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Unto This Last by Rebecca Lipkin

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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Unto This Last by Rebecca Lipkin is published with Book Guild Publishing Ltd and is described as ‘the first historical/biographical novel dedicated to the famous Victorian art critic and social commentator, John Ruskin, and his complex personal life’ This phenomenal read is an absolute credit to Rebecca Lipkin and to her devotion to the subject at hand, John Ruskin. Following twenty years of research, an initial screenplay was transformed into this fascinating and insightful read of a man I must admit to knowing nothing about. Rebecca Lipkin was the youngest ever member of the Ruskin Society at the age of seventeen. Her passion and thirst for knowledge about John Ruskin and her willingness to pass on this encyclopaedic knowledge to us all gives the reader a wonderful opportunity to discover for ourselves who was the man behind the eccentricities and genius.

With a reputation that spread far and wide, John Ruskin left a vast legacy. The Ruskin School of Art, established in 1871, followed Ruskin’s appointment as the first Slade Professor of Fine Art in Oxford. If, like me, you are unaware what Slade Professor refers to, the position was ‘founded in pursuance of the will of art collector and philanthropist Felix Slade in 1869’ (Ref The History of the Slade Professors | The Department of History of Art) The college has since ‘enjoyed a variety of guises, and an ever-growing reputation.’ (Ref – The Ruskin School of Art)

Rebecca Lipkin was very conscious that John Ruskin influenced many great thinkers across the globe, including Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde and William Morris so her hope in writing this book was to discover who influenced and inspired John Ruskin. Unto This Last focuses primarily on his long-lasting, but doomed, love for Rose La Touche. Rose was the youngest daughter of John and Maria La Touche, a wealthy Irish banking family who lived in Kildare. Rose was ten years of age when John Ruskin crossed paths with her. He was thirty years her senior with a scandalous annulled marriage to Effie Gray behind him.

“Most accounts of John Ruskin’s complex personal life focus on his brief marriage to Effie Gray, but his twenty-year relationship with Rose La Touche was of huge importance to the evolution of his thinking; it is a captivating and tragic story of two people whose loving friendship transcended boundaries and conventions to the very end.” – Rebecca Lipkin

In the normal course of events I would be very uncomfortable reading about such a relationship but John Ruskin’s passion for Rose La Touche was almost ethereal. Initially he was her tutor, a role which her mother Maria organised. At the time John Ruskin’s eccentric nature was well known in society but people craved his company. To be in his presence was to be in conversation with a great mind. Maria La Touche saw it as a coup that she had convinced this eminent person to spend time with her children as their teacher. Maria La Touche never anticipated what was to follow. As the years passed, John Ruskin and Rose La Touche developed a very strong friendship. Nothing untoward ever happened. They just enjoyed the intelligent conversations, the silences and the companionship of being with someone who understood them.

In Unto The Last we are taken on an incredible journey with this intricately layered account, albeit fictional combined with the factual, that explores the more personal and emotional state of John Ruskin’s mind. Both he and Rose suffered with mental health issues as their friendship was thrown under the spotlight by her parents, subsequently banning John Ruskin from seeing her. Rose adopted a fervent religious stance in her early years and her anguish over her feelings for John Ruskin, played havoc with her mind. Meanwhile John Ruskin threw himself into his work with a fervour that led to many episodes of mental exhaustion and depression. He had some very loyal friends who remained his supporters through all his personal tribulations, his greatest being his parents. His relationship with his mother and father is very vividly portrayed. They played a very important role in his development into philosopher, art critic, philanthropist, patron and so much more, allowing him to express himself in relative freedom and become this gifted thinker of the Victorian age. I was absolutely intrigued by his role as an environmental campaigner. With a strong passion for nature he held very strong views on the impact of industrialisation on the world around him, expressing his thoughts and views in many of the lectures he held, lectures which drew huge numbers from the greater community.

Rebecca Lipkin has written an epic novel. Her insight into the relationship between Rose La Touche and John Ruskin is astonishing, adding an incredible layer of authenticity to the novel. Heart-wrenching in many parts, my feelings were in tatters. I was shattered reading about Rose’s treatment by her parents and her incarceration in a Dublin asylum. I felt anger and frustration, and many times disgust, when I read and researched John Ruskin’s behaviour toward his ex-wife Effie Gray. Rebecca Lipkin devotes a section of the book to this part of his life and his treatment of her was just appalling, yet did he even realise the extent of the damage and hurt he caused? Was he so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he really was oblivious to others and their feelings? Rose La Touche was his muse, his one true love but it was a relationship with no future. Should we feel sympathy or anger toward this man? A genius? Of course. A harmful individual, one who left a trail of destruction behind him in his personal life? There is no denying John Ruskin was a highly intelligent man, a frustrated individual who appeared to see the world very differently to others. In the greater world his legacy is vast and will continue to live on through the impact he had on culture, society and education.

Unto This Last is a masterpiece, a truly staggering piece of work that deserves to be read far and wide. It is quite a tome of a book, one that requires pace and attention to detail, but the time devoted to its reading is worth every minute. I applaud Rebecca Lipkin for fulfilling a dream.

An extraordinary and breath-taking read, Unto This Last is a must-read for anyone with a love of history, a passion for art and a thirst for knowledge about one of society’s most complex individuals, John Ruskin.

“Doubtless this portrait, which seeks to convey the many ups and downs of Ruskin’s emotions, his flaws and obsessions, will be challenging and, even at times uncomfortable, but I trust it will prove ultimately rewarding.”– Rebecca Lipkin

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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