Friday, December 02, 2016

Five marriages

     Phyllis Rose. Parallel Lives (1983) Rose describes five Victorian marriage. Her aim is to understand how the Western ideal of marriage, which crystallised in the 19th century, worked out in practice. Her subjects are writers, not because they are a privileged class, but because a) writers leave more complete records of their thoughts and feelings; and b) they tend to be outliers, and so more aware of how conventions and ideals constrain life.
     Three of the marriages were sexless: Ruskin’s because he was disgusted with his wife’s body (he apparently expected her to look like a Greek statue); the Carlyles, because neither was much interested in sex; and John Stuart and Harriet Mill, because Harriet didn’t like sex, and Mill didn’t want to impose himself on her. Dickens was a highly sexed man, and after getting a dozen or so children on Catherine, became attracted to a much younger woman, whereupon he constructed a narrative that made him the victim of a dull and boring union. George Eliot (Mary Evans) and Henry Lewes weren’t legally married at all, yet Rose believes they came closest to the ideal of a union of equals, enjoying each other’s company, working together, talking a lot, and having good sex.
     A very interesting book. Rose examines marriage at a time when the focus changed from a social and commercial contract to a personal relationship. Mill, among others, argued strongly for this view, seeing the older version as imposing severe legal and personal burdens on women. Carlyle opposed it. Dickens celebrated it in the scenes of domestic bliss in his novels. Ruskin expected his wife to serve his genius as his parents and he thought he deserved; his marriage broke up quickly. Eliot and Lewes spent their life together thoroughly enjoying each other.
     Rose doesn’t examine how and why the concepts of marriage changed. Her narratives focus on the effects of the new ideals on these ten people. She believes that heterosexual marriage can be a good thing. She believes it’s good to disentangle marriage from the legalities that burden the partners with unequal powers and obligations. She defends what she knows will be seen as an extended gossip, because gossip is the only way in which we can get a general grasp of a community’s beliefs and values. Gossip not only enforces these values, but also raises the issues that change them.
     The result is a book that fascinates. I pitied and admired these people, who all except Ruskin worked hard to make good lives for themselves and each other. Even the Eliot-Lewes union, which was such a happy one, was encumbered with Lewes’ continued support for his wife and children. We can see how our current notion of marriage as a supremely personal relationship not only has made divorce mandatory when that relationship breaks, but has also made same-sex marriage inevitable. For if the essence of marriage is freely assumed obligations and rights, than any arrangement in which people adopt them is a marriage.
     The book also confirmed a couple of impressions I’ve had from reading Victorian literature. I don’t like Ruskin, I think his aesthetics nonsensical. He did not understand art as the product of imagination, he thought it was entirely about feelings in response to "nature", condemning art he could not understand, and writing bosh to justify his opinions. I didn’t like Carlyle’s hero worship, which entails contempt for ordinary people. His break with Mill (Carlyle didn’t believe in the equality of women) confirmed what I saw as self-satisfied pomposity. He had a strong intellect, but a limited imagination.
     Rose prompts questions. Why did the concept of marriage change as it did? Dickens’ promotion of domestic, familial bliss did not create that ideal: Dickens was a genius at expressing the as yet unarticulated ideas and ideals of his time. Mill’s writings about politics (guided by Harriet) affected the legalities surrounding marriage. But argument for legal changes won’t be accepted if it’s too far ahead of already occurring shifts in people’s thinking and feeling. Roses’ book is a wonderfully insightful and insight-prompting book, worth reading as much for the questions it poses as the ones it answers. ****

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I do notthinkk that these questions have been answered. And today there are moreviews about marriage than there are people to question them.