Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Rose La Touche (1848 - 1875)
She was described by artist John Ruskin as the love of his life. Blonde, fair and blue eyed; she “walked like a little white statue through the twilight woods”.
She was 11 years old when Ruskin fell in love with her. He was 30 years older than her, and was nicknamed St Crumpet by a young Rose. Some say their relationship later became the basis of Nabakous’ novel Lolita.
Rose’s parents did not approve of their daughters relationship with Ruskin. And he had to wait until she came of age at 17 before he could propose. There were religious differences as he had given up his faith years before, and Rose turned him down. There were also many rumours about his first marriage to Effie (Euphemia) Gray. Five years after this first marriage Effie was still a virgin. And it’s said that he was never able to consummate this marriage as the naive bachelor was so accustomed to the smooth contours of classical statues that he was revolted on his wedding night to find his wife had pubic hair and never tried to bed her again. Effie, then Mrs Millais, warned Rose’s mother that he was “quite unnatural”.
This sounds like an awful situation: a young Rose, who we would now think of as a child, being romanced by a man 30 years her elder. But Victorian Britain was not the same as it is now. Although the age gap was large, it wasn’t unheard of. And the romance itself would have been very proper, with no more contact than the occasionally held hand or petted cheek until Rose had reached what we would think of as a more acceptable age. Anything further would have been scandal indeed. If Rose’s parents had liked Ruskin she may have been married to him by the age of fourteen or fifteen, with all the responsibilities of a household and husband. Childhood as we know it is a modern invention. And during the Victorian era the teenager did not exist at all. Once a child had reached puberty they were treated very much as a young adult, with very difference than if they were much older. In the same way, until a girl left her parents household she would have been expected to be submissive and respectful and in many ways behave very childishly.
Rose died 10 years after this proposal at the age of 27 in a Dublin nursing home, suffering from anorexia, a broken heart, and religious mania. She’d always been considered as strange in her behaviour from a very young age. And her death tipped Ruskin over the edge in his own boughts of insanity.
Rose wasn’t the only child that Ruskin fell in love with. Again in 1887, at almost 70, he fell in love with and proposed to a young teenager – Kate Olander. A letter written to her really shows the odd way he saw these girls. “I was lying awake last night and planned what you will wear around your neck… it is to be finest and purest chain of Venice… no gold is so pure and they make the links so small it looks like the white of Avenel’s girdle… but I’m going to have it seven times round; rather tight for a necklace to show what a perfectly chained and submissive child you are; so mind you send me the measure carefully, just above the shoulders.” Kate’s letters back to the white bearded Ruskin were kept from him, and he was left with just his art and the Lakeland fells.
Inspired by this true account, my Rose wears a period correct outfit from around 1860, when she would have been 12 years old. I’ve taken certain liberties with the length of her skirts as they should reach to just about above her ankles, donating that she was almost an adult, but I wanted to emphasis her childlike appearance. Her underwear as well as her dress is as correct as I could make it. She wears a pair of crotchless baggy bloomers under a shift that reaches to her knees and an under-petticoat, all of strong white cotton and undecorated so they could be scrubbed clean. Over these she wears a corset instead of a younger child’s stays, showing that she is no longer really seen as a child herself. And a crinoline of round steel hoops, covered in pink satin, that come to just below her knees. To ensure her legs are covered completely a frilly pair of pantalettes stick out from under her skirts. After another plain white cotton petticoat over her crinoline is a fancy petticoat that matches her dress, with a deep flounce and trimmed with a delicate blue embroidered ribbon. Next is one of the first layers you can actually see, with a pair of under-sleeves and a chemisette (false blouse) of silk cotton. Her dress itself is made from a fine semi-transparent pale beige cotton lawn fabric that has a beautiful feel to it. It has pagoda sleeves, a fitted back buttoning bodice, three deep flounces, and a wide sash tied in back in a big bow; all trimmed in a cream satin ribbon, pearl bead buttons, and a touch of lace.