Around 1900, when he was almost 30, Proust was growing frustrated at being unable to resolve the narrative challenges of Jean Santeuil, the novel he had been laboring on for about three years. He began to consider a third line of writing: the translation and commentary of works by the eminent English art critic John Ruskin. In 1899, shortly after his return to Paris from a lengthy summer vacation in Évian, Proust went to the Bibliothèque nationale and starting looking up works by Ruskin.
As his interest in Ruskin absorbed him, Proust realized that he must decide whether to continue working on Jean Santeuil or put the manuscript aside. By December, Proust had determined to pursue his interest in Ruskin and Gothic architecture. Ruskin, now quite elderly, was to die on January 20. Thinking of Reynaldo Hahn's English cousin, Marie Nordlinger and her great compatriot, Ruskin, Proust wrote to her about his miserable health, his lack of progress as a writer, and announced his new project.