A splendid portrait of two Victorian ladies.
Markus (Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, 1995, etc.) expands her exploration of odd Victorian couplings by pairing two renowned women of the period whose lives converged just long enough for the author to cast them in the same filtered light: the wildly successful and enterprising American actress Charlotte Cushman (1824–76) and the brilliant but self-effacing Scottish toast of literary London, Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801–66). Although the author’s study is mostly a biography of the self-made Cushman, a good third of it offers up the self-unmade Carlyle and then links the two as foils in the fruits of their respective life choices. In marrying Thomas Carlyle, Jane Welsh forswore her intellect and passion for his, famously contorting her own creative genius into the forms of hostess, wife, and correspondent. Cushman, ultimately portrayed as the braver and wiser of the two, fared better. Defying most conventions of the day, Cushman played Romeo and Hamlet to international acclaim, comfortably supported herself and her loved ones through shrewd business investments, and shied away from marriage—devoting herself instead to an impressive array of female lovers. Markus portrays the self-reliant actress in hushed 19th-century terms, avoiding evocative 20th-century words like “lesbian” and “feminist.” And perhaps this is the work’s oddest couple: romanticized, veiled language juxtaposed with the author’s mission to reveal these “hidden” lives. But Markus does pay ample attention to the circles both women drew around them (Cushman in Rome, Carlyle in London), highlighting fascinating aspects of all involved as they carved their niches in a man’s world.
More historical novel than critical analysis, but a lush, well researched, and very engaging read.