“Parallel Lives” is a group biography of several notable Victorians and their marriages, including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill and various much-beloved or long-suffering or less-remembered spouses and paramours. It follows the ways in which people without easy access to divorce got very creative (which is to say very weird) in negotiating their breakups and makeups. Rose chose writers not because they are more inventive in living — far from it — but because they tend to be diligent reporters of their lives, leaving us more material to work with. Some of the famous figures have reputations that precede them, which Rose is careful to correct. Did the art critic John Ruskin turn celibate after seeing an actual adult woman naked for the first time? Well, not exactly, but his marriage did remain unconsummated. Did Dickens have an affair with his wife’s sister? Well, not exactly, but he was definitely a jerk, issuing a news release denying “whispered rumors” about his “domestic trouble” even as he sent his wife away and began an affair with a young actress. (As far as the public was concerned, the statement was a confirmation beyond rumor of his infidelity.)
The thrill of Rose’s book is seeing how those scandalous details became the foundation of actual societal change. To Rose, marriage is the primary political experience of adulthood, as intimate a contract with society as it is with your partner. Every society arranges strictures around the family, and often it’s by looking at individual relationships that we see how and where those strictures failed and what might replace them. It would be flattering to believe such codes were an antiquated mania we’ve long been free of, but that’s not quite true. It is, after all, still just five years since gay marriage became nationally available, eight since New York became the last state with no-fault divorce, 51 since the Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage.
Comparing the stories of how people live is how we start cracking these codes — how we discover new ideas about what a good life can look like. The search for more complex plots is the search for more ways of being a person. Marriages fail and couples split for many reasons, but this narration is always there: As long as we have our story straight, the couple says, we have an us. A good gossip knows that to hear these tales is not, on its own, invasive — that the story is as much for the couple as their presumed audience. Bad gossips, on the other hand, are just like bad readers: inattentive and unimaginative. They believe that stories exist to be solved and that behavior should be rated bad or good. I cannot help such people and have learned the hard way not to try.
This is what “Parallel Lives” will teach you: Intimacy is easy. Honesty is much harder. Gossip — where we reveal what we think is true about love and lust, power and politics, beginnings and endings — is what happens in between. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I had found the book earlier, but this is only a fantasy; reading it sooner would not have made me less stupid in marriage or less sad in divorce. It would have been nice, of course, to have more time with the permission Rose gave me to love gossip — more seasons to reread it and remember how the same stories change each time they’re told. But at least I have the rest of my life to tell people how much I hate Charles Dickens.
Source : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/25/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-phyllis-roses-parallel-lives.html613