Unto This Last is the first historical/biographical novel dedicated to the famous Victorian art critic and social commentator, John Ruskin, and his complex personal life – a work I intended should delight both Ruskin admirers and introduce him to a new audience.
The culmination of twenty years of research, I first wrote Unto This Last as a screenplay which I then expanded into a novel – allowing me much greater freedom to explore the psychological aspects of the story. My novel is a tribute to Ruskin but I was extremely conscious not to shy away from his many failings (as he himself did not) whilst aiming to convey the heart of Ruskin in a way never before achieved.
Drawing on Ruskin’s diaries and letters which I often incorporated into the main text or dialogue, the writing of the novel was an almost spiritual experience which allowed me to channel the feelings and voices of the main protagonists. Whilst historical fiction is as full of speculation as biographies tend to be, I attempted to interpret Ruskin’s emotional life as fairly and accurately as possible. Unlike wholly fictional works, Unto This Last offers three-dimensional characters who lived extraordinary lives and have the ability to exasperate and move readers just as their own friends and relations might. It poses important questions regarding all forms of undying loyalty and love, not just in a romantic sense, but how the adoration and influence of our parents often goes far beyond childhood and is not always desirable.
Although I said writing the book was a culmination of my years of research, I feel that my connection with Ruskin will never really end, as I hope will be the case for my readers. In many respects, it may well just be the beginning – for whether or not you are familiar with Ruskin when you read Unto This Last, you will surely view his works in an altogether different light after ‘living’ with him through perhaps the most consequential and prolific period of his career. Even the term ‘career’ seems a misnomer when applied to Ruskin, for his mind, heart and pen were destined to assess everything from art, architecture, society and the environment as a vocation rather than for glory or financial gain. In that sense he very much deserves the title often attributed to him, ‘prophet of the nineteenth century’.
Whilst I did not embark upon researching Ruskin with a view to committing his life to literature, but because I was fascinated by the complexities of his character and the people who shaped his world, when I discovered his seventeen-year relationship with his young Irish art student, Rose La Touche, it became clear that this aspect of his emotional life had, for far too long, been overlooked. Much had already been made of Ruskin’s disastrous marriage to Effie Gray – who later married his art protege, John Everett Millais – yet by far the most important person in his life was Rose. The borrowed title of the novel, ‘Unto This Last’ – which takes its name from Ruskin’s renowned political economy essay – seemed the most profound way of encapsulating the novel’s main theme of abiding love.
It is understandable that, due to the 29-year age difference between Ruskin and Rose, their relationship has never been documented outside sparse biography entries, a wrong I felt well placed to correct having been a rather isolated home-schooled only child like Ruskin, and having suffered from long periods of ill health during my adolescence like Rose. I also discovered Ruskin around the same time as Rose and was equally captivated by his enlightened views of society, art and nature. Above all, I felt comfortable telling the story of their relationship due to my years of research confirming that their regard for one another was founded, not upon any corrupt motivations on Ruskin’s part, but a mutual admiration based on shared interests and principles. Their loving friendship transcended boundaries and social conventions and saw Rose change from a precocious, energetic girl into a solemn, mentaly and physically fragile young woman who was torn between her own desires and the sense of duty towards her parents and God. It was therefore vital to furnish the reader with Rose’s own side of the relationship, which ultimately had calamitous consequences for both.
Ruskin famously inspired Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Wilde and William Morris, but Unto This Last looks at who inspired and influenced him. Largely set during Ruskin’s middle years, the reader experiences his energetic love of work and travel – journeying with him from London to Ireland, Scotland, France and Switzerland – whilst the emotional highs and lows he undergoes as a result of his relationship with Rose will prompt an array of moral questions along the way.
(c) Rebecca Lipkin
About Unto This Last:
Passionate, contradictory, and fiercely loyal to his friends, John Ruskin is an eccentric genius, famed across Britain for his writings on art and philosophy. Haunted by a scandalous past and determined never to love again, the 39-year-old Ruskin becomes infatuated with his enigmatic young student, Rose La Touche, an obsession with profound consequences that will change the course of his life and work.
Written in a style recalling Victorian literature and spanning a period of twenty years, the story poses questions about the nature of love, the boundaries of parenthood, and compatibility in marriage. Unto This Last is a portrait of Ruskin’s tormented psyche and reveals a complex and misunderstood soul, longing for a life just out of reach.
This is an atmospheric and utterly convincing novel… tackling the subject with great empathy in prose that is both detailed and vivid. A considerable achievement.
Michael Crowley, writer and dramatist
Deeply researched and charmingly written, it resurrects not only John Ruskin, one of the most influential characters of the Victorian age, but his fascinating pupil Rose La Touche, who is portrayed so sensitively that you feel as though you know her.
Daisy Dunn, author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny
Rebecca Lipkin’s thoughtful novel about this complicated man and his often-confusing world is a pleasure to read and a very welcome addition for all lovers of Pre-Raphaelitism.
Lucinda Hawksley, biographer
Order your copy online here.