“The literary couple…is a peculiar English domestic manufacture, useful no doubt in a country with difficult winters.”* — Parallel Lives, by Phyllis Rose (with a brief poetical digression)

April 17, 2010 at 12:43 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, Poetry)

This will not – cannot! – be a lengthy review, filled with details and anecdote about Rose’s fascinating subjects. I wish it could be. I read this book several months ago, so even though it is bristling with post-it flags, many of the particulars have faded from memory. What has not faded is the rapturous sense of revelation that I experienced while reading it.

What follows are some of the high points – for this reader, at least – of Parallel Lives:

The b0ok is subtitled “Five Victorian Marriages.” The dramatis personae are as follows: Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. Theses unions range from fraught (the Carlyles) to disastrous (the Ruskins) to radiantly happy (George Eliot and George Henry Lewes).


Jane Welsh

Thomas Carlyle

After a lengthy courtship, Jane Welsh finally agreed to wed Thomas Carlyle. She had a request, though: Could her widowed mother live with them?  Jane was an only child and did not want to her mother to be bereft when she herself left home to marry. (Her beloved physician father had died when Jane was eighteen.)

Up until this time, Carlyle had been in ardent and tender pursuit of his beloved.  But once Jane had accepted him, his demeanor altered radically. He immediately raised an objection to her entreaty: “Mrs Welsh, as the older party, might think the household was hers to rule, whereas in fact, man was born to command and woman to obey.” The author then comments drily:  “His [Carlyle’s]  metamorphosis from humble suitor to arrogant cock of the walk is distressing.” The reader will agree, this transformation does not bode well. And so it proved.

In a different  source, I found this quotation, attributed to Samuel Butler, concerning the Carlyle-Welsh union: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

But there’s worse to come…


Effie Gray

John Ruskin

Anecdotal evidence holds that when John Ruskin beheld his bride Effie Gray as God made her, on their wedding night, he was so appalled that he was unable consummate their relationship. What did he see that so disgusted him? Apparently, the problem stemmed from the fact that John Ruskin had never before seen a woman nude. Passionate art lover that he was, he’d seen plenty of representations of the female form, both in portraiture and sculpture. But, especially as  regards classical statuary, certain details of the female anatomy tended to be glossed over… or, should I say, smoothed over…

At any rate, one receives a rather astonishing image of Ruskin fleeing the premises  after laying eyes on what was, after all, a perfectly prosaic feature of the female anatomy – and the male’s too, for that matter. (I don’t mean to be coy here – in case you haven’t guessed, we’re talking about pubic hair.)

And so this marriage-that-was-not-a-marriage limped along. Eventually, the Ruskins befriended the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everitt Millais. Millais used Effie as a model for one of his most famous works. In it, he depicts an event  that occurs during the Jacobite Rebellion. A wife is conveying a release order to her husband’s jailer:

The painting’s title, “The Order of Release,” turned out to be prophetic. Eventually Effie divorced Ruskin (though it was technically an annulment) and married Millais. With that act, she went from a frustrating, sexless marriage to one that was rich and fruitful: together, she and Millais had eight children.

(Obtaining a divorce in early Victorian Britain was no easy thing. Until the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act in  1857,  the only legal way to dissolve a marriage was through an Act of Parliament!)

The painting of Effie Gray just above the photo of Ruskin came to light  only recently. Click here for the story.


Catherine Hogarth

Charles Dickens

Here is Phyllis Rose’s summation concerning Charles Dickens and his numbingly miserable marriage to Catherine Hogarth:

‘…it must be said that Dickens seems to have learned little about himself from his sufferings–and less about the suffering of others. As he transferred all the blame to his wife in the matter of his marriage, he blamed most of his woes in later life on his male children, accusing them of shiftlessness and lack of energy, which they had inherited–as he thought–from their mother. Dickens’s emotional development is not inspirational. It is a story of survival merely and proves only, as Jung said about his own reprehensible behavior to a younf woman, that sometimes it is necessary to be unworthy in order to continue living.

I shared this passage with my husband, who exclaimed in astonishment: “This is THE Charles Dickens?” Alas, yes. Some writers who depict wonderful and compassionate characters so memorably in their fiction are not invariably wonderful and compassionate themselves. The life and work of Tolstoy further illustrate this syndrome.


George Henry Lewes

George Eliot

The union of Marian Evans (who wrote under the pen name George Eliot) and George Henry Lewes is an altogether different story:

‘If ever a couple was united in purpose it was Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes, dedicated to Duty, to Work, to Love, spreading warmth and light from their domestic hearth in the most approved style of Victorian domestic fiction. They were the perfect married couple.

Only one small technicality mars this otherwise blissful portrait: these two loving individuals were in fact not legally married. It was not possible for them to be wed in the law for the simple reason that Lewes already had a wife. (And his domestic entanglements make for some fascinating reading.) Rose can scarcely stop herself from extolling the virtues of this rare partnership:

‘By turning their backs on the search for happiness in their daily lives, by committing themselves to each other, to their work, and to Duty, the Leweses managed to be as happy together for the twenty-four years they lived together as any two people I have heard of outside fantasy literature.

The author seems to be saying that here, in this exemplary mode of living, lies a lesson for us all.

George Henry Lewes died in 1878 at the age of sixty. But Marian Evans’s marital history does not end at that point.  In her bereavement, and with the usual matters of estate to attend to, she found herself relying increasingly on a forty-year-old banker named John Walter Cross. Their mutual attachment grew: “Cross was young. He was useful. He worshipped her.” And he too was grieving, having recently lost his mother to whom he’d been deeply attached. Despite the age difference – Marian Evans was nearly sixty years old – she married John Cross in 1880.

In her youth, Marian Evans believed herself to be homely and unattractive. She never expected to find fulfillment in love, so the flowering of her relationship with Lewes must have seemed something of a miracle. It was in part due to his support and encouragement that we have some of the great masterpieces of Victorian fiction:

Although Daniel Deronda not usually ranked with the three works pictured above, I’m  partial to this novel for two reasons. First, it has a Zionist theme, rather unusual in the mainstream fiction of the time (although one also encounters it is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe).  Secondly, one of the novel’s centerpieces is a  marriage founded on deceit and lies and described in excruciating and memorable detail.


In Parallel Lives, Phyllis Rose writes from an acknowledged feminist perspective, but I am deeply impressed by the evenhanded treatment of her subject matter. She states that her aim “…has not been to show that Dickens or Ruskin or Carlyle were ‘bad’ husbands, but to present them as examples of behavior generated inevitably by the peculiar privileges and stresses of traditional marriage.” In her summing up at the book’s conclusion, she evokes Erik Erikson’s concept of ‘mutuality:’

‘Erikson warns that to approach any human encounter in a demanding spirit is to solicit disappointment. We can never be given enough. But if we ask only to give, to nurture and strengthen someone else, we will find ourselves strengthened in the process. In a marriage that works well, one person’s needs strengthen–do not deplete–the vitality of the partner who responds to them….”


Parallel Lives was published in 1983. I’ve known about it since then and have always meant to read it. So why now? Professor Patrick Allitt includes it in his bibliography for Victorian Britain, an audio course from The Teaching Company. Thank you, Professor Allitt, for your lively and engaging narration! Here is the teacher we all wish we could have had in college (though graduate of Goucher College that I am, I did have several professors of that caliber: Barton L. Houseman for chemistry; Wolfgang Thormann for French; William Mueller and Brooke Peirce for English…ah, those were the days…O I have fallen into a reverie, have I not – please excuse…Ah well, if you’ll indulge me just a moment longer, Dear Reader…

When I was studying French in college, I carelessly remarked to the aforementioned Professor Thormann that I had never really been moved by French poetry. He looked at me  with disbelieving eyes and then proceeded to recite from memory this poem by Paul Verlaine:

Il pleure dans mon coeur.

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur ?

Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
Ô le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?…
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon coeur a tant de peine !

I was, of course, duly chastened, an experience much needed by your basic undergraduate!

Click here and scroll down for the English translation of this poem.)


For more information about the individuals discussed above – and for a rich source on all things Victorian – go to The Victorian Web.


I wonder if Katie Roiphe used Rose’s book as a model for her own highly engaging work, Uncommon Arrangements.


*Phyllis Rose is here quoting Elizabeth Hardwick, from the latter’s essay, “George Eliot’s Husband.”


  1. Nan said,

    Oh my gosh, this was wonderful! A little mini-course in itself! I just loved reading it. I’ve got the Persephone book about the Carlyles, and it would be fun to read it along with this book. Amazing about the painting. Wouldn’t I love something like that in my house! Thank you so much for this excellent posting. Verlaine and Rimbaud were quite popular during my college days. And I recall some great professors too.

  2. Susan said,

    Fabulous review! I just saw this book being promoted in our big book superstore Chapters, and I had to convince myself to put it down – I was only supposed to be buying a book for a friend. Your review has made me realize this would be a definite interest for me. thank you! I like the painting too – I’ve seen it before somewhere, but I can’t remember where. Isn’t it interesting how books and authors can be different, and others similar – Eliot writes about morality and ethics and being true to one’s self (in Middlemarch she shows the pros and cons of choices made) and how she lived that way too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: