Mastodon The Writing Desk: Guest Post by Jennifer Wineberg, Author of Ruskin’s Copper Shadow

16 September 2019

Guest Post by Jennifer Wineberg, Author of Ruskin’s Copper Shadow

Available on Amazon US and Amazon UK

Did Pauline Trevelyan manipulate John Ruskin into leaving the love of his life in 1865? Bonded by their interest in Pre-Raphaelite art, Pauline Trevelyan, the Mistress of Wallington Hall in Northumberland and John Ruskin developed a close friendship. Pauline had taken his side against Euphemia Gray (Effie) when she had divorced him for non-consummation of their marriage. The daughter of a Minister would naturally want to protect Ruskin from further scandal when Isabella Milburn one of her servants, fell pregnant. A Northumbrian Canon is concerned about this illegitimate child, leading him to unravel 
a story of deception and betrayal. 

My fascination with my Northumbrian roots, the Victorian era and the moral dilemmas surrounding John Ruskin all came together in my debut novel. However, due to the complexities of trying to tease out the link between John Ruskin and my illegitimate great grandmother Mabel Milburn I introduced narrative characters to create an historical fiction, narrated by a Northumbrian Canon to help me. 

His concern about an illegitimate child leads him to unravel a story of deception and betrayal in Wallington Hall where my forbears worked as servants under Pauline and Sir Walter Trevelyan. As a metaphor for Ruskin, the Canon’s heightened social awareness plunges him into the Brussels underworld to investigate the White Slave Trade. Like Ruskin he falls in love with a young girl whose spontaneity and natural beauty inspires him, saving him from his mental and physical tribulations.

Who was John Ruskin?

Ruskin was born in 1817 and died in 1900 and was regarded as one of the most prolific writers of the nineteenth century, a tireless social reformer and an ardent sponsor of Turner and the Pre-Raphaelite artists Millais and Rosetti. While we celebrate his Bicentennial in 2019 many Ruskin scholars are now recognising that his ideas resonate today. I would like to think that Ruskin’s Copper Shadow will complement this resurgence of interest in the great man.

What first triggered my suspicion that I might be related to John Ruskin?

As a five year old child I remembered my father bundling my mother, two sisters and grandparents into a tiny rented car and setting off into the Northumbrian countryside. All I remember about that day was an old parish pump and a row of cottages surrounding a field. My father told me that his mother had important links to the estate.

Jump forward fifty five years and I am a retired lady with time on her hands, an interest in her family tree and a handful of free credits from a well-known ancestry search programme. The 1871 census placed my great grandmother Mabel Milburn in a cottage on an estate called Wallington Hall owned by the Trevelyans. Their marriage was unusual to say the least. He was a stereotypic Victorian eccentric who believed in phrenology and he chose his wife because of the shape of her head. 

Overnight a penniless nineteen year old vicar’s daughter became one of the richest women in Northumberland. At the time of the wedding Walter was a thirty eight year old vegan teetotaller and they had little in common except for a love of fossils. While he spent his time with an insignificant clerk called David Wooster whose face Pauline could not bear to see at the breakfast table she looked for more interesting company. Upon hearing that a glamorous group of painters which included the famous Rosetti and Millais were in need of sponsorship she welcomed them with both her hospitality and her husband’s money. Then she came into contact with another passionate supporter of this group called John Ruskin.

When I visited Wallington Estate which is currently owned by the National Trust I walked into the Grand Hall to find myself surrounded by huge wall paintings depicting scenes from Northumbrian Folklore. The artist was William Bell Scott who was head of Newcastle School of Art at the time Pauline Trevelyan gave him this commission. The most famous of these paintings is entitled Iron and Coal and depicts Newcastle’s industrial heritage. When I looked more closely at this picture I was astounded by the close similarity between the girl at the base of the picture and my Aunt Mabel. 

It was not just her copper hair and her hazel eyes but the expression on her face which drew me to her. A friendly volunteer at the house informed me that the painting was completed in June 1861 and we thought the girl was about nine years old. Pauline Trevelyan had insisted on using people from the estate as models for the paintings, and I discovered that the only child approximating this age was Isabella Milburn who by the time of the 1871 census was 18 years old. The head of the household where she lived was a shepherd called Nicholas Milburn who lived with his wife and a grandchild aged five years old. Her name was Mabel Milburn. She was my great grandmother.

The 1871 census described Isabella as an unemployed domestic servant. In those days the only reasons for a servant’s dismissal were because of a felony or becoming pregnant. As there was no record of her at the Newcastle Assizes I had to assume that she had lost her job because she had fallen pregnant with Mabel making her my great great grandmother.

Who was the father?

There was a tradition at the time for the father to attribute a middle name to an illegitimate baby as a symbol of connection to the child. Mabel’s middle name was Evelina. The Victorians were obsessed with symbolism and Evelina was a euphemism for illegitimacy amongst the aristocracy of the day, inspired by a story by Fanny Burney which told of an illegitimate girl named Evelina born to a dissolute aristocrat. 

My forebears huddled up in their tied cottage were as a far away as the moon from the upper classes and would have absolutely no idea of the significance of this name, meaning that Mabel’s father must have been an aristocrat. The application of this middle name to his daughter meant that although on marriage a surname would be lost, the middle name of Evelina was preserved. This knowledge combined with the strength of character evident in my female ancestors inspired me to write the book from a female perspective.

What about the birth certificate?

The helpful researcher at Woodhorn Archives in Northumberland said that it was unlikely that an aristocrat would officially recognise a peasant child, but when I found Mabel’s birth certificate I did not expect to find Isabella’s older sister Anne recorded as her mother. At first I was devastated but then something obvious occurred to me. 

Anne was twenty years old when Mabel Evelina Milburn was born in 1864 yet Isabella was only twelve. If Isabella’s name had appeared on the birth register questions would have been asked about the father. Also If Anne had been the mother, according to family tradition she would have taken Mabel with her when she married, yet Mabel was brought up by her grandparents on the Wallington Estate.

Was the birth certificate falsified to hide the fact that young Isabella was the mother?

If it was why would Walter want to illegally distort the birth records?

Who was he trying to protect? 

Pauline supported John throughout his traumatic divorce in 1855 and when his father died in 1864 he wrote to her almost every day in the months immediately after this terrible event. Mabel Evelina was conceived towards the end of that year. There is no doubt that Pauline and Ruskin were close friends.

By the time of Mabel Evelina’s birth Pauline Trevelyan’s ovarian cancer had crippled her to the extent that she was spending most of her time in a wheelchair. We know that on her death bed in 1866 she reached out to John Ruskin with one hand and her husband with the other. A close relationship indeed. 

Her desire for children could not have been expressed more clearly than in her final commission, a sculpture by Thomas Woolner ‘Civilisation.’ It depicts a mother lovingly embracing a small child and was completed in 1868 after her death. The tragedy of her childless state must have embittered her towards Isabella Milburn – my great great grandmother who I believe had fallen pregnant to her confidant John Ruskin.

Was Ruskin persuaded to disassociate himself from his illegitimate child Mabel Evelina?

There is documented evidence of Ruskin’s vulnerability to be manipulated against his own interests. It has been suggested that the Pre–Raphaelites entertained Ruskin largely because they were interested in his financial support. 

He was easily persuaded to lavish monies on projects with little consideration for the value of these investments and was sold Brantwood, his home in Coniston without seeing it. His father’s massive inheritance slipped through his fingers almost as if he was keen to rid himself of it and his well-publicised aversion to babies may have helped Pauline persuade him to extricate himself from the situation with Isabella.

Were important materials destroyed?

Some researchers may question the unusual gap in communications between Ruskin and Pauline at the time of Mabel’s conception and birth. Evidence cited by Raleigh Trevelyan in papers held in the John Rylands Library in Manchester alerted biographers. He claimed that correspondence written in the 1860’s belonging to Pauline was destroyed by Walter after her death. It cannot be discounted that the papers relegated for destruction included evidence of John’s illegitimate child Mabel Evelina Milburn. Ruskin’s advisors also disposed of much of his personal correspondence both before and after his death.

Is the central theme of this story true?

The final clue comes from the story by Fanny Burney about Evelina in which she benefits from a bestowal. Mabel Evelina Milburn pre-deceased her husband but on his death he left a legacy in excess of £3500 which for a blacksmith turned shipsmith was a remarkable amount of money and hints at a preferential bestowal made by Mabel’s father.

Ruskin’s appreciation of art, architecture and poetry along with his admiration for skilled craftsmen who had pride in what they produced has captured our imagination. His pain when he wrote passionately about how capitalism ruthlessly separates man from his moral compass and the terrible impact this had upon the workers sucked into the Industrial Revolution was palpable. 

 I hope if nothing else, this book increases your understanding of this great man and leads you to question whether he was a dysfunctional impotent virgin as many of his biographers claim. Could his dark periods of depression have been ameliorated by having a constant like Isabella in his life? We will never know the truth about John Ruskin and my great great grandmother as the distortion and mass destruction of evidence has drawn a veil over the story. Hopefully, my determination to bring clarity to these events will help you understand why I have written it as a truth.

Jennifer Wineberg

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About the author
Jennifer Wineberg was born in Newcastle on Tyne and her ancestors are rooted in Northumberland and Durham. She was a teacher with degrees in Education and Psychology, a pharmaceutical sales representative and a manager of a boutique style bed and breakfast before she became an author. Jennifer found writing her debut novel about John Ruskin more terrifying than white water rafting on the Zambesi (which she has done) because she felt a responsibility not only to her immediate family, but also to the followers of this great man. To this end she spent seven years on research before penning a word, and being dissatisfied with the first version she re-wrote it twice. Jennifer will shortly be presenting her story to history clubs and other organisations and is grateful for the support she has received from the National Trust at Wallington Hall in Northumberland. She manages to combine writing with sailing around the Solent with her family in her old boat. Her husband Stuart dances with apostrophes and full stops in an attempt to turn her books into readable formats and she has a love hate relationship with the compiler of the Financial Times Crossword. She also supports Newcastle United Football Club.  Her next series of books are about a time traveller called Melissa who challenges the myopic male interpretation of dark periods of history.  Follow Jennifer on  Twitter @JenniferWinebe1 and Facebook

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks Tony for allowing me to share my writing journey with other authors.


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