By far, one of the best volumes dealing with the complexities of John Ruskin, Rebecca Lipkin’s Unto this Last is a magnificent fresco depicting an era.
Describing Ruskin in the years he spent with Rose La Touche as his undisputable muse, the book allows us to have a thorough insight of a man who tends to be remembered mainly for his academic work. . In this in-depth interview, Rebecca Lipkin talks about her tireless research to uncover a new point of view on the art critic and the true meaning of his relationship with Rose.
Can you tell us something about the genesis of the book? What were the challenges researching the subject?
During the 19th century, John Ruskin was as famed and revered as Charles Dickens, albeit for different reasons, but over the years Ruskin’s legacy has become almost exclusively celebrated by academics and scholars, the very opposite of what he intended, having been a champion of the working man and an educator and philosopher who wished his views to be broadly known rather than merely studied by an elite audience.
This was a wrong I felt compelled to correct by writing a historical novel that would make Ruskin and his ideas widely accessible – a challenge in itself - but more importantly, to introduce the reader to the man behind the genius.
Another issue that needed addressing is the way that Ruskin has been portrayed in popular culture. The few fictional appearances of Ruskin in recent years, such as in the 2014 films Mr. Turner and Effie Gray, depict him as a petulant and spoilt young man, or as a hopeless husband with reference to his failed marriage. This is a very limited view of Ruskin at a brief point in his long life and career.
When I discovered his 20-year relationship with his art student Rose La Touche and what this meant to the evolution of his thinking, I knew this was a story that should be told. I wanted to present Ruskin as a real, three-dimensional person, full of depth and contradictions, not a ridiculous caricature, nor a god-like visionary, but a real human being.
I also felt an affinity with both Ruskin and Rose; having been a home-schooled only-child myself, I understood what Ruskin had gone through as a boy, engrossed in his own world and taking refuge in his studies. I also suffered long periods of ill health, much like Rose during her adolescence, and this allowed me to capture these scenes authentically in the novel. I feel that I was destined to write this book; having lived and breathed their story for so long.
Why was John Ruskin particularly meaningful to you as a character to explore?
Ruskin was a complex man; emotionally volatile, melodramatic, highly intelligent and visionary, and both selfish and compassionate in equal measure. He, therefore, makes a wonderful character to commit to fiction.
I first discovered Ruskin through fleeting mentions in E.M. Forster’s novel, A Room with a View, and researching him further, I learned about his championship of the artist J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, his influence on Britain’s welfare state, his support of Octavia Hill who began the National Trust, and his recognition of environmental pollution in the wake of the industrial revolution, long before the term ‘climate change’ was coined. He was a draughtsman, an artist, a critic, a teacher, a philosopher, and a philanthropist. There have not been many people throughout history with such a broad range of interests and achievements.
So I was dumbfounded that most people looked at me blankly if I mentioned Ruskin, and those who were aware of him tended to speak only about the great men whom Ruskin had influenced - Tolstoy, Gandhi, Proust, William Morris, the list goes on - another reason that I felt driven to write a deeply personal account of Ruskin and the relationships that influenced and inspired him.
The biggest challenge when it came to writing a novel about Ruskin was trying to encapsulate the vastness of his achievements and his visionary ideals in a seamless thread that would run parallel to the main theme of the novel – his inner world and the emotional journey of his life. It soon became clear that Ruskin had far more to offer readers than any invented fictional character, not least by way of sheer entertainment and melodrama. I knew that the greatest contribution to Ruskin’s legacy that I could offer would be to make the reader feel as if they had known this great but troubled genius personally.
You have depicted Ruskin later in his life. What do you think made his relationship with Rose La Touche so unprecedented in his biography?
Ruskin meets Rose at a solitary point in his life, many years after his failed marriage to Effie Gray, when he has resigned himself to his work, his thoughts, art and nature. Rose brings a vibrant and liberating energy into his life that inspires him intellectually, emotionally and spiritually at a time when he perhaps needed it the most. Their relationship became a loving friendship that transcended boundaries and conventions. It was an unconditional love, which is not always a good thing, but is why I chose the borrowed title of the novel, Unto This Last. We see different kinds of unconditional love throughout the story – friendship, romantic, familial and parental – and we see how these relationships can be stifling, supportive or transformative.
Opening the story when Ruskin is a handsome and famous man of 39 allowed me to show not only his considerable fame and standing in society at that time, but that he had mellowed a great deal over the years, compared to the somewhat petulant young Ruskin as portrayed in other books and films.
By exploring the middle-aged Ruskin we are granted illuminating insights into not only his subsequent infatuation with Rose and her profound impact upon his life, but his increasingly strained relationship with his parents.
From the moment they meet, Rose inadvertently causes Ruskin to reexamine his own childhood, the loneliness he experienced as a home-schooled boy without any siblings, and the lack of childhood pleasures that were largely forbidden to him. This is vital to understanding the dynamic of his early affection towards Rose and the emotions she inspired in him; she was an intelligent girl who was able to converse with him on so many levels, while drawing him into her own world and allowing him to enjoy the innocent simplicity of childhood that he had never experienced himself.
Could you tell us about your writing process, especially while dealing with such an intriguing historical period as the Victorian Age?
The novel was a result of many years of research, poring through biographies, letters, diaries, and Ruskin’s considerable body of works on art, architecture, philosophy and social reform. I knew that I wanted to write about Ruskin’s relationship with Rose, and much of my later research was focused on this, and how best to construct a timeline that covered a period of 20 years.
Ruskin’s diaries and letters allowed me to find his ‘voice’, not only in terms of dialogue but also by weaving his own words and descriptions into the text. I wanted the narrative voice to be neutral, yet reminiscent of the period and a nod towards Ruskin’s own style of speech and prose. I have studied 19th century British, French and Russian literature extensively, and felt very comfortable creating my own style that blended the tone of Victorian literature with a modern frankness that contemporary readers would enjoy.
The wealth of personal historical documents was also very helpful in finding the voices of other characters, particularly Rose, whose vivacious and enchanting childhood letters to Ruskin evolve in maturity and gravity over the years, allowing us to observe her transformation into a sensitive young woman who turns to him as a confidante - even when she was forbidden to write to him. There is always an undertone of the strain she lived under and her conflict of wanting to escape from her parents’ control on the one hand and wanting to remain dutiful on the other.
I divided the novel into four parts, with the first two dedicated to Ruskin and Rose’s blossoming relationship over the years, and how Ruskin’s infatuation with Rose as an idealistic symbol of femininity gradually becomes a more serious prospect of love as she matures and he realises that he stands to lose her to the expectations of Victorian society; getting married and raising a family.
Despite their vast difference in age, there is absolutely nothing in my research to suggest that Ruskin had any sexual feelings towards Rose. Indeed, Ruskin appears to have led an entirely asexual and celibate life. This is important to understand their relationship. His love for Rose was, on the one hand, a love of her as a person - highly charismatic, willful and intelligent - and on the other, as a symbol of beauty and purity. Ruskin was an idealist and Rose was the embodiment of something spiritual that he struggled to frame within the context of a conventional relationship.
Part three is a retrospect of Ruskin’s unhappy marriage to Effie Gray and revealing earlier evidence of Ruskin’s asexuality. Much has been made of Ruskin and Effie’s marriage in popular culture, and Ruskin is often portrayed unfairly when in fact both parties behaved badly at different times. The Effie chapter of his life is perhaps the most documented, so I wanted to present my own interpretation of their doomed partnership. The contrast between the Ruskin we have come to know by this point and the younger Ruskin in part three is striking, encouraging the reader to look at the differences between Ruskin’s relationship with Rose and whether he could have been a good partner to her in later life.
Another reason I placed this chapter of his life here is that Ruskin’s failed marriage comes back to haunt him after proposing to Rose, when the embarrassing and shocking terms of his annulment, ‘incurable impotency’, are revealed to Rose by her jealous and manipulative mother as a means of turning Rose against him.
The final part follows the outcome of Ruskin’s harrowing relationship with Rose, now a frail woman in her mid-twenties who has been suffering from a mysterious illness for many years, which her parents are keen to attribute to mental illness, often committing her to a ‘sanatorium’. Despite the conflict with her parents over Ruskin’s proposal and the enforced separation between the pair, Rose refuses to abandon all ideas of Ruskin, nor has she ever rejected his proposal outright, still allowing him to live in a limbo of hope and uncertainty which contributes to his own mental precariousness.
Exploring themes of mental illness throughout the novel was interesting in a Victorian context when much less was understood about depression, anxiety and other forms of illness such as anorexia. In many ways the novel is a psychological drama, with much that is left open for readers to interpret and debate.
Both Rose and Ruskin experience a similar kind of burden with regards to their duty towards their parents and the inevitable pangs of conscience this provokes. The reader is meanwhile encouraged to weigh up whether a marriage between Rose and Ruskin, divided in years and distance but increasingly kindred in spirit, would have proved harmonious in ways that his union with Effie never could due to their inherent incompatibility.
What can you tell us about your future projects?
My next historical novel will capture the colourful world of the Victorian theatre, where the players lived as theatrically and scandalously off-stage as on. A romp through the decades which saw the Victorian theatre go from being shunned by the middle and upper classes, to being lauded by royalty, I can't wait to share this explosion and evolution of British culture with my readers. Now more than ever, we need to treasure, celebrate and support theatre and all that live performing arts contributes to our society. In light of the enormous struggles theatres have suffered around the world this year, perhaps it's apt that this is my next project.