Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose

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Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In covering the five years between Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle’s first meeting and their wedding, Rose investigates female resistance to wifehood as a prescribed role and to marital intimacy with a man who does not inspire passion. Welsh, a young, spunky heiress reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Emma and aspiring to be a Scottish Madame de Stael, steadily rebuffed Carlyle’s attempts to turn their correspondence into something less platonic: “By a judicious wielding of anger, mockery, and coolness, she . . . won the initial struggle for power between them.” Eventually, however, when her need for his intellectual validation combined with her distaste for remaining an unmarried woman in her widowed mother’s house, Welsh ignored clues that her poor, lowborn schoolteacher suitor expected a helpmate devoted not to her studies but to “housewife duties.” Thus, according to Rose, Carlyle’s major achievement as a tutor had been to mold Welsh into a woman who wanted him as her husband.

The theme of sexual disinclination recurs in the story of newlyweds Effie Gray and John Ruskin, but on the husband’s side. If the couple’s failure to consummate their union in their entire first year together seems peculiar, evidently their honeymoon anxiety and inexperience were only too typical for the age. In recounting the notorious episode of John’s “wedding-night trauma,” Rose emphasizes Victorian culture’s failure to educate its women and to prepare couples for shifting from prenuptial denial of sexual needs to compulsory intimacy. As noteworthy as their virginity, Rose suggests, was the Ruskins’ difficulty with the universal newlywed task of cutting apron strings to forge a new identity as a couple. Still attached to his parents, John spared little time and energy for Effie, while demanding greater submission and solicitude from her; she resisted her in-laws’ authority and retreated from domestic strife to her parental home. When Effie eventually sued for annulment of the marriage on grounds of nonconsummation, won her case, and wed the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais—originally the couple’s protege—John Ruskin felt far more bitter about losing his fellow-artist’s company than his wife’s.

Whereas John Ruskin clearly undervalued women’s worth, John Stuart Mill often seemed painfully uxorious—even before he married his platonic companion of two decades—the bold, passionate Mrs. Harriet Taylor. Impressively, Harriet exerted enough power after four years of marriage to John Taylor, who disappointed her intellectually and imposed on her sexually, to convince him both to tolerate her intimacy with Mill and to give up his conjugal rights. For his part, Mill respected her so much that he made her his collaborator in all he wrote after 1843 and prepared for their wedding (after her husband’s death) by renouncing his future legal rights over her property and person. Given Harriet Taylor’s dominance on all fronts, what Mill considered a marriage of equals strikes Rose as being more a “domestic case of affirmative action.”

By contrast, a far more conventional inequality marked the marriage of Charles Dickens to Catherine Hogarth, whom he initially appreciated as “that dignifying satellite, a wife” only to become disillusioned...

(The entire section is 785 words.)