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Green Victorians

The Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District

From Henry David Thoreau to Bill McKibben, critics and philosophers have long sought to demonstrate how a sufficient life—one without constant, environmentally damaging growth—might still be rich and satisfying. Yet one crucial episode in the history of sufficiency has been largely forgotten. Green Victorians tells the story of a circle of men and women in the English Lake District who attempted to create a new kind of economy, turning their backs on Victorian consumer society in order to live a life dependent not on material abundance and social prestige but on artful simplicity and the bonds of community.
At the center of their social experiment was the charismatic art critic and political economist John Ruskin. Albritton and Albritton Jonsson show how Ruskin’s followers turned his theory into practice in a series of ambitious local projects ranging from hand spinning and woodworking to gardening, archaeology, and pedagogy. This is a lively yet unsettling story, for there was a dark side to Ruskin’s community as well—racist thinking, paternalism, and technophobia. Richly illustrated, Green Victorians breaks new ground, connecting the ideas and practices of Ruskin’s utopian community with the problems of ethical consumption then and now.

Read an excerpt from the introduction.

224 pages | 32 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Art: British Art

History: British and Irish History, Environmental History

History of Science

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


"In a slim volume that can be read in an afternoon, Albritton and Albritton Jonsson present the Victorian lifestyle choices of Ruskin and his followers as inspirations to help solve 21st-century problems. The book distills swathes of mostly archival research and offers lively accounts of Ruskin’s circle’s real experiments in a localised 'culture of sufficiency.' Ranging from Ruskin’s own life to the idyllic childhood of Dora, Barbara, Ursula and Robin Collingwood, this is an account rooted in an idealised past. Yet readers are reminded throughout that we face similar challenges....The real strength of Green Victorians lies in the authors’ acknowledgement that this quest for the simple life is neither straightforward nor really very simple. It is a life that requires conscious self-restraint and careful planning."

Times Higher Education

“Rooted in extensive archival research, Green Victorians provides an original and refreshing examination of Ruskin’s environmentalism and its influence on sustainability, conservation, and antiindustrialism among Lake District residents…. This excellent study of Ruskin and other 'Green Victorians' should offer fruitful groundwork for future efforts to theorize the relevance of Victorian environmentalism to contemporary society.”

Environmental History

"Green Victorians is a very carefully constructed and well-written study that moves easily between anecdote, myth, and realism with more than a hint of Ruskinian eclecticism. With its underlying focus on the ethics of consumption, it is not specifically about Ruskin, but it is about his lingering influence on the lives of ordinary people, with a clear resonance for the twenty-first century."

American Historical Review

“[A] book that will appeal to those interested in the biographies of early ‘back-to-the-land’ proponents and of their place in subsequent debates on environment…. The Lakelanders considered here came to display, by example, the virtues of a vast scaling down of personal and commercial demands. This advocacy was premised on older, non-utilitarian ideas of what makes for a good life. They saw Ruskin’s ‘intrinsic value’ measure of wealth to be a surer guide to political economy than supply and demand. Their attempt to adjust the balance by means of a revival of guild and craft traditions is richly detailed in this book.”

Environment and History

"Carefully argued and rich in insight, Green Victorians is a fascinating effort to build on recent, ecocritically inflected scholarship, and reconstruct the Lakeland lives of those who took Ruskin’s message seriously."

The British Society for Literature and Science

“Here is a remarkable and prescient recovery of a forgotten moment when a group of people tried to reenvision what it means to be modern. Their struggles to achieve what the authors call a ‘culture of sufficiency’ remind us of the enduring need for all people to live fulfilling lives without laying waste to the planet. Thoughtful, beautifully written, and profoundly unsettling, this is a model history suited to the new epoch in which we find ourselves.”

Mark Fiege, Colorado State University

"Green Victorians traces the critique of consumer society and the fossil fuel economy to John Ruskin’s circle in England’s Lake District.  There among the hills, the erratic, brilliant art historian and an idiosyncratic band of visionaries including London barrister Albert Fleming, the charismatic Coniston gardener Susanna Beever, and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley tried to revive handicraft production and simpler modes of life divorced from consumerism.  This bracing story, eloquently told, traces the allure of the ‘culture of sufficiency’ and its downfall.  A joy to read as well as an edgy political challenge, Green Victorians looks at the past with an eye to our future."

Julia Adeney Thomas, University of Notre Dame

"Green Victorians provides a welcome exploration of an important but overlooked aspect of British environmental history. A valuable addition to the recent upsurge of interest in Ruskin's sociocultural work and legacies, it also brilliantly revises the history of environmentalism, making a powerful case for tracing the roots of modern ideas on sustainability, low growth, and artisanship to John Ruskin and his lakeland disciples. This is a Victorian book for the Anthropocene."

Mark Frost, University of Portsmouth

"This highly original, absorbing, and beautifully written work rethinks Ruskin by anchoring his thought, and that of his friends and associates, in their daily routines, showing how a style of thought we might call “ecological” emerged through prosaic practices. But it also shows the difficulties inherent in creating such a style of thought, and the complexities and compromises that emerged alongside ecological thinking. The issues raised in this book, vital today, will become only more significant in the future."

Christopher Otter, Ohio State University

"The book’s lucid narrative and generous illustrations make these worlds come alive, underlining the present salience of both their ideals and their difficulties."

Victorian Literature and Culture

"It is an elegant and lovingly researched look at the historical origins of the quest for the simple life and what the authors call the 'culture of sufficiency' . . . Together, the discreet chapters in Green Victorians amount to a notable contribution to British environmental history and offer a fresh ecological perspective on the Lakeland Arts and Crafts movement."

Journal of Modern History

Table of Contents

Introduction: Green Victorians

Chapter One: No Wealth but Life
Chapter Two: Selling Sufficiency
Chapter Three: Queen Susan
Chapter Four: Taming the Steam Dragon
Chapter Five: Insatiable Imagination
Chapter Six: Nothing Much

Conclusion: Ruskin in the Anthropocene

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