Victorian Literature has always been a source of fascination to me. So the chance to read this detailed and beautifully researched work about the life and rather torturous and unconventional love of John Ruskin was too good to miss. Many thanks to Anne Cater of Random Tours for the invite and for my copy of Unto This Last By Rebecca Lipkin
John Ruskin was a writer and scholar, prolific in the Victorian Age, sharing his thoughts on art and philosophy. In the years after the annulment of his unconsumed and deeply unhappy marriage to Effie Gray he rather unwillingly accepts an invitation to tutor the children of the aristocratic Mrs La Touche. Mrs La Touche herself appears infatuated with Ruskin, unhappy in her own marriage, her husband holding deeply religious views at odd with her own.
Quite unexpectedly Ruskin is deeply touched by the younger of the two girls, Rose. Bright and quick witted, Rose possesses artist talent and a sharp mind. At the time of their first meeting Rose is 10 and Ruskin 39, but over the years their relationship deepens. Often separated by miles; both Rose and Ruskin spend periods of time on the Continent and Rose’s ancestral home is in Ireland, the couple often conduct their relationship through letters.
As Rose passes through adolescence and into adulthood the burden of strained relationships within her home and her strong but confusing feelings for Ruskin take a toll on her physical and mental health. Her parents are an ill matched pair; her mother a social butterfly, intelligent and frustrated, her father deeply conservative and religious. Their own unhappiness translates into unhappiness for those around them. Both parents are horrified by Rose’s relationship with Ruskin. They are often cruel in their attempts to thwart the couple and Rose spends sometime in asylums, her spirit and physical health slowly eroded.
Lipkin’s portrayal of Ruskin is of a man quite dedicated to his work. A man of strong ideals, who is worshipped and indulged by his aged parents. The fortune his industrialist father had amassed affords Ruskin the luxury of living by his principles, well read and well travelled. A huge advocate of art, he champions the cause of those he admires with a passion that is often blinkered.
For a man of such sensitivities and broad minded thinking, Ruskin appears to hold a crippling lack of self awareness with regard to the impact his own conduct has on the life of others. He seems emotionally selfish; his own comfort and security is always at the forefront of his mind and he is oblivious to the impact of his actions on others. In a strange, almost contradictory way Ruskin is loyal and generous to a fault when he forms an attachment but often fails to see another’s true feelings or indeed worth.
Through examination of both his torturous and complex relationship with Rose and his failed marriage to Effie, we are faced with a man who holds a deep ideal of marriage but struggles to translate this into a practical reality. Effie is destroyed by her husband’s inability to engage in any physical relationship, or indeed to attempt to understand her own needs or point of view. Her annulment of the union and subsequent marriage to the painter John Everett Millais blindsides Ruskin, leaving him shocked and broken.
This book is a tour de force. It examines and lays bare this period in the life of infamous and complex man. It’s style is entirely in keeping with the Victorian time period, giving a weight and authenticity to both the writing and the subject matter. Researched in immaculate and often uncomfortable detail this is a book that takes you to the heart of Ruskin’s life and motivations, turning the spotlight not only on him but on the women of his story too.
Unto This Last by Rebecca Lipkin is out now, published by The Book Guild Publishing
And there is more…
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