many compelling details that I galloped through the aptly named, “Light Descending” and now I look forward to reading it again and more of Ruskin’s books and articles.
John Ruskin’s influence in the art and architecture of the 1800’s was profoundly influential, emphasizing the connections between nature, art and society which so profoundly influenced the Pre Raphaelite painters, Arts and crafts movements and ultimately stimulating the great debate over the dignity of labor verses the stultifying oppression of Industrial capitalism. Along the way he found time to explore, in depth, a vast array of subjects from geology, meteorology, botany, social sciences, nineteenth century (modern) painting and architectural history, to mention a few of his interests. He is a worthy subject to study and I have Octavia to thank for directing me back to the man whose message was, “Truth to Nature.”
I have come to discover that Octavia is herself something of a Polymath genius recreating a whole world of Nordic and early English life as revealed in her saga “The Circle of Ceridwen” set in the distant mists of heroic legend where there is are “Young women with courage, swords with names, Vikings with tattoos, warfare, passion, survival, sheep and other good things…”
Go to her website and read all about it and make sure you see her short videos expounding on Nordic history and her travels to Gotland, Sweden. There you will see and hear what an alluring story teller Octavia is.
photo by Iorwerth Allison
You can see by my photographic portraits of the author how strikingly beautiful she is. When first I saw her at The Boston Athenaeum I was captivated by her timeless grace and dignity so much so that when I went to buy “Light Descending” at the reception following her lecture, I spontaneously blurted out, “Would you consider allowing me to photograph you?” As you can see Octavia was brave enough to come round to my studio/apartment where we worked together to create images that are intended to reach for, and articulate her inner world, the magical space of a consummate artist. In this way we are getting to know each other which has further perked my curiosity to the extent that I posed a number of questions which she has graciously consented to answer and they are as follows;
Questions for our Lady Octavia:
I A – Have you lived previous lives? Or do you feel a collective unconscious affinity for the periods you write about?
O R – Very interesting question! I don’t feel that strong sense of having been reincarnated that some do. I do however have a strong sense of connection to my own ancestry, my own family, to the English language, and to all Northern scenery.
I A -Do you feel an unexplained understanding of ancient times?
O R -I do. Both landscape and artefacts heighten this understanding – walking long-settled landscapes known to my characters, looking at the material culture of their eras.
I A -Did you always feel the need to tell stories?
OR -Unlike many authors who say “they have always written”, I would say instead that I always enjoyed a rich (sometimes perhaps overly rich) imaginative life. It expressed itself in art before it did in words.
I A -Does your research excite/ inspire your story lines or does research merely fill in the gaps and details of a story that already lives inside you?
OR -Both, I am strict about historical veracity, and it is thrilling when received, recorded history prompts me to extend or deepen a story.
I A -As a girl did you feel an affinity towards medieval England?
O R -Very much so. The numerous available re-tellings of the Arthurian legend, along with Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”, and the physical remains of Anglo-Saxon England, such as the Sutton Hoo treasure in the British Museum, were all powerful attractions.
I A -Have you ever fallen in love with a character who resides in your sagas?
O R -Yes. (That’s all I’ll say.)
I A -Do you relate to Gotland and the Nordic peoples? Are you afraid of them?
O R -On the contrary, I am one of them. Remember that the original Saxons and Angles who invaded Britain after the collapse of the Roman governance there, were people that came from what is now northern Germany and Denmark. The Danes who so skillfully began invading the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms three hundred years later were our cousins. Our Gods are the same: Anglo-Saxon Woden = Norse Odin. Anglo-Saxon Thunor = Norse Thor. Anglo-Saxon Tiwaz = Norse Tyr. Anglo-Saxon Frigga = Norse Frigg. All with the same attributes. We are cousins.
I A -What is your favorite illuminated manuscript?
O R -This may surprise you. The Book of Felicity (Matali’ al-saadet), an Ottoman masterpiece, c 1575, now housed at the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris.
I A -How did it influence your writing?
O R -Ah…this particular volume? Only in that knowing it exists adds beauty to my world.
Photo by Iorwerth Allison
I A -Where can we see Ruskin’s drawings, watercolors?
O R -The best and easiest way is on the Internet. A search for “John Ruskin artwork” will return many stunning examples. His individual works are held at various museums and collections such as Harvard, Oxford, Yale Center for British Art, the Morgan Library, Lancashire University and so on.
I A -What is Ruskin’s’ most accessible book, article for modern readers?
O R -If you only wanted to read one choice bit of Ruskin, I would ask you to read the section called “On the Nature of Gothic” from The Stones of Venice. This was the part that was reprinted by the great William Morris, who termed it “one of the truly necessary utterances of the century.” It will demonstrate the breadth of Ruskin’s mind, and reveal much about how that astonishing mind worked and made associations, as well.
I A -Why was Ruskin so devoted to Turner?
O R -It began as a boyhood devotion, with Ruskin being given a book (Samuel Rogers’ dull poem, “Italy”) illustrated by Turner for his 13th birthday, and built from there. Many people recognized Turner’s brilliance – he was a wildly successful painter for much of his long career – but Ruskin understood the man’s aesthetic choices and technical method to a very high degree.
I A -Why did Ruskin sell, donate/de-acquisition some of his Turner art works.
O R -Ruskin gave away many of Turner’s watercolors to Oxford and Cambridge University to allow young men to learn from them, and also to provide what he hoped would be good homes for the works, which were in many cases deteriorating. He was concerned about art being kept safe from fire, as well, and he looked for homes which could provide some protection from this threat. But mainly he felt that great art should be available for as many people as possible to view, if not in the original, then through high quality reproductions. He sold many great oil paintings later in life for two reasons: the paintings had ceased to hold the emotional resonance he had once invested in them,, and secondly, he just needed funds to continue living, especially to fund his utopian, non-technological community, the Guild of St George.
I A -Were Ruskin’s parents ultimately nurturing or inhibiting to the fulfillment of his talents?
O R -Initially they were encouraging, as they felt that Ruskin was a boy genius. But his father in particular pushed him incessantly to write, heavily edited John’s output for many years, and by mid-life Ruskin had grown to deeply resent their intrusion. They were parents who today we would say had boundary problems – extreme helicopter parents who could not let go.
I A -Is there any way to easily describe Ruskin’s love of mountains?
O R -This is a question of the Sublime, isn’t it? And a very good and original one. Mountains are solid, seemingly unchangeable, dependable, majestic, awe-inspiring, dangerous and sheltering at one and the same time. They vanish into the æther at their tops and communicate with the Gods. They are very often sacred. Ruskin felt all this, acutely.
I A -Was Ruskin essentially a “Romantic” temperament riding the tumultuous changes of nineteenth century aesthetic evolution?
O R -In some ways Ruskin reads as a Romantic, but he was not. He could be very-hard headed in matters of aesthetics and politics and economics, and although he certainly admired certain Romantic paintings, he felt the aesthetics to be flawed. He latched onto the young Pre-Raphaelites because of their interest in Ruskin’s dictum “Truth to Nature” – of close observation and painting what is truly before one, eschewing Romantic-era tricks of contrived atmosphere on the canvas.
I A -In what way do your readers contribute to your writing?
O R -Oh my stars. Knowing they are there, reading and enjoying my books is a huge inducement to continue working. And in all honest humility I am grateful that they buy my books. This is a validation that they are thought to be of value.
Photo by Iorwerth Allison