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Unto This Last by Rebecca Lipkin

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction

By Juliet Butler

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Unto This Last is a fictional account of John Ruskin, writer, poet, artist, and his love affair with pupil Rose La Touche, a relationship that was frowned upon and ultimately has devastating consequences for both. Spanning almost twenty years this book has it all – love, loss, tragedy, humour, secrets and plenty of drama that combine to make Rebecca Lipkin’s debut novel such a joyous and fascinating read.

John Ruskin is someone I have come across a lot over the years as a patron of the arts and through his writings and I have two of his books, Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, and I have also visited his house in the Lake District. What really stood out for me with this book was the detailed and comprehensive research that Rebecca Lipkin has done and how she then uses that to write with such skill to make this accessible and enjoyable for the reader without getting bogged down. Her love of the period, and her understanding of Ruskin and his place in Victorian society shines through in her writing, giving a rounded view of a complex man. Ruskin was lauded in Victorian Society as an art critic, writer, patron of the Pre-Raphaelites and as trying to bring art to all. This is the man that I studied at University, but what I didn’t know is that he was a philanthropist and one of the first environmentalists. He worked at a Working Men’s College and the essay he wrote for his students and this is where the title of this book comes from, his message being, ‘Men should not desire to be rich, but content.’ His philosophy was that being happy and content, seeing nature and the world around you was more important than money. Nature, and looking closely at it were important for Ruskin, he advocated the protection of nature in a world where the Industrial Revolution was damaging our landscape; a man ahead of his time. Rebecca Lipkin also gets under Ruskin’s skin and into his psyche. He was a complex man, a genius but was prone to bouts of melancholy and depression. His relationship with his parents was tenuous, especially with his father who had worked hard to make money, money that bought Ruklin a large collection of Turner paintings. His coping mechanism for his depression was a very modern concept of travelling and spending time outside, in nature. Through his different relationships, with family, friends and with women opens up a discussion about the different types of love, and how love can be something different to different people.

The book is split into four parts; part one covers his first meeting with Rose La Touche and her family, part two starts from when Rose turns eighteen, a young woman who Ruskin is in love with, part three tells of his first marriage to Effie Gray, that caused a scandal when they divorced and finally part four where Rose is in her twenties and is in turmoil over her love for Ruskin. Rebecca Lipkin writes with empathy about a love affair that was problematic when it started as Rose was an infatuated student and Ruskin a man flattered by the attention; he was also thirty years older than her. Being so young Rose is very much under the influence of her parents, her mother was also interested in Ruskin romantically, and not of age to make her own decisions until she was twenty one. Like Ruskin, she had mental health problems that were not understood at the time, was very religious but also like Ruskin very aware of those around her, people with no money who need help.. She is the character I felt most affinity for, she was compassionate, intelligent, innocent, full of life but torn between her family and the man she loves, a situation that left her tormented, unhappy and in ill health; I really felt that I wanted to give her a big hug. There are a wonderful cast of supporting characters,in Ruskin’s parents, his cousin Joan who he was guardian to, the La Touche family, and the more famous characters of Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists, John Everett Millais and Oscar Wilde. These characters are not just there for decoration but to show parts of Ruskin’s character, his status in society and his humanity.

I really enjoyed the parts of the book that took the reader on a Grand Tour of Europe, to France, Italy, Switzerland and Ireland, all of which we saw through the eyes of the great Ruskin, views that appeared in many of his writings. I would have loved to visit these places with Ruskin as my guide, to understand his thoughts and seeing in a different way, and I think Rebecca Lipkin achieved this brilliantly. We also see the Victorian attitudes to women in a patriarchal society, and how those that broke the mould were frowned upon, the misunderstanding of mental health and it’s barbaric treatments all things that we are still dealing with in society today.

Unto The Last is an accomplished and astounding read in my opinion. The comprehensive and detailed prose flows with ease and doesn’t make the reader feel bogged down with information. Rebecca Lipkin captures the complex nature of Ruskin, and the innocence of Rose perfectly and their joint story is both heartbreaking, and fascinating as we see it play out. This is a masterful debut novel and I can’t wait to see what Rebecca Lipkin writes next.

(c) Juliet Butler

This review was first published on Bookliterati Book Reviews.

Order your copy of Unto This Last online here.

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