I came across a copy of Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose at a library book sale. I have passed by copies of the book many times, but did not decide to read it until I bought a copy. I am a slow nonfiction reader typically, and I read this slowly, but I found it so captivating that I couldn’t wait to have a moment to pick it up and dive back in.
Why did I find a book about five Victorian marriages so captivating? For one, Rose illustrates just how rich and complex her subject is-for one, by choosing important intellectuals and writers of the time. She looks at the marriages of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. George Eliot and George Lewes were the only couple who weren’t, in the eyes of the law, married at all, and their union was the happiest of them all. But beyond happy or unhappy, these glimpses into the domestic lives of the Victorians reflect how many of the values and assumptions of their time still crop up in today’s debates about marriage.
Rose keeps plying home her belief that things are always more complicated than our society wants to make them. “Easy stories drive out hard ones. Simple paradigms prevail over complicated ones.” And the stories we choose to tell about ourselves have a lot to do with how we live and see our lives and our connections to other people.
Parallel Lives did exactly what I hope to find when I pick up a nonfiction book-it made me care about something I thought I had no interest in. I found that every chapter brought up thought-provoking and fascinating food for thought.
This would be a wonderful book for discussion. It offers no easy answers. And its subjects offer up so many possibilities for further reading. You could read this book in conjunction with a novel by Charles Dickens, and talk about how his work’s embrace of domestic sanguinity was contradictory to his life choices. You can read John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women or On Liberty, with the thought that his wife, Harriet Taylor, had a hand in his writing. Or you can read Middlemarch, and discuss how her views of marriage and society’s views were explored in her fiction. Like I said, lots to discuss.