‘Im astonished​ by it,’ Phyllis Rose said in a recent interview about Parallel Lives, her study of five Victorian marriages, first published in 1983 and now reissued (Daunt, £10.99). ‘It’s miraculous that this girl knew so much.’ In her prologue about love and marriage, probably the best thing in the book, Rose’s wisdom glints like shards of glass. ‘Does that girl strike you as having been unnervingly wise?’ Rachel Cooke asked Rose. ‘Unnerving,’ Rose agreed, ‘is a good word for it.’ How else to describe the certainty, the cutting elegance, of these formulations?

Gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the Platonic ladder that leads to self-understanding … If marriage is, as Mill suggested, a political experience, then discussion of it ought to be taken as seriously as talk about national elections.

Marriages set two imaginations to work constructing narratives about experience presumed to be the same for both … Happy marriages seem to me those in which the two partners agree on the scenario they are enacting.

Marriages go bad not when love fades … but when [an] understanding about the balance of power breaks down, when the weaker member feels exploited or the stronger feels unrewarded for his or her strength.

Some people will find it ‘chilling’ to think of marriage in terms of power relations, Rose supposes, but

I would counter by pointing out the human tendency to invoke love at moments when we want to disguise transactions involving power … When we resign power or assume new power, we insist it is not happening and demand to be talked to about love. Perhaps that is what love is – the momentary or prolonged refusal to think of another person in terms of power. Like an enzyme which blocks momentarily a normal biological process, what we call love may inhibit the process of power negotiation – from which inhibition comes the illusion of equality so characteristic of lovers.

This is the point (around page five) at which Jia Tolentino, quoted prominently on the front and back covers of the new edition, was ‘gasping with gratitude that this book exists and furious I hadn’t read it sooner’. Gratitude for Rose’s wisdom, and regret at not having had the benefit of it sooner, are common responses: Haley Mlotek, writing in New York Times magazine, also recalls ‘gasping’, and admits that ‘I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I’d found this book earlier.’ Although one would want to be less breathless about it, this is the way Rose wants to be read. That is to say, trans-historically. ‘I offer some private lives for examination and discussion,’ her prologue ends, so as ‘to raise questions about the role of power and the nature of equality within marriage’.

The private lives considered are those of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle; Effie Gray and John Ruskin; Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill; Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens; George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. This is the form in which Rose presents the couples, with the women taking precedence and preserving their maiden names. It might seem a sure indication of her approach, but in fact she is interested in ‘parallel lives’ – that is, in two imaginations ‘constructing narratives about experience presumed to be the same for both’, and in the ‘gap between … as well as … their similarity’ – and so doesn’t want to privilege the women: it is the issue of equality she is preoccupied with. Her decision to focus on particular periods in each marriage also reduces the opportunities for shifting the perspective radically because we see the female partners only at these points and learn little of the before or after. The consequence is that the famous men (and George Eliot, as the one woman who is the more illustrious partner) still have the narrative tilted in their favour. This is fine, since (again with the exception of Eliot) it proves a point about patriarchy, but it means Rose can’t really claim to be offering something entirely new, only a retelling of familiar biographical stories with some shifts of emphasis, done with great stylishness and brio, and illuminated by her 1980s sensibility.

Which isn’t nothing. Parallel Lives is an armoury of glittering quotation, a spotlit gallery of portraits of Victorian life. Jane Welsh, talented and admired, gradually persuades herself, over the course of a years-long correspondence, into becoming engaged – ‘I who have such a natural horror at engagements! It gives me asthma every time I think of it’ – to Thomas Carlyle, brilliant if terribly rough around the edges and quite impossible, but whom she eventually, by many half-steps and retreats and jolting advances, comes to see as the only man for her (‘It seems that no matter how impossible a thing appears, if it can be imagined, it can be enacted,’ Rose observes). We are given the story of the Ruskins’ marriage, slipping into slow-motion disaster from the moment when, on their wedding night in 1848, John pulled the dress away from Effie’s shoulder, and found the body beneath ‘not formed to excite passion’. There were struggles with the in-laws; Effie harrumphed when John’s parents pandered to his cold (‘In the morning Mrs Ruskin begins with “Don’t sit near those towels John they’re damp” and in the forenoon “John you must not read these papers till they are dried”’) and sniffed abjectly when her own cold was ignored (‘No coddling’, Mrs Ruskin pronounced). Effie went walking in the Piazza San Marco without a bonnet: ‘She told her mother about this,’ Rose writes, ‘in a letter which Mrs Gray passed on to Mrs Ruskin and Mrs Ruskin showed to her husband who in turn wrote to his son to say that he was shocked to hear that Effie had been walking in the piazza without her bonnet.’ The couple’s pact of chastity, enforced at Ruskin’s insistence after their failed wedding night and of four years’ standing, was doomed by their four-month stay in the Highlands in 1853 with the excitable John Everett Millais, engaged in painting Ruskin’s portrait in the drizzle and incapable of not seeing Effie’s malaise. ‘I thought to make him read Euclid and bring him back a meek and methodical man,’ a disillusioned Ruskin said. ‘I might as well have tried to make a Highland stream read Euclid, or be methodical.’ The rest – Effie’s flight, the furnished proof of her virginity, the annulment of the marriage, her eventual happy union with Millais – is history.

Next we have John Stuart Mill, 24, single, falling hard for Harriet Taylor, 23, married mother of two. ‘That man, who up to that time, had never looked a female creature, even a cow, in the face,’ Carlyle wrote, ‘found himself opposite those great dark eyes, that were flashing unutterable things, while he was discoursing the unutterable concernin’ all sorts o’ high topics.’ Harriet, bored by her marriage to the genial but mentally untaxing John Taylor, was thrilled by Mill, and the two of them began a relationship in 1831. When Taylor eventually issued an ultimatum two years later – break it off, or face a scandalous separation – Harriet went to Paris to think it over. Mill confessed some anxiety that the fallout from a separation might do damage to his fledgling career, rendering him ‘obscure and insignificant’. Harriet responded with magnificent umbrage:

Good heaven, have you at last arrived at fearing to be ‘obscure & insignificant’! What can I say to that but ‘by all means pursue your brilliant and important career’. Am I one to choose to be the cause that the person I love feels himself reduced to ‘obscure and insignificant’! Good God what has the love of two equals to do with making obscure and insignificant.

They patched it up. Mill went to join Harriet in Paris and they were spied sitting together on a bench, eating grapes from the same bunch. But John Taylor was so kind in his letters that they both began to have scruples: they brought ‘to the drama of their own lives’, Rose recognises, ‘all the … consideration they devoted to theoretical problems of justice in society’. So they formed a triangle – that ‘peculiarly stable arrangement’, Rose calls it – which endured for another 15 years, before John Taylor died and in 1851 Harriet and Mill were able, after a further two years of mourning, to marry. They were both feminists, and critics of the laws that transferred authority in marriage to the husband, as well as ownership of his wife’s property, and so Mill drew up a formal, if meaningless, protest: ‘I absolutely disclaim and repudiate all pretension to have acquired any rights whatever by virtue of such marriage.’

A fiction of equality was maintained in another way, too, by Mill’s total surrender – intellectual, moral, personal – to Harriet, who he claimed had co-written all of his most famous works, and whom he addressed in 1855 as ‘the only person living who is worthy to live’. It was Harriet, as Rose says, who ‘put the logic machine into motion. She was his starter button.’ It was at her insistence, for instance, that Mill abandoned his defence of capitalism in the first edition of Principles of Political Economy in favour of a cautious but extremely influential argument for socialism in its second edition, ‘making a little bit of England what it is today because Harriet Taylor changed her mind in 1849’. Mill was determined to give her full credit for everything, filling his Autobiography with outsized praise for ‘one whose intellect is as much profounder than mine as her heart is nobler’. His friends were horrified – many had failed to detect Harriet’s genius – but Rose concludes tolerantly: ‘Of course he made her up, as we all make up the people we love.’ It was a ‘delusion which he and his wife could happily share’. Mill ‘atoned for the subjection of women by the voluntary, even enthusiastic, subjection of one man and portrayed the result as a model marriage of equals’.

Rose sees the collapse of Dickens’s marriage after 22 years – he formally separated from his wife, treating her cruelly in the process and taking up with a young actress called Ellen Ternan – as a classic case of midlife crisis. She can admire Dickens’s ruthless determination to rediscover his happiness, the ‘gigantic, unselfconscious theatricality’ of it, but she is also careful to show that the enormous productivity of his twenties was facilitated by his marriage, and to emphasise that Catherine, his wife, was not the dullard he later convinced himself she had always been.

George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, Rose’s favourite couple, never married (Lewes was already married, and unable to divorce because he had tolerated his wife’s adulteries and accepted her children by another man), but created a monogamous marriage for themselves in defiance of society, lasting 24 years until his death. It was a serious business. ‘Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically,’ Eliot wrote. ‘Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done – they obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner.’ The Leweses, as they referred to themselves – even Lewes’s actual wife addressed Eliot as ‘Mrs Lewes’ – were immensely happy. Proof, for Rose, that more satisfying relationships might be formed outside the marital bond.

Reading this book for the second time, I wondered again whether without its present-minded prologue and conclusion, without all those aperçus, Parallel Lives would have become the cult classic it’s now considered to be: ‘a shared favourite’ according to Sheila Heti; ‘the book Nora Ephron read every four years’, the new edition proudly informs us. (Mlotek claimed in her New York Times piece that she read it on average ‘every four or five months’.) Why otherwise would anyone seek to find clues about how to live in five exceptionally unrepresentative 19th-century marriages? It is noticeable that while Rose never stops being witty, she does become less wise in the main part of the book – there are far fewer aperçus, and, jostling with so much Victoriana, they seem less incisive, or more intrusive, or both. I underlined one in particular – ‘It is, of course, one of life’s persistent disappointments that a great moral crisis in my life is nothing but matter for gossip in yours’ – as somehow lacking the ring of truth, though Mlotek liked it so much ‘it makes me want to lie down each time I remember it.’ I began to bridle at Rose’s easy transitions from then to now and back again. There is some strange condescension: ‘Researchers in developmental psychology tell us it is normal’ for men to have midlife crises, she notes, before expressing regret that Dickens faced his ‘alone, quite unaware that the radical dissatisfaction he was feeling was in some sense normal’. As if, in the absence of a concept, the idea of midlife angst was unknown. ‘If Catherine lived now, she might well feel (as other women have felt) that her husband’s anger at her had nothing to do with her and a lot to do with his mother. But Catherine, in 1855, could have had no such consoling thought.’ As if, in 1855, mothers didn’t come into it. Just ask Effie Ruskin.

The truth is that Rose is defeated by the specificity of the Victorian era, and of the marriages she wants to offer up to the modern age for ‘examination and discussion’. This is the reason the conclusions to each case study, when they gesture at generality, do so unconvincingly. Dickens offers a ‘fine example of how not to end a marriage’. The Carlyles made their marriage a ‘spectacle we in later days can witness, with resolutions and tensions we can participate in vicariously’. OK, sure. But why these marriages? Why the Victorians? We are never told. I can only imagine that, ‘like an enzyme which blocks momentarily a normal biological process’, the love certain readers have for this book inhibits the work of critical appreciation.

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