Friday, August 1, 2008


PARALLEL LIVES tells the stories of five high-profile Victorian marriages. At least one member of each of the couples was a renowned writer (although in many cases both members might have been famous). Each of the relationships is extraordinary for one reason or another.

For example, the famous art critic John Ruskin and his wife, Effie Gray, were married for six years, from 1848 to 1854, but never managed to consummate their marriage, alas for at least one of the parties. There are a number of psychosocial reasons behind this problem, most of them stemming from John's warped brain, but at least part of the issue was the Victorian policy of abomination of and misinformation about sex before marriage. Oops.

John Stuart Mill lived for twenty years in a platonic friendship with the love of his life, Harriet Taylor, who was meanwhile platonically married to her husband John; somehow this arrangement seemed at least mostly satisfying to all parties involved until John Taylor obligingly died and JS and Harriet were able to legitimize (and possibly consummate, although the jury's out on this one) their marriage of equals. At that point, both of them entirely retreated from the world, which they found tedious compared to each other's company.

Charles Dickens, meanwhile, is famous now for his great works of moral Victorian literature, but toward the end of his life he was also rather famous for the two public essays he published trying to explain away the midlife crisis that caused him to abandon his faithful wife of 24 years. Among Catherine Dickens's unforgivable sins: her fertility! She did, after all, strap him with 10 children he needed to support (as if, Rose points out, he wasn't involved at all). Furthermore, she got old and fat. Eventually, he moved out of Catherine's house and in with his 19-year-old mistress (who was not [yet] after all old and fat). Most sadly, Victorian law and custom supported Dickens, and even his children didn't start taking their mother's side until long after both parents were dead.

George Eliot (Marian Evans), meanwhile, was condemned to spinsterhood and had basically realized that by age 33, when she happened to fall deeply in love with a married man, George Lewes. Lewes had a wife and six children, but only three of them were his--his wife had been openly having an affair with his married neighbor for years and had ended her emotional relationship with Lewes, but Lewes, being good-natured and a believer that rational behavior (whatever that means) might get them through this strange arrangement, stayed on. The result? For more than 20 years, Marian Evans lived with George Lewes, out of wedlock, and helped raise the children he, his wife, and his wife's lover had created. When Lewes died, leaving Evans not a widow, she was heartbroken. Her weight dropped to 103 pounds. Then, a year later, she married a man 20 years her junior, and boy did they get on.

The connecting marriage Rose uses as a backdrop to all the others is that of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle. Jane, a charming drama queen and social entertainer, played up in her diaries and letters the many ways she sacrificed in order to further her husband's literary career. From Rose's account, it seems that their marriage, at least, was a functional one, a balance of two partners who got along in their own ways. However, after her death, Carlyle read all the complaints in her diaries, became plagued with guilt for mistreating her, and made their "failed" marriage a public topic of conversation for which he has been remembered ever since.

The book looks at these marriages specifically, but Phyllis Rose maintains that her study is not salacious.

We tend to talk informally about other people's marriages and to disparage our own talk as gossip. But gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry... We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves, yet we are taught to see this desire as an illegitimate form of prying. (Prologue, 9)

As for why she's chosen these five prominent writers and their respective spouses, Rose makes a point that (ahem) at least some of the people who read this blog might be able to vouch for:

I have chosen to write about writers not because they live more intelligently--or less so--than other people, nor in the belief that they are representative. I expect, quite the contrary, that writers, like other people who must push their psychic development to extremes, are less able than most people to live comfortably within the constraints of the customary. But, however they live, writers tend to report it more amply than most people. (Prologue, 17)

The marriages were each fascinating to read about because of the sheer perceived outlandishness of some of the parties' behavior. However, as Rose points out, there's nothing in the world that says a) outlandishness is actually unusual, and we aren't liable to perpetrate equal or greater outlandishnesses in our daily lives and relationships, and b) there's nothing to be learned from looking at what we're allowed to know about other people.

A couple of points were of particular interest to me.

1) The relationships that were unfailingly loving were the ones that removed themselves from any outside contact with society. Marian Evans, unfortunately, was effectively forced to retire from society when she took up with a married man. However strange his living arrangement, George Lewes was still invited places, but Marian was not. Rose posits that the adversity the couple faced might have in fact been the glue that made their "marriage" a happy one (221).

The Mills, meanwhile, retired from the world quite by choice; they found no need for it anymore once they were officially able to have each other. I am a little troubled that the world's two greatest proponents of Utilitarianism--the greatest good for the greatest number--would choose to basically remove from themselves any stock in how the world did, anyway.

Furthermore, Mill, who was famous for his even temper, began to lash out at friends and relatives and cut them away from his life after his marriage. It makes me upset to think about a blissful and idealistic loving union that functioned so sublimely from the interior that the exterior--that is, everyone else in the world--became irrelevant. On the one hand, I'm jealous of the Mills in this particular variety of love, but on the other hand, I am not jealous at all. And on either hand I am sorry for the ex-friends and -relatives, like JS's abandoned brother, who suffered.

2) At least three of these partnerships--Mill and Taylor, Carlyle and Welsh, and Evans and Lewes--began with two partners with great literary potential and ended with one partner retiring from the literary scene and pointedly sacrificing his or her own career so that the other might flourish. Does it follow, then, that a dual literary partnership is out of the question? Is one or another member of a duo always going to be the secondary player?

It might be said then here that the great works of one of these writers, Mill, Eliot, or Carlyle, are in fact all co-authored arrangements. Mill and Eliot both claimed profusely during their lifetimes that any creation on their parts at all would have been completely impossible without Taylor and Lewes, respectively. So you might make the argument that in fact a literary partnership where one talent is eclipsed or subverted is merely a sacrifice in the name of an even greater literary career and affect. And maybe it is.

But I have to second-guess that. In the case of Mill and Taylor, JS claimed that his ideas were all Harriet's, and that he was merely her pen, since she was not a writer. But Harriet was an activist, a well-liked, highly respected, and well-spoken one. What might she have written if she had had to write because she didn't have a "pen"? (Rose cleverly sites Jane Welsh's teenage "pen" envy.)

Furthermore, Harriet disagreed with JS's conclusions, he would biddably change his entire thesis to please her, at the price of the integrity of his work, as was the case with the argument on capitalism/socialism (129-130). Did their "perfect partnership" cost him in directions he might have taken, or works he might have produced?

George Eliot and George Lewes, the gender inversion of some of the rules that apply elsewhere in the book, may be seen to have had careers of fate. At the beginning of their marriage, Lewes was by far the brighter star, and he took her success on very well as his own happiness, which he whole-heartedly supported. But otherwise there is a theme in these as in other literary partnerships where a woman's career becomes second to a man's, often for reasons of biology (I can think of three such contemporary relationships off the top of my head--I won't name them here, but go ahead, I dare you to try and I bet you'll come up with some, too). About this Rose makes a clever point:

Marriage and career, family and work, which so often pull a woman in different directions, are much more likely to reinforce one another for a man. Dickens provides a good case in point. Professionally, his marriage helped him. His household was arranged for him. His needs for sex and companionship were satisfied. No time-consuming courtships, no fretting about rejections, no hunting around, no wasteful fantasizing. Most important, he had a reason to devote himself wholeheartedly to work. Not only was he working for his own advantage and to satisfy his own ambition, he was working for her, for them, for their children. The guilt a woman artist might feel in removing herself from her family in order to create is less likely to trouble a man, a man who imagines himself--as Dickens did--working for his family. (151)

Is this true? I'm inclined to agree with the idea that society, at least, reinforces this by putting more pressure on a woman to feel bad for emotionally neglecting their offspring, but I always felt, growing up, that my dad felt bad about how much he had to work and about being away from his family at all.

About equality in a marriage, Rose has to say the following:

Equality is to sexual politics what the classless society is to Marxist theory: the hypothesis that solves the problem...Despite the number of people who pay lip service to this ideal, few have been able to pin down exactly what it means or describe how this desirable state may be achieved. (266)

Which is unhelpful but very nicely put.

I'll admit to having taken this book a little bit personally. I'm at the kind of age right now that there are an awful lot of ambient weddings--my roommate and I, between us, will be attending four this summer--and there are also the ambient pressures to take a stance on why you're either doing it or not doing it. PARALLEL LIVES certainly wasn't much in the way of a self-help guide, but it did come back to that most important point: there are no right answers. We get out of life what we make of it.

[this review appears, nearly identically but with some discussion, on Editorial Ass.]


tinarathore said...

that's an interesting study. would help people analyzing these writers' works on historical and psychological approaches.

it reminded me of the relationships between writers and their spouse in the modern period, particularly T.S.Eliot and Vivienne, D.H.Lawrence and Frieda, Ted Hughes and sylvia plath, The Woolfs. the female writers, due to the effect of the world wars, suffered from hormonol disease called 'nerves' because of which they were dubbed as 'mad', often leading to the supression of their talent. Virginia and Sylvia Plath were the only female writers who could surpass their spouses.they commited suicide due to the same disease,(now considered a normal disfunction) which as is known is aggravated by supression of one's innate talents.

Srebrenaah said...

Nice review. You made me want to read the book.

Your observations about Dickens reminded me of an annoying Real Life phenomenon; a disfunctional marriage increases work productivity. It seems an excess of domestic harmony is distracting.

If you'd rather not be home, or not have to talk to your spouse, it's wonderful to be busy with work. I have experienced this phenomenon (details omitted).

Would Oscar Wilde have written more plays if he hadn't fallen for that pipsqueak?

I've added "Parallel Lives" to my reading list.

moonrat said...

It is true! Domestic harmony just gets in the way of creativity so much of the time! Why generate angsty novels/poetry/oil paintings/short films if you could cuddle on the couch and watch one more episode of Law & Order?!

Srebrenaah said...

Or "Sexy Beast" (especially that scene with Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone parked near the beach....)