by Phyllis Rose ‧ RELEASE DATE: Nov. 1, 1983
Mixing feminist disdain for ""the patriarchal ideal of marriage"" with wry, even-tempered curiosity and sympathy, Rose (A Woman of Letters) offers narrative essays on five famous Victorian couples--de-emphasizing the abnormal psychology that's often on view, stressing instead ""imaginative projections"" (each mate's literary/philosophical notion of marriage) and ""arrangements of power."" This approach is least persuasive in the case of John Ruskin and Effie Gray: though acknowledging that Ruskin's sexuality ""is a rich field for psychoanalytic speculation,"" Rose seeks ""the typical"" in that notorious wedding-night (familiar generalizations about Victorian sexuality); she sees the ensuing marital tension largely in terms of conflicting ideology, ""a clash of two sets of assumptions about power and authority""; and she brings no special illumination to a summary of the Ruskin/Effie/Millais triangle, which emerges more clearly in the two recent Ruskin biographies. Unimpressive, too, is the view of Charles Dickens' mid-life dumping of dullish wife Catherine--overstating, one feels, the impact of the melodrama The Frozen Deep on Dickens' piggish behavior and self-pitying, self-dramatizing attitude. (Rose, herself, in fact, seems less taken with this contrived thesis than with a plain presentation of ""a fine example of how not to end a marriage."") When the partners are less unequal or less neurotic, however, Rose's method works a good deal better. The epistolary courtship of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh is viewed from a multiplicity of angles, with Jane's reading of Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise given just the right weight; the nature of their marriage (""She sacrificed; he thanked her"") is vividly conveyed; and its breakdown, reflected in Jane's enraged posthumous journals, is almost--if not quite--convincing as a paradigm. (""The strains do not seem to result from the individual characters"" but from ""the structure of traditional marriage."") The John Stuart Mill/Harriet Taylor relationship--sexless adultery followed by probably-sexless marriage--is wittily rendered, with well-balanced attention to their idealized feminism, their concept of sensuality, their intellectual collaboration. . . and their arrival, nonetheless, at inequality. (""Harriet ran the show. . . . Mill's mind approved equality but his soul craved domination."") And Rose's ""favorite couple"" stars in the book's best sequence: the non-legal union of married George Henry Lewes and homely spinster Marian Evans--with George Eliot born out of Marian's ""belated acquisition of love"" (though Rose attacks the ""myth of George Eliot's dependency""), with 24 years of happiness founded on mutual devotion and a ""stoical, a tragic sense of life."" As an attempt to find general principles in some highly anomalous relationships, then, Rose's mosaic is often strained or obvious. As shrewd, stylish, close-up portraiture, however, it's entertainingly insightful about half the time--especially for those not already familiar with the biographical specifics.
Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1983
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983
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