Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose
Vintage • $15 • ISBN 9780394725802
Published in 1983

While a book about marriage might seem like an unlikely page-turner, if you pick up a copy of Parallel Lives you won't be able to put it down. That is, if you have any interest in Victorian literature and/or gossip. There's plenty of dirt in this seminal literary study. The principles would be fascinating no matter who was telling their stories, but Rose dishes up the details with flair and insight, using the relationship dynamics to draw some interesting conclusions about the politics of marriage. She has a knack for putting ideas you might have thought about vaguely into sharp focus, and it's astonishing how relevant the conclusions she draws from relationships that occurred nearly 200 years ago can be.

For example, this truth about the way turning points in relationships worked, written in the context of the Carlyle's courtship: "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."

Or the conclusion she draws in a discussion of Dickens' early marriage:

Why is it that today, when ambitious young women who have postponed marriage in order to launch their careers finally look around for someone to marry, so few men seem to be available? Perhaps because ambitious men marry oung. Marriage and career, family and work, which so often pull a woman in different directions, are much more likely to reinforce one another for a man. Dickens provides a good case in point. Professionally, his marriage helped him. His household was arranged for him. His needs for sex and companionship were satisfied. . . . Most important, he had a reason to devote himself wholeheartedly to work. Not only was he working for his own advantage and to satisfy his own ambition, he was working for her, for them and for their children. The guilt a woman artist might feel in removing herself from her family in order to create is less likely to trouble a man, a man who imagines himself—as Dickens did—working for his family.

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