Lizzie's Reviews > Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages

Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose
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's review
Jun 12, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2012, nonfiction, favorites, best-covers, own

(Update May 2013)

Hi book. I am five-starring you after all, because I think about you all the time and I learned so much, and I've recommended you to everyone and thumbed through countless times to cite things. And I think my tolerance for academic-speak was raised a little bit in the last year, too, which was really the only relationship problem we had. How love can change, indeed! XO!!

(Feb. 2012)

Oh hello, now is when I catch up on all my Goodreads at once!

This is such a great plan for a book. IT IS AWESOME. I enjoyed it immensely.

The book, indeed, looks at five marriages of Victorian authors, and generally uses each example to explain a result, either of the person's work, or of their personal character.

In a way, she uses the first couple as a framing device, Thomas and Jane Carlyle. Their courtship is shown at the start of the book, their last years of marriage are shown at the end, and there are a few brief scenes throughout of times that one of the Carlyles interacted in some way with the next couple. As themselves, though, I was most interested by them as a courting couple. Jane is a heck of a sass, which pretty classically covers for quite a lot of empathetic self-doubt. She felt she was talented but with nothing original to say, so ironically, she simply became known for talking, and writing letters, and generally saying quite a lot, just as herself.

The fascinating thing about her relationship with Thomas comes at the point they decide to commit to each other: during their courtship he has spent almost all of his time praising her skill and her writing and giving her suggestions and encouragement and basically wishing that she would pursue a great ambition. She too expects great things of him. And seemingly the moment they get engaged, suddenly, he sees her only as a woman, a wife to do the things he asks, and no longer is he asking for anything intellectual. It is not flattering.

(This is also the section where the author writes something I've found myself trying to remember since reading it: "She might reject the idea of marrying him, but she had conceived it, and it seems that no matter how impossible a thing appears, if it can be imagined, it can be enacted." How a turning point works.)

I really looked forward to the John Ruskin chapter, as it of course is a deconstruction of the notorious "Actually no no no please put your clothes back on!!" unconsummated wedding-night story. What a piece of work, what a piece of work. A total cuckoo clock. I think the greatest thing about what the author brings to this chapter is a depiction of Ruskin's parents, who are awful snobbish nutters, and from whom it comes as no surprise whatever to have produced a repressed nutter of a son. (… Who may have had a thing for little girls. Er. I am going to have to read something more about that somewhere because I feel like I need to know.)

The author rather brilliantly compares the Ruskins to the marriages in Middlemarch — one similarity from her perspective, one similarity from his — which was almost too great to be true. Also, like the author's last example, this marriage too came apart at the seams around gender expectation. But there is essentially a good ending, and I really enjoyed the rest of the story, of how this marriage was finished. It's so awkward, and then so happy (for, uh, everyone who isn't Ruskin), it's almost a romantic comedy.

(Also, on the side, I enjoyed how often this chapter made me look up art: mainly Effie's modeling in her future husband's painting, and the portrait of Ruskin he was working on when they met. Similarly, I'm enchanted with this book's cover art; it's perfect — first, I thought it was simply a photograph of an old house, but it is in fact a slice from a painting of the Carlyles at their house, by a painter of Ruskin's photo-realistic school.)

(More outstanding wisdom from the author in Ruskin's chapter: "There is, I think, a kind of natural astonishment at the moments when one's personal life coincides with the great, public, recurring events of mankind, when one marries, for example, or produces a child. One is so amazed to have done it at all that one can by no means perceive it has been done badly.")

The only chapter I didn't enjoy very much was that of John Stuart Mill. It's too bad, because it's an incredibly interesting and weird situation, and I in fact liked him quite a lot. (And Harriet is… something else, if not quite likable.) They were sort of ridiculously idealistic intellectuals who began a (basically sexless) relationship while she was married, and she managed to have dominant enough a personality that her husband just kinda… let her. She seems to have been one of those people who comes in the room, merrily convinces everyone do what she wants, leaves, and everyone is left going, "uh… what just…?"

Mill himself was famous as a philosopher of great justness and belief in social equality and freedom, and was perhaps one of the fiercest feminists of the Victorian age. He saw this nontraditional partnership with someone as strong as Harriet to be exactly the right antidote to the problem of unequal marriage. He adored her so unobjectively that eventually they were a mockery, but their beliefs were fervent and clear. Because he wrote about them so straightforwardly, the author uses a lot of his own writing to lace together her ideas in this chapter. Which works, but became sort of overdone, and I felt kind of like I was reading one of those papers you write in college where you quote way too much to take up room on the page.

(But she's got it: "Of course he made her up, as we all make up the people we love.")

Now, book-lovers, I give you 100% serious warning: reading this book might make you hate Charles Dickens. Really irrecoverably hate him and his work. Unfortunately it turns out that Charles was aaaaa jeeeeeeeeerrrrrkkkk, just terrible, and there is nothing we can do about it!

I think some facts about Dickens's marriage/mistress are somewhat common knowledge, but the author's chapter on it does a marvelous job of plotting it out in great depth. The reason it's an extraordinary chapter instead of just a slugfest is because by the end of it, I felt that I really understood Charles Dickens, really well. Of course, it is really the author's interpretation that I understand so well, but it truly does feel well done and just. At the end of it I think he's pretty much an awful dingbat, but good gracious is he an interesting one.

It's truly a fascinating chapter. I think he's the writer that I'll come away from this book talking the most about. It seems like a little bit of what everyone knows about him weaves into his ugly destiny in some way. He had 10 kids, yes. He loved acting and attention and friends and company and felt he was truly the greatest person in the world, yes. He was a liiiiittle obsessed with innocent girls, yes. He just thought young women were the best, yes, right up until the point that he didn't.

Largely, the thing that came so clear for me was his genuine, true despising of adult women. They disgusted him, and he sincerely believed them responsible for their own fertility, appearance, and energy level (after having 10 kids). e.g. My wife is pregnant again, why is she doing this to me! He feels they are punishing him, and deserve to be punished in return. My favorite (?) story came when he begins to stray, fidelity-wise, by reconnecting with a teenage flame, who warns him that she is now fat and toothless. He thinks she is demurring. When she turns out to be in fact fat and toothless, he makes up an awkward excuse never to see her again, and then writes up the situation in one of his books. And admits it directly in a letter to a friend. This guy.

Of course, though, of course, my true favorite chapter here was George Eliot's (Marian Evans's), as it was bound to be. I have deeply admired her for years, and been very curious to know more about her life, particularly her infamous un-marriage. Her partner of 25 years, George Lewes, was otherwise married (its own odd situation), which meant that he and Marian never were. The author here takes no pains to conceal her enjoyment that the only truly blissfully happy couple in her book had the least "acceptable" connection. She also uses this chapter essentially to paint a picture of Marian that is crackling with empathy and admiration, and I was just hooked-lined-and-sinkered. I can hardly believe how much I truly care about her.

The main point that the author illustrates is the way that falling in love affected Marian. She was over 30, considered dull and homely, and was basically too humble to protest. She did smart editing work. She fell in love. And it transformed her, encouraged her, made her happy to take risks, and ultimately enabled her to take herself seriously as a writer. Historically, it's often suggested that because she began writing after they met, George Lewes is somehow "responsible" for George Eliot's career, but what the author firmly indicates here is that it was simply the power of the immense respect he gave Marian that changed her. A transformation they both cherished. Plus, they had great love and sex and everyone sort of laughed at them — they weren't even pretty, how dare they! — but they made a wonderful life and a wonderful partnership, and it was no accident that a great novelist found herself, too.


By the time the book comes back around to talk about the Carlyles again, I've had so much fun with the other folks that they're rather a disappointment. For one thing, they turned out to be pretty much jerks. They are super outlandishly racist and elitist, even for their time and place. And the public penance thing is unsatisfying at best. I liked more when Carlyle and Mill were quoted side by side regarding a discussion of black populations. (They literally penned twin articles, one which used the horrible word with gusto, and one which pointedly didn't.) It certainly drives home who each of them ultimately were.

Really, this book is wonderful. I loved reading it and want to recommend it to every bookish friend I know. 4.5 stars for sure — I think it is just the fact that I found some parts far more interesting than others that holds it back. I'd probably reread it in chunks rather than as a whole. It also amused me how many people and anecdotes were familiar to me from Bill Bryson's book about Victorians. They are definitely cousins, these books.

Side note: I enjoyed that George Bernard Shaw comes up quite a lot on the sidelines. It turns out he had some damn cool things to say about the institution of marriage. It's made me really interested in him in a way I was not.

Random fun fact: Jane Eyre was considered to have been written by William Thackeray's governess. On account of it was kind of reminiscent of his life. And his actual mad wife in the semi-figurative attic. To me, that story just kind of says everything about what Victorians understood the boundaries of marriage could hold.
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Reading Progress

June 12, 2011 – Shelved
February 12, 2012 – Started Reading
February 14, 2012 –
page 17
5.35% "with no thesis to prove, merely a feminist skepticism about marriage, ... a distaste for the rhetoric of romantic love, and a desire to look at marriages as imaginative projections and arrangements of power Happy Valentine's Day!!! <3<3<3"
February 14, 2012 –
page 18
5.66% "Bad enough to choose once in a lifetime whom to live with; to go on choosing, to reaffirm one's choice day after day, as one must when it is culturally possible to divorce, is really asking a lot of people. Happy Valentine's Day!!! <3<3<3"
February 16, 2012 –
page 56
17.61% "Just am compelled to jump in to say that I love this so much, so much, it is great."
February 18, 2012 –
page 70
22.01% "Middlemarch is reeeeeeeal"
February 25, 2012 –
page 170
53.46% "DICKens am I right"
February 27, 2012 –
page 189
59.43% "There is something grand about living as though no one had ever lived before. He acted his plight out on the grand scale, in expectation of a matching grand-scale sympathy which never came."
February 27, 2012 –
page 199
62.58% "Marian. SO EXCITED."
February 28, 2012 –
page 219
68.87% "Even four-line excerpts from George Eliot's letters are making me fold down page corners. WTF, I LOVE HER SO MUCH."
February 29, 2012 –
page 270
84.91% "That's the book!"
February 29, 2012 –
page 304
95.6% "... and that's all the back-matter I'm gonna read."
February 29, 2012 –
page 336
100% "(callin' it)"
February 29, 2012 – Finished Reading
April 8, 2012 – Shelved as: 2012
April 8, 2012 – Shelved as: nonfiction
May 17, 2013 – Shelved as: favorites
November 20, 2013 – Shelved as: best-covers
February 11, 2014 – Shelved as: own

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by drea (new) - added it

drea I'm ordering a copy of this!

Lizzie Hee! I totally checked this book's Goodreads page expecting to see that you had already 5-starred it.

message 3: by Sue (new)

Sue I haven't read this book, but I've read enough about Charles Dickens to come to the sad realization that his awesome talent did not also confer upon him awesome husband status. Sigh. I still love his stories, but now when I read them, I think, "Too bad these books were written by such a jerk." Sometimes, reality is such a bummer.

Beth Bonini Oh, I just LOVED this review. So spot-on. I read this book as a young graduate student in 1990 (several years before I married) and I have read it several times since. I have thought of certain scenes and lines over and over again through the years. Indeed, I consider it to be one of the most influential academic books I've ever read.

Anna Mcallister Greate review!

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