The plots we choose to impose on our own lives,” writes Phyllis Rose, “are limited and limiting. And in no area are they so banal and sterile as in this of love and marriage.” In her explosive prologue to Parallel Lives, an interrogation of power, desire and sex in five Victorian marriages, Rose argues that marriage, “whether we see it as a psychological relationship or a political one, has determined the story of all our lives more than we have generally acknowledged”. If living is “a creative act of greater or lesser authenticity”, we are bound to misery when the callowness and conventionality of the patterns we conform to “are a betrayal of our inner richness and complexity”. And the traditional ideal of marriage, writes Rose, leaves its participants in “a struggle for imaginative dominance”: it is designed, she slyly suggests, to “set two imaginations to work constructing narratives about experience presumed to be the same for both”.
First published in 1983 and now reprinted in a new edition by Daunt Books, Rose’s work opened up new possibilities, not only for the ways in which we might conceive of wedlock (“since marriage is so often the context within which a woman works out her destiny,” Rose suggests, “it has always been an object of feminist scrutiny”) but for the ways we read and write.
In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf pinpointed an assumption that domestic life was somehow unworthy of historical or moral inquiry: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” Rose – a pioneering biographer of Woolf, whose critical work helped cement her subject’s legacy – takes up with gusto her call for new forms of writing about women’s lives: “If marriage is, as [John Stuart] Mill suggested, a political experience, then discussion of it ought to be taken as seriously as talk about national elections.”
Rose’s book is, primarily, a literary biography: its form and conception are rooted in ideas about narrative and imagination. Her five marriages each contain at least one writer – some involve two, while in other cases the relationship is haunted by the spectre of one partner’s thwarted literary promise. In each chapter, Rose’s wry tone produces a scintillating narrative of her own, ever sensitive to the precarious balance of power, desire and love in each life, and never simply taking sides (Charles Dickens, John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, she concludes, were not simply villainous husbands but “examples of behaviour generated inevitably by the peculiar privileges and stress of traditional marriage”).
The book is loosely structured so as to cover the trajectory of a marriage chronologically, from engagement to death through periods of companionship and collaboration, tensions with family, the dwindling of desire, midlife crises and extramarital attraction. We meet Thomas and Jane Carlyle during their long epistolary courtship, in which both are creating a fantasy version of themselves and the other. The young, spirited Jane Welsh, who had taught herself Latin, is convinced that ordinary marriage would represent a “pitiful waste of her talents”; by the end of the book, we’re left in little doubt that she was correct.
We follow John Ruskin – whose love “was more for mythic woman than a particular Miss Gray” – and Effie Gray from their disastrous wedding night to her eventual elopement with John Everett Millais (given that Ruskin enjoyed writing down the “disgusting things she said” while Millais would spend hours drawing angels bearing her face, her choice is hardly surprising). The worst-suited couple – and the most depressing, and predictable, story – is Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth: the tale of how “one can have married at twenty-three a woman one loves dearly, then realise at forty-three that one has nothing in common with her but years spent in the same house and ten children one doesn’t really want”. Torn between his sense of duty – grounded in his public reputation as a chronicler of domestic harmony – and his deepening passion for Ellen Ternan, a guilt-racked Dickens asked a servant to arrange separate bedrooms, and made Catherine apologise to Ellen for her jealousy.
Yet Rose implies that Dickens’s greatest failure was one of imagination; a refusal adequately to interrogate the institution he was entering. Later, he became irritated by Catherine’s inability to provide him with the intellectual companionship he craved; yet when they married, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that his wife should be capable of anything more than running his household. Similar fates befell Jane Welsh and Effie Gray, who both – like Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch – married in the hope of intellectual stimulation, only to find that their husbands considered their home and work lives distinctly separate spheres (Thomas Carlyle had encouraged Welsh to read and write poetry, essays and plays, yet once married he “assumes with cool majesty that taking care of him is a full-time affair” for the woman he called his “true-hearted dainty lady wife”).
In each case, the sacrifice demanded of a wife in a traditional marriage leaves both partners dissatisfied, taken for granted and trapped. Ruskin was perceptive, if not at all self-aware, on the reasons for his own marriage’s breakdown: “When we married, I expected to change her – she expected to change me. Neither have succeeded and both are displeased.”
The more fulfilled and invigorating partnerships in Parallel Lives are the two unmarried couples, whose partnerships were founded on intellectual compatibility and a desire to model new, fluid possibilities for equality within marriage. Harriet Taylor resented her first husband’s assumption that he had a right to her body; when she spoke to her minister about her travails, he “took absolutely seriously her desire for intellectual companionship and offered to introduce her to John Stuart Mill”. When the two legally married after John Taylor’s death, Mill produced a document “disclaiming the rights which would be conferred on him as a husband” and insisting that Harriet retain “absolute freedom”.
The happiest couple of all, Rose suggests, was George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and George Henry Lewes, whose partnership – validated not by law but by personal commitment – provided the conditions for her development as a novelist.
In several marriages, writing becomes a weapon by which the traditional ideal of marriage is upheld – in the case of Dickens’s family-centred novels – or subverted, in the case of Jane Carlyle’s legacy. Although Thomas Carlyle preferred her to expend her energies on bribing the neighbours to keep their cockerel indoors, Jane became well known as a brilliantly comic letter-writer, her primary subject “herself as heroic housewife in the service of exasperating genius”. When he read her letters and journals after her death, Carlyle was beset by guilt, and insisted her story be told by his own biographer: “A story of great promise, great gifts, great advantages sacrificed for a man who ultimately neglected her.”
Yet few took his self-flagellation seriously – as few had believed Mill when he insisted that he was merely the mouthpiece for Harriet’s genius. After Catherine Hogarth’s death, George Bernard Shaw persuaded Kate Dickens to publish her mother’s letters, as she had requested: he felt, rightly, that posterity would sympathise with her predicament, caught within a life which didn’t allow room for her own desires and talents to flourish.
“We need more complex plots,” writes Rose, “to experience more fully, to imagine more fully… live more freely.” As writer Sheila Heti points out in her introduction, this is a book “in which contemporary men and women can find their own selves, surely as much as those in previous generations could”. It feels raw, fresh and urgent today, as we continue to grapple with these questions: whether it is easier to reject marriage altogether than form a relationship that won’t compromise either partner’s ambition; whether motherhood, for women, will curtail opportunity; whether financial security is worth creative sacrifice; whether the relative ease of divorce renders legal vows redundant, or paradoxically means we expect more from the relationships we choose to enter.
Rose offers not answers but examples, through couples who “made of their marriage a spectacle we in later days can witness, with tensions and resolutions we can participate in vicariously”.
Francesca Wade is the author of “Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars” (Faber & Faber)
Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages
Daunt Books, 360pp, £10.99