Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages Analysis

Phyllis Rose

Parallel Lives

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Feminist Phyllis Rose sees marriage as an institution involving parallel lives, two people with “two points of view often deeply in conflict, sometimes fortuitously congruent.” In many marriages a power struggle occurs, with one mate dominating or attempting to dominate, the other either submitting or fighting back in some fashion. Ideally, the power is equally held and used, but the ideal is rarely attained.

Aware of many contrasts between the strict limitations which controlled most Victorian marriages and the varied options available today to couples (married or not) living in Great Britain or the United States, Rose looks back, in Parallel Lives, at five Victorian marriages about which a considerable amount is known, largely because most of the partners wrote—sometimes at considerable length—about them. Biographers and other writers later furnished much additional information, gossipy or otherwise.

Rose confesses that although she began the book “with no thesis to prove, merely with a feminist skepticism about marriage, a taste for the higher gossip, a distaste for the rhetoric of romantic love, and a desire to look at marriages as imaginative projections and arrangements of power, [she] ended with a bewildered respect for the durability of the pair, in all its variations.”

The five marriages whose stories Rose tells, most interestingly and with many wry comments, are a varied group: Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, a high spirited, intelligent Scottish woman married to her former tutor, a social critic and historian from a lower social class; Effie Gray and John Ruskin, a lawyer’s daughter yoked to an art and social critic in an impossible pairing doomed from the start; Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, a wife and mother finally joined legally to a political economist and philosopher after an extended liaison and after her first husband’s death; Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, a fecund woman mated to a popular novelist, whose husbandly affection for her deteriorated after their fourth child arrived and who left her when she had brought her brood to ten; and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, a popular novelist happily living with though not married to a well-known journalist and biographer separated from his unfaithful wife.

Four of the unions produced no children: the Carlyles’, which lasted forty years; the Ruskins’, which was annulled after six years; the Mills’, which ended with Harriet’s death after seven years; and the Lewes-Eliot union, which lasted twenty-four years, until Lewes’s death. Harriet Taylor had borne two children to John Taylor before her liaison with Mill began. Before George Lewes began to live with Marian Evans (who would become George Eliot), his wife had borne six children, only the first three of whom were Lewes’s. The others were fathered by Thornton Leigh Hunt, son of Leigh Hunt, the poet and critic who knew and wrote about John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The presence or absence of sex and children is of interest to Rose, because sex and children enter so often into the power politics of marriages in general. Following James A. Froude, Carlyle’s friend and biographer, Rose believes Carlyle was impotent. If the Carlyles had had children, perhaps some of Jane’s jealousy and pain over Thomas’ interest in Lady Harriet Ashburton in the later years of the marriage might have been absorbed by her love for the children she had wanted. Throughout the Carlyle marriage, he dominated; by nature and with a firm belief in husbandly authority, he felt entitled to do so. He remained for years unaware of the bitter resentment his wife often felt. Thus, he was stunned to discover, when he was editing her letters and a revealing diary after her death, that she had kept secret from him her intense feelings about his injustice. Guilt and anguish haunted him for the rest of his life.

The complete absence of sex in the brief Ruskin marriage led to its annulment, with Ruskin being declared “incapable of consummating the [marriage] by reason of incurable impotency.” Ruskin had offered to prove he was not impotent (Rose has a lengthy note on how he may have intended to prove it), but his offer was not accepted. Effie Ruskin told her parents, not long before the marriage ended, that her husband was disgusted with what he saw when she undressed on her wedding night. Sexually naïve, an only son overly protected by possessive parents, Ruskin was not prepared for the sight of a live nude woman. Mary Lutyens, Effie’s biographer, believes that he may have been repulsed by the sight of pubic hair. Perhaps, because Ruskin had first shown interest in Effie when she was a child and because at forty he fell in love with a ten-year-old girl, he was emotionally kin to Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in being sexually attracted only to preadolescent females.

Ruskin led Effie to believe he would finally bring physical union into their marriage, but as time passed she realized increasingly that he never would. He showed no jealousy over her interest in other men, and in fact he seemed to encourage her interest in others so that he might have more free time for his art research and writing.

When a young artist, John Everett Millais, became a kind of protégé of the Ruskins, the way was unwittingly prepared for the end of the marriage. Though comparatively uneducated, Millais had a precocious natural ability as a painter. He used Effie...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Inspired by The Mausoleum Book—Sir Leslie Stephen’s marital memoir prompted by James Anthony Froude’s biographical portrait of Thomas Carlyle as insensitive husband—Parallel Lives explores the relationships of five Victorian writers to their mates. Through these marriages, or parallel lives, Phyllis Rose examines not only the power dynamics between romantic partners but also the way in which each union “seems . . . a subjectivist fiction with two points of view often deeply in conflict, sometimes fortuitously congruent.” Her political and literary perspectives fuse into a feminist study of the imaginative patterns shaping Victorian couplehood, and to some extent modern marriages as well.

Rose focuses on a particular period or issue for each couple and arranges the vignettes so as to suggest the progressive stages in a relationship. Opening the book with the courtship of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, she next explores Effie Gray and John Ruskin’s honeymoon and their eventual triangle with John Everett Millais; Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill’s two-decade companionship during her marriage to another man, the father of her three children; Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens’ growing alienation, then publicized separation, in middle age; and Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes’ backstreet happiness until his death. Rose distinguishes the Carlyles as the couple who impelled her study by using them as a framing...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Parallel Lives is a feminist milestone in a number of ways. First, Rose challenges prevailing misogynist versions of these five relationships. For example, she explores criticism’s resistance to Mill’s own claim that Harriet Taylor was his collaborator, its emphasis on Marian Evans as a neurotically needy spinster rather than a woman who pursued love assertively, and its assumption that Catherine Hogarth indeed failed Dickens through her middle-aged frumpiness. Second, Rose argues the need to go beyond assigning blame for “bad” behavior in individuals to confronting the deep problems “generated inevitably by the peculiar privileges and stresses of traditional marriage.” In fact, merely by introducing the women of the couples first, before their change of status and name, Rose emphasizes the female equality that she considers exceptional, even impossible, in patriarchy’s domestic paradigms. With the exception of Catherine Hogarth, her women are clearly role models of female strength in adversity, especially Rose’s favorite, the feisty Jane Welsh.

Rose also challenges the facile equation of “Victorian” with “prudish” or “repressed” by re-visioning some of the unusual asexual arrangements in her narratives as innovative and inspired. Moreover, she argues convincingly that such irregular pre-Freudian unions as the Carlyles’ and the Ruskins’ might teach important lessons in flexibility—and that redefining couplehood is still relevant in the late twentieth century, with easy divorce doing little to undermine the monopoly of the marriage plot on people’s life choices. Finally, Rose underlines the frequent consistency between familial and national tyranny, by tracing Thomas Carlyle’s, John Ruskin’s, and Charles Dickens’ authoritarianism on the one hand and John Stuart Mill’s and George Henry Lewes’ liberalism on the other, from their marriages to their political stands on slavery, class, and imperialism.

Parallel Lives found favor with critics as an original, provocative, and witty book. Even Nina Auerbach, whose review in The New York Times Book Review faulted Rose for giving her male protagonists the usual lion’s share of attention, conceded that the familiar episodes unfold so “compellingly here, they spring to life all over again.” Rose’s 1978 study Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf had the same feminist biographical underpinnings.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

America. CL, February 25, 1984, p. 138.

Basch, Francoise. Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel. Translated by Rudolf Anthony. New York: Schocken, 1974. Basch opens this impressively documented book with the daily life of actual Victorian women, then considers their fictional counterparts in the works of such writers as Dickens, Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray and the Brontes. Like Rose, Basch suggests that fulfillment came to Eliot and Lewes, Taylor and Mill—and even Dickens and Ellen Ternan—because they defied Victorian conventions.

Harrison, Fraser. The Dark Angel: Aspects of Victorian Sexuality. New York: Universe Books, 1978. Harrison examines social constructions of marriage in the Victorian era, drawing on the ideas and imagery of Ruskin, Dickens, Mill, and Millais, among others, for his first section on “Middle- Class Sexuality.” Harrison sensitively explores some of the same issues as Rose: courtship stress, wifely submission, and female education.

Library Journal. CVIII, October 1, 1983, p. 1876.

Longford, Elizabeth. Eminent Victorian Women. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Longford introduces her study of family influences and career-romance conflicts in eleven female lives, with a section on Queen Victoria’s and John Stuart Mill’s dissimilar views on women’s rights. Although her only subject in common with Rose is George Eliot, the book—with a wealth of photographs, illustrations, and Punch cartoons—resembles Parallel Lives in its readability, its feminist perspective, and its period detail.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 25, 1983, p. 4.

Lutyens, Mary. Millais and the Ruskins. London: John Murray, 1967. A detailed account of the disintegration of the Ruskins’ marriage during their friendship with John Everett Millais. Lutyens’ chief sources are original letters, on which she draws generously and comments concisely in order to let the principals speak for themselves.

Ms. XII, December, 1983, p. 30.

The New Republic. CXC, January 30, 1984, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, November 13, 1983, p. 9.

Time. CXXII, October 24, 1983, p. 94.

Wohl, Anthony S., ed. The Victorian Family: Sturcture and Stresses. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. This book of nine essays explores the Victorian family as a microcosm of its culture, with special attention to the subordination of women and children. The issue of power so central to Rose’s study is particularly prominent in David Roberts’ “The Paterfamilias of the Victorian Governing Classes” and Michael Brooks’s “Love and Possession in a Victorian Household: The Example of the Ruskins.”