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...

(The entire section is 2250 words.)