credit Constance Roisin

“Gossip is a really good thing”: Interview with Phyllis Rose

Constance talks to the author of Parallel Lives, to discuss the role of marriage both within the book and in society more broadly.

Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives, a study of five Victorian marriages, covers the ground of newlyweds, sexual disgust, affairs, ménage à trois, the mid-life crisis, re-marriage, love and revenge. It has become a cult classic, recommended by therapists to their patients, and is the book that Nora Ephron reread every four years. Emma Thompson, in a recent article for the New Yorker, mentioned: “gossip as Phyllis Rose describes it” (“I was thrilled”, Rose tells me). 

As an examination of marriage, Parallel Lives is built around private life and gossip. “Gossip is a really good thing”, Rose argues. “Women really benefit from gossiping, they understand much more about life, and they’re really better socialisers than men who don’t gossip, by and large.” Marriage is the stuff of great gossip, and we learn, through Rose’s book, the ugly side of some of the 19th century’s most important figures. John Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray is particularly uncomfortable. We open on the night of their marriage, where Effie undresses, and Ruskin awkwardly withdraws from her. This sexless state continued for six years until Effie was granted a rare divorce after an examination proved she was still a virgin. Rose, who has written elsewhere about Ruskin’s work, fears that the story of his life will eclipse his writing. More and more he is becoming a punchline: the man who was afraid of pubic hair.

Another example is Thomas Carlyle, who was the tutor to the “handsome, clever, rich” Jane Welsh (also a fantastic gossip, and therefore the person Rose most identifies with). Rose is retrospectively shocked by their relationship – “it wasn’t in my mind at all, but now I think oh my god: this is a story about grooming!” Despite this, Rose holds up the Carlyles (who begin and end Parallel Lives) as the best example, amongst a bad lot, of a successful marriage, because it lasted. “That’s really what marriage has got to do. It provides stability, not necessarily happiness. And it did, for them, even though he made her miserable.”

Then there is Charles Dickens, who really comes across as the villain of the piece. Adulterous and uncaring towards his constantly pregnant wife, Catherine Hogarth, he eventually leaves her, taking their children with him. Rose is very keen, however, to stress that none of this negates their work. The details of Dickens’ marriage have put some off his novels. “That’s very upsetting for me to hear and I’ve heard it quite a lot. I adore Dickens and I am horrified to hear that people are turned off reading his novels by reading about his private life.” Should you separate the art from the artist? “Yes, absolutely. I’m not much of a Freudian, but I do believe that anybody who chooses to spend most of their day writing is a peculiar bird and has peculiar problems, and is not putting themselves out as a model of how to live, nor should be looked to as a model of how to live.” She gives the example of Virginia Woolf (the subject of her 1978 biography, Women of Letters): “I would not have wanted to know Virginia Woolf, she would have been very nasty to me. A, she was anti-semitic, even though she was married to a Jew, and B, she didn’t like younger women who had any brains at all.”

Parallel Lives is a biography with the point, that there “is a power relationship within any couple. That it’s not all hearts and proposals on bended knees with diamonds hidden in fruitcakes and love forever and after. That there are power realities involved in a relationship like marriage.” This stance was, perhaps, more controversial than Rose realised. “I was very naive about the implications of a lot of what I was saying and I took for granted a lot of ideology that I wasn’t even aware of, both feminist and left-wing. So when the book came out in America, it got a very harsh review from a very right-wing critic, and I was thrilled because I didn’t realise that there was as much political heft to the book as there seemed to be.”

Another critic rebuffed the book as “anti-Victorian, anti-male, anti-marriage.” Rose, however, sees the book as, in the end, being optimistic about marriage. “I do! I think it’s a tribute to the institution in all the strange forms it takes. It’s just sceptical, well more than sceptical [she laughs] about traditional patriarchal conceptions of marriage.” And now, in the 21st century, is marriage worth our time? “I don’t know how one person manages to get through life [without partnership]. It’s just so complicated and demanding. And even when the partner is himself or herself complicated and demanding, it helps to have somebody else.”

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