4 July 2013

Post Facto - The Marrying Kind: Domestic portraits from east and west

From this fortnight's Sunday Guardian column:
"We tend to talk informally about other people's marriages and to disparage our own talk as gossip. But gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads us to self-understanding. We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves..." It was with this remarkable train of thought that Phyllis Rose set in motion her absorbing examination of the private lives of five 19th century couples — Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983). Her motives were partly feminist — scrutinising the balance of power and equality within each relationship — and partly literary. 'Literary' not just because at least one half of each couple is a writer — 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 — but in the wider sense that the act of living involves imposing a narrative form onto our experience. Marriage — and Rose was concerned with the long-term nature of these partnerships, not their legal status — was thus fascinating to the biographer-critic, because it takes the same life experience and gives us two (often contrasting) narratives of it. 
So Ruskin is able to see his failure to consummate his marriage as a choice, and his wife's desire for company as wilful and petty — while Effie sees him as strange and cold, brutal in his refusal to accommodate her normal human desires. Dickens' marriage provides a different sort of example, in which Dickens' own narrative changes. In the early years, Dickens was thrilled with being married: his household was arranged for him, the distraction of romantic entanglements was curbed, he could focus wholly on work – and children seemed only to make him happy. "He enjoyed himself as a family man, the centre of a growing circle of devoted people. He took satisfaction in how well he was able to provide for them." It was only after 15 years that Dickens decided that his wife and he were absolutely mismatched. The amiability and willingness to go along that had made Catherine a perfectly adequate partner now appeared to him as supine acquiescence. He transferred onto her all his dissatisfaction with the marriage, even — in a bizarre but recognisable pattern — the responsibility for her continuing pregnancies."
This column continues on the Sunday Guardian site. Read all of it here.

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