Friday, August 01, 2008

Book Club: PARALLEL LIVES, by Phyllis Rose

Welcome everyone! For those who want guidelines for the bookclub meeting, here ya go. I'm going to launch in.

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.

To anyone who got through this very long essay (or parts of it), I look forward to your thoughts.


angelle said...

hi sweetie -

i didn't read this book... and i must say, i admire your ambition on this blog! i've completely fallen behind on my bookbook reviews, i must say. alas... i can barely keep up with my own blog.

came back to ny for a few hours. heading back out to bj in a few. will miss you! xxoo

Ruth said...

Wow, I haven't read the book (being a relative newcomer to your blog), but I certainly want to now! Life at that time was so interesting — I already know most of what you said about George Eliot/Marian Evans' life, but didn't know about the others. Thanks for the blog review! :)

Precie said...

Ah, yes, ambient weddings. Psst--A few years from now you can probably expect ambient pregnancies.

It's Friday, and I'm not quite coherent but here goes some stream-of-consciousness commentary that I hope to sort out later.

I'm not entirely convinced by Rose's approach...It seems very "80s" feminism in some ways.

And yet some of her observations about how social expectations may/must have shaped these relationships still echo strongly today.

I do think it's fascinating that the most successful (i.e., content and productive) marriages were the ones that defied Victorian norms and distanced themselves from society. You might also notice that Harriet Taylor and Marian Evans were rather unconventional, forward-thinking women in their own the men who would choose to form relationships with them wouldn't be especially invested in social conventions themselves. (Unlike, say, Dickens.)

As for the sublimation of one partner's career for the other's, that both a much more complex issue AND one of the most long-standing ones. Sigh. Especially when children are involved, there are all sorts of complications. I love what you quoted from Rose about equality in marriage because her statement subtly highlights a significant factor: economics. It's all well and good to picture an ideal society in which everyone pursues their talents and interests and abilities for the benefit of the whole society. But in fact, bills need to be paid.

Personally, I'm a bit tickled that you chose today for the PARALLEL LIVES book talk since it's my 10th wedding anniversary!

moonrat said...

happy anniversary, Precie!! congratulations!

moonrat said...

per your point on 80s feminism: your hunch is correct. Rose says herself in her introduction that her approach is "feminist," which was not one of my favorite parts of the book. why should throwing in a troublesome label be involved in a look at something a) literary, b) a little salacious? it's a fun read on a fun topic, and you know the (unnecessary and unhelpful) dialogue people can get tangled up in when you say something is "feminist." alas. i do think it's possible to read for... literary and salacious reasons.

i love your point about economics. very cute; it hadn't occured to me. but yes, it's absolutely true.

moonrat said...

and re: ambient pregnancies: teehee. i'm kind of counting on it, actually. i hope that being the ambient auntie character can let me indefinitely postpone making any decisions for myself!!!

Mary said...

Wow, what a great post from Moonie and response from Precie. I thought about reading the book and didn't see any time. Now I wish I had (and will eventually). Regarding the 80s feminism: it's always interesting to me to see how each new generation views feminism. (I resisted an impulse to put quotes around the word.) At what point is something real and/or visibly changed and how can you tell when you've been in the middle of the evolving? (As we all are, always.) I'm just finishing up Todd Gitlin's THE SIXTIES and I'm blown away by how that generation of privileged, intellectual, compassionate men did not even CONSIDER they weren't treating women equally in relationships and families and communities and even in revolution (generalization alert but basically true until the very end of the decade). I'm not sure how much has changed on a very basic level from the stories in PARALLEL LIVES. And there's always the point Precie makes about economics. Thanks for the great discussion! I'll be sure to read the next one.

Precie said...

Mary--Yes, that's one of the things I find fascinating about feminism. Detractors tend to see Feminism as a monolithic, unchanging anti-male establishment. But it's so not that at all. There are so many branches and evolutions of feminisms. And none of them, as far as I know ;), is anti-male. Rosemary Tong's FEMINIST THOUGHT does a great job of tracing the evolution of feminisms over time. And I'm sure there are more recent studies that have taken up where she left off.

One thing in particular I do like about Rose's approach is her attempt NOT to impose modern ideology on Victorian legal institutions. She clarifies dicates and norms that we might see as inane but makes clear that this perspective is simply that...a perspective distanced by time and culture.

Charles Gramlich said...

I did not know that about Charles Dickens. What a dickens he was eh?

moonrat said...

Haha. Charles--it's pretty funny, actually, how bad he was! At least, as he's portrayed in this one area of his life.

But Rose makes a valid argument about how his personal... troubles... really come through prominently in the second half of his oeuvre.

Merry Monteleone said...


I wish I had read this one, and will definitely get to it when time allows...

Equality is such a tricky subject because it's always filtered through the standing views of the time, however open and thoughtful you think you are, society's standards are invasive. When it comes to marriage particularly, these theories on what is right and just become even more frustrating because the bottom line is that no marriage can be accurately settled or weighed on a finite line - you have two people with distinct needs and personalities involved and (sometimes unfortunately) either of those people are liable to make choices or mistakes that the other would never have made, but they both have to live with...

No two marriages are the same, there are too many variables, and it's impossible to judge a person's character by their actions inside a marriage - impossible because no one outside of that marriage will truly understand the relationship and often even the two people involved don't completely understand the others' vantage.

Oy, that's a long ramble... perhaps I should read the book first.

Happy Anniversary, Precie!

The Anti-Wife said...

Happy Anniversary, Precie!

Wonderful review, Moonie. Interesting how the moral climate of the times affected their behavior. As to equality, I don't believe that's achievable because no two people are alike. There will always be some imbalance in relationships because each person brings different strengths and weaknessed to the partnership.

Precie said...


JES said...

I remember reading about this years ago but never picked it up myself. Thanks for the thoughtful, detailed, balanced look at it -- makes it harder to resist now than then!

Not to raise the obvious point, but it's rather a shame that Marian Evans never married George Lewes. It would have provided an entertaining century of critical confusion had she changed her professional name to... George Lewes. Kind of like an X/Y chromosome version of the "WHICH Victor Hugo are you talking about?!?" brawls.

Julia said...

it's rather a shame that Marian Evans never married George Lewes. It would have provided an entertaining century of critical confusion had she changed her professional name to... George Lewes

Hee! She actually chose the "George" part in honor of Lewes. I don't remember where the "Eliot" came from at the moment.

Re: "feminism":

I think that Rose's statement of this meant something very different in 1983, when the book was published (OH MY GOD CAN THAT POSSIBLY BE 25 YEARS AGO?!? I REMEMBER READING THIS BOOK WHEN IT CAME OUT, DISAFFECTED TEENAGER THAT I WAS).

I'm pretty sure that she took the trouble to say explicitly that this was a feminist reading in order to differentiate herself from then-prominent historians of the Victorian family like Gertrude Himmelfarb.

It's probably difficult for anyone under 35 or so to remember a time where some degree of baseline feminism (i.e., a critique of legal inequities between men and women) wasn't taken for granted in a work of social history. But in 1983, it really wasn't--I don't think Rose was making a political statement as much as a statement of methodology. (And a "caveat emptor" to the old guard!)

I think you did a great job of summing up the book, and of characterizing Rose's way of unpacking the historical record. One of the things I really like about her style is the balance of chattiness and data.

It was interesting for me to re-read this after OH MY GOD 25 YEARS because this kind of narrative social history has become much more common (I'm thinking of books like The Five of Hearts, the great group biography of Henry and Clover Adams and their circle, and Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, about the Bloomsbury group and allies, and especially Ann Douglas's marvelous Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s). Rose was one of the early voices in this style, and the writing holds up well over time.

Julia said...

Also, THANK YOU! I am so on board for the next book, whatever it may be (and will be sure to be within reach of the Internet during civilized hours this time). I lift my virtual glass of wine in a toast to the virtual book club!

moonrat said...


One of the most interesting aspects of the Carlyle marriage in PARALLEL LIVES is Rose's take that although history has commemorated them as a famously bad couple (Mr. having horribly mistreated Mrs.), Rose believes they actually got along really well. It's true, I guess, that you can never entirely know the complex interior of any relationship.

But the gossiping about it--that is, observing it--is instructive enough. ;)

moonrat said...

Thanks, Julia. Re: feminism: that "period" distinction (ie, the reason Rose feels the need to call her spin feminist at all) was lost on me on my own. I'm glad you point it out.

Also... curses, Julia, for now I have ordered another book on Amazon because of you. Sigh.

I hope publishers love us.