Unto This Last in certainly a great big brick of a book, but trust me every word of it is solid gold. I’ve been a fan of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites since my teens and have many other books about their works and lives. Unto This Last is different – it’s a painstakingly constructed fictional account of Ruskin’s life, researched from his correspondence and archive material. It centres on his infatuation with the child Rose La Touche, who starts the book as one of his pupils, and the novel tracks this relationship through the following years until she is an adult.
Uncomfortable reading? Given that Ruskin is thirty years older than Rose you might think so, but one of the strengths of the book is its examination of love in all its forms. It is not afraid to question, to analyse, and allow such things as cross-generational love to exist without censure.
The novel shows Ruskin as a flawed individual, obsessed with the idea of nature’s superiority over industry, with his own struggles to find a place for craft to still exist in this new factory-driven world in which he finds himself. His search for beauty gives the places he visits great texture and beauty in this book, as we experience them through his eyes on his Grand Tour. Rebecca Lipkin does a superb job of weaving impressions from his existing artworks and writings into a descriptive narrative we can understand.
The novel has many well-known characters of the era coming and going in its pages – Mr and Mrs Carlyle (the latter who dies during the book), Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt, the young painter Millais, and of course Effie Gray, to whom Ruskin is married. Lipkin does not flinch from the pain Ruskin caused her during their marriage. When in Venice, Ruskin, rapt with the vision of the past, calls it the ‘paradise of cities’ , whereas Effie, whom he does not understand and is virtually ignoring, takes ‘warped delight’ in throwing cold water on all his enthusiasms. The marriage is of course eventually annulled, to great scandal.
Rose La Touche takes centre stage again in Part Four. She must cope with a mother who was obsessed with Ruskin herself, and a father who is a religious pedant. Of course Maria La Touche objects strongly to the idea that Rose might marry Ruskin, for reasons all sensible mothers might – he is old, and made his first wife desperately unhappy. Rose too is suffering, both from a kind of mystical religious feeling, and from her fragile mental health.
I will not mention how the novel concludes, but urge anyone with an interest in the period or the history of art to read this. The amount of research in itself is astounding, but more than that, it is a tour de force, written with sensitivity, depth and insight. I’d be happy if this was what I was leaving to posterity. Very highly recommended.
About Rebecca Lipkin https://rebeccalipkin.com/
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