Victorian marriages and their problems

My version of Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose was purchased new very recently. It has an introduction which I obviously read first and it nearly caused me to give the book away without reading the main text. It was full of feminist theory which isn’t very accessible to me as I know little about it and I didn’t understand what it was trying to tell me – I was greatly relieved to discover that the book itself is written in a way that I could understand and is very interesting and enjoyable. I probably didn’t realise most of the things that the introduction writer was trying to draw to my attention but I did learn enough to make reading the book worthwhile.

This is a book about five marriages in Victorian England all of which feature someone well known in literary society at the time. Writers are often progressive thinkers and most of the people featured in this book weren’t afraid to challenge the norms about married life so each marriage has different challenges and outcomes – although I call them all marriages it needs to be pointed out that one pair were not married in the eyes of the law.

Among those featured in the book are Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill and John Ruskin together with their partners. Some of the problems arose at the start of their marriages and some developed over time. Not all of the couples were young and some married more than once or had other relationships. I knew the outline stories of some of these marriages from biographies of the participants but this author talks mainly about their relationships and doesn’t delve into other aspects of their life which helps to unpick what has happened.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I thought that the author had carefully picked her examples to demonstrate the issues which many people, not just Victorian writers, find when they make a life together. The author tries to be even handed and fair when reporting what happened and is very good at demonstrating the power relationships and how those affected the relationships. We also learn a lot about the legal situation surrounding marriage at the time and the social conventions.

If you enjoy reading about Victorians or have an interest in how people and power interact in relationships this is a fascinating book. I enjoyed it a lot and think it makes a good companion to Good Wives ? by Margaret Forster which is a favourite of mine and covers some of the same ground.

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