While reading Altick’s “The Nature of Art and its Place in Society”, I found Ruskin’s idea of beauty so directly affecting a man’s quality of life one of importance to The Woman in White. Altick notes that “Ruskin maintained that culture (as he conceived it) was a function, in the first instance, of the eyes” (Altick). One theme we’ve continually hit on while reading The Woman in White is the incredible attention given to women’s appearances and the value of their aesthetics. I would say that similar to how Ruskin believed a man’s happiness and spiritual devotion could be determined by the amount of beauty around him, the men in the Victorian era (or so it seems after reading this novel) based much of their lives around women’s appearances. Whether this means being attracted to a woman based on her appearance or acknowledging that her appearance can hint to social status, it’s clear that there is an obsession with physical descriptions and what they reveal about a woman and thus impact a man’s opinion of her.
Upon Waltar meeting Marian and Laura, he devotes entire pages to describing their outward appearances and his reaction to them. In the case of Marian, Waltar is immediately taken aback by her dark, man-like, and “ugly” features, which stand in such opposition to her “rare beauty of form” he had been appreciating a moment before (Collins 34). Marian even defines herself as “dark and ugly” while mentioning in the same line that her father was poor and she has nothing (Collins 34). Poverty and ugliness seem to be connected here, as wealth and beauty are connected in the case of Laura. Waltar describes Laura as a “fair, delicate girl”, and her light skin and feeble mannerisms were quite desirable. Ruskin’s idea of beauty fulfilling men (though he means art as beauty in his case) seems to reflect the intense detail given to appearance in the Victorian novel and how men, or certainly Waltar, are influenced greatly by outward beauty.
Ruskin also believes that public beauty, whether it be in the form of landscaping or architecture, is a reflection of the social health (Altick). He notes that the societal illness of the Victorian period can be seen through “the incongruously styled and hideously overornamented public and commercial buildings” (Altick). I wonder if the beauty of buildings and landscapes meant to inspire men and reflect a healthy society has been transferred to the beauty of women in the Victorian novel. After all, the beautiful Laura attains the affection of Waltar and represents money and social status, whereas the sickly Anne and “ugly” Marian have no marriage potential and no economic standing.