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.
What I Thought:
It’s always a privilege to read something that is clearly an author’s labour of love and Unto This Last by Rebecca Lipkin is definitely such a book.
At near to 700 pages, this book is rich in period detail covering a 20 year period of the Victorian era. It places John Ruskin at the heart of that period’s intellectualism and appreciation of art and culture, and vividly describes the life of this highly educated, liberal and complex man as he wrestles with an infatuation that was frowned upon even at the time.
Although this book is a fictionalised account of Ruskin’s life, Rebecca Lipkin explains in the afterword that Ruskin was a comprehensive diarist and correspondent, so there is a rich seam of source material which gives an intimate feel to the book, especially in the section dealing with John Ruskin’s failed marriage to Effie Gray.
After I’d finished the book, I was glad to see the author acknowledging the complexity of Ruskin as, at times in this book, he comes across appallingly and yet at others he shows tremendous generosity in giving his support and his possessions to worthy causes. Ruskin also had incredibly progressive views for the time, almost being too early in his thoughts on environmentalism and our connection with the natural world.
The person I felt most connected to in this novel was Rose La Touche. Her life seems a catalogue of misfortune in which her mother insists that she be educated, and yet refuses to allow her to use that education in the way she wishes. She is influenced by Ruskin’s teaching in her connection to the people living on her family’s estate – most unseemly for a young lady of the time! Rose is beautifully written as, in many ways like Ruskin, a woman who is too modern for her time who ended up tragically, like many other forward-thinking young ladies of that era…
Rebecca Lipkin’s passion for her subject seeps from every page of this book and I have to applaud her for putting across as fair and balanced a view of Ruskin as possible, while dealing sensitively with his obsession with the much younger Rose. You would have to travel a long way to find a more comprehensive examination of Ruskin and his life.
Unto This Last is published by The Book Guild Publishing.
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Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.