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Publication Date: 28th August 2020
Publisher: Book Guild Publishing Ltd
Background and Synopsis |John Ruskin was a complicated and controversial man, mostly with regards to his relationships with young women. However, he was also a brilliant artist, important patron and critic of art and architecture. He championed the painter J.M.W Turner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whose progressive work had all but barred them from the Royal Academy and polite society. In 1860 he shifted focus from writing about art and architecture, towards social issues including inequality within society. In a series of essays published under the title ‘Unto This Last’ he wrote that the only true wealth is society is the happiness of its people.
‘That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings’.
Rebecca Lipkin’s novel focuses on Ruskin’s personal happiness, in the period after the disastrous annulment of his marriage to Effie Gray, followed swiftly by her marriage to Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Ruskin was asked by the Marchioness of Waterford if he would give art lessons to her friend’s two daughters. Maria La Touche was a poet and novelist, and her daughters Emily and Rose are interested in art. Rose is only ten years old but shows prodigious talent. Ruskin plans to politely refuse the job, but something about Rose touches him deeply and before he knows it he’s soon visiting their mansion three times a week to give art tuition and spend time with the girls. This novel focuses on that relationship, but within the wider context of their families, his previous marriage and the views of the wider Victorian society.
My Thoughts | Ruskin’s affections for Rose La Touche were a bewildering source of joy, but also anxiety and depression at times. He found that he looked forward to her company and suffered greatly when she was away. Her mother Maria, was astonished by the usually reserved Ruskin allowing Rose to tease him, draw him into childish games and even lure him into a snowball fight in the garden. It was rare to see such a fastidious and serious man, so out of breath and disheveled. However, it is only when Rose takes a three month trip to Europe and falls ill that he truly realises the depth of his feelings. Yet, Rose is still only an adolescent and Ruskin is just over forty years old. The author takes us deep into the mind of this brilliant but troubled man, as he wrestles with himself and feelings he’s deeply unsure about.
Having read Ruskin’s work at university, I was worried that the prose would be long-winded and laborious to read in order to establish it within the Victorian setting. Yet the author made Ruskin’s mind accessible and uncluttered, while still grounding us firmly in the 19th Century. I have always been very interested in the strange relationship between Ruskin and his parents and there was plenty to think about here. Ruskin has an increasingly fractious relationship with his father John James, especially arguing about the placing of the Turner paintings owned by the family. In the 2014 film Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson, we see a very dysfunctional relationship between Ruskin and his mother; when Effie and Ruskin return from honeymoon he is whisked upstairs by his mother for a bath. This novel shows a more nuanced relationship, but still a stifling only child/over-involved mother dynamic. John has been the apple of their eyes and their entire lives have been devoted to ensuring he excels in his field. They do worry about his feelings for this young girl and whether his life’s work is being side-lined so he can teach a child to draw a still life. They are also sceptical about the teaching he does for working class men, but he is adamant that it helps them lead fuller and happier lives.
There are times when it’s hard to reconcile the man who has this type of empathy for those in a more lowly position, with the man who has developed feelings for such a young child. There is no record made of when Ruskin’s feelings begin to change towards her. I kept wondering why Mrs La Touche allowed the developing friendship, knowing the rumours surrounding the collapse of his first marriage? In fact we know that Effie Gray did contact and warn Rose’s family. He had also known Effie from childhood, befriended the family and eventually married when she came of age. This troubled part of his life is covered in the third part of the book so we can make comparisons. His devotion seems to be known in society because he even reproduced some of Rose’s earliest letters in his writings to preserve them. The scandal resonates through the decades and is even alluded to in Nabokov’s Lolita. He is such an introspective man and seems so earnest in his feelings that I actually worried about his mental health – what would happen if this should go wrong? I was impressed with the author’s ability to take us so deep within the psyche of this complicated man, to the point where I started to feel as if I knew him.
Rose is presented so vividly that it’s easy to see why Ruskin might be innocently charmed by her. Ruskin write of her:
‘Sometimes she had a surprising understanding of adult attitudes: at the next moment she was once more completely a child. She had a pretty way of making herself engaging, even coquettish, but could also be rather solemn […] I don’t know what to make of her […] She wears her round hat in the sauciest way possible—and is a firm—fiery little thing.’
So in his mind she is a precocious young lady with a very definite character. It’s hard to know if this is how all adults viewed her or whether this is Ruskin’s mindset showing; the words ‘coquettish’ and ‘sauciest’ suggesting a sexual connotation. Is this what he perceives because he has a troubling attitude towards girls? Or is it his life’s quest to find a wife who will behave as he wants? If he is looking for the Victorian ideal of an ‘Angel in the House’ maybe he feels he can mould a younger girl into this image of saintly womanhood.The author brings Rose to life so we are not confined to Ruskin’s gaze. I felt for this ‘fiery’ girl because she is so controlled, by Victorian society, but also by her very religious and dominant father. Her mother often seems elusive, which may be why Rose has such an independent air about her. However, Mrs La Touche also controls – through manipulation. I enjoyed the scenes where Rose lets go and plays with Ruskin and her sister, she needs to let loose and she is teaching him to do the same. Because of this sense of release they get from each other I found myself looking forward to those scenes where they can do this, he allows her to tease him and seems to drop his rather pompous guard. Yet, if he does propose marriage, would he continue to let Rose be this free and determined? I found myself alternating between relief that Ruskin was able to get outside his own head and enjoy himself in the moment, and concern that marriage to Ruskin would confine and depress Rose.
The author really has produced an amazing piece of work here; as rich in historical research as it in imagination I enjoyed the way the book includes letters between them and the atmosphere created as Rose moves through different countries from France to Italy and Switzerland. The vivid descriptions of these places are very painterly and I could really see how it must look to Rose. I didn’t fully know the ending to the story and won’t reveal it here, but as we compare the older man with his younger counterpart in part 3 we can see that Ruskin has mellowed with age. Yes his inner world is full of angst but outwardly he seems less petulant and guarded. I found empathy for him, where previously I thought he was a dreadfully pompous and repressed individual with a strange mix of arrogance and lack of confidence. The depth this author has gone to in order to uncover the hidden aspects of Ruskin is admirable. He now has some sympathy from me, despite my concerns about his need to control and perhaps groom young girls whose personality is not yet fully formed. This book has been an incredible undertaking and is an intelligent, interesting and admirable piece of work.
Meet The Author | Rebecca Lipkin had a passion for Victorian art and literature from a young age. She first discovered John Ruskin through E.M. Forster’s novel, ‘A Room with a View’, and later joined the Ruskin Society at the age of seventeen to learn more about Ruskin’s work. Rebecca pursued a career in journalism, specialising in arts writing and theatre reviews, and has worked for a number of national publications.