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Marriage and Morals
Among the Victorians
When Lytton Strachey was asked to propose a toast to his EminentVictorians, he quoted an eminent Victorian biographer:"When I hear men called `judicious,' I suspect them; but whenI hear them called judicious and venerable,' I know they arescoundrels." Strachey amended this to describe his own credo:"When I hear people called `Victorians,' I suspect them. Butwhen I hear them called `Eminent Victorians,' I write theirlives."
Strachey wrote their lives to expose them, to reveal the privateselves behind the public façades, the private vices that belied theirpublic virtues. His book, published toward the end of the FirstWorld War, was his personal declaration of war (he refused toserve in his country's war) against the Victorian pieties andhypocrisies, as he saw them, which still governed society—andwhich also governed the writing of biography, those multi-volumetomes that told everything about their subjects except theessential truth. A later generation, further removed from theVictorians and still more removed from the Victorian mode ofbiography, has learned to be wary of the "essential" truth conveyedby the Strachey technique: the derisory physical detail(Thomas Arnold's legs, which were "shorter than they shouldhave been"); the revealing mîse-en-scène (the open Bible next tothe open brandy bottle on General Gordon's table); the list ofpeculiar names ("St. Bega, St. Adamnan, St. Gundleus, St. Guthlake,BrotherDrithelm ...") which made a mockery not onlyof the Lives of the Saints but of the very idea of sainthood. Weare now as apt to be suspicious of Strachey's Eminent Victoriansas he was of the eminent Victorians themselves.
For all his irreverence, however, Strachey did the Victoriansthe honor of dealing with those aspects of their lives that madethem eminent; it was their moral earnestness, their military heroism,their social service, their religious piety that he ridiculed.And his ridicule was so patent that the reader knew it for that,knew that the public persona was being measured against theprivate, and by that standard found wanting. More recently it hasbecome the fashion to dwell on the private lives of historicalfigures, not to illuminate or even to expose their public lives butto discover some essential truth that is essentially private, and thatis as essentially true for a public or historical person as for anordinary, private person. If the eminent continue to be the subjectof study, it is because they are so eminently accessible; they haveleft so much more evidence about their lives, public and private,than the "anonymous masses." The biographer may not even haveany conscious animus against the eminent, any desire to condemnor ridicule them. Yet they are inevitably diminished when thatwhich is peculiarly great about them, which made them publicfigures in their time and historic personages for us, is ignored.
A case study in the new mode of inquiry is Parallel Lives: FiveVictorian Marriages, by Phyllis Rose. The title itself is suggestive.Plutarch's Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, the authorreminds us, was meant to instruct the reader about the "perils andpitfalls of public life"; the present volume is meant to do the sameabout domestic life. These five Victorian marriages, however,hardly typify the domestic life of the Victorians. They are,indeed, the most unrepresentative couples one can imagine, bothbecause of their eminence and because of their peculiarities. Thefive are the Carlyles, the Ruskius, the Mills, the Dickenses, andGeorge Eliot and George Henry Lewes. To anyone having theleast acquaintance with Victorian literature, these couples arenotorious for the "irregularity"—that wonderful Victorian word—oftheir relationships. Two pairs (the Carlyles and Ruskins)never consummated their marriage; one (Eliot and Lewes) livedtogether without benefit of marriage; another (the Mills) had along-standing, intimate (if platonic, as they insisted) relationshipwhile she was married to another man; and the fifth (the Dickenses)separated when he fell in love with another woman. Theseparticular subjects were chosen, we are told, for their variety andnarrative interest, which makes one wonder why there is noexample of that other deviant variety not uncommon at the time,the homosexual. Or, for that matter, that still more common (butless commonly written about) variety, the properly married,sexually compatible, conventionally devoted couple who mighteven qualify as interesting (the Darwins come to mind).
The stories of these five couples are familiar enough; each hasbeen the subject of long and detailed study. What is novel is thetheme uniting them. Marriage—or "parallel lives," as Rose prefers,to emphasize the separateness of the partners—is presentedas a political experience, indeed, "the primary political experiencein which most of us engage as adults." Like any political experienceit involves power, the management and balance of powerdetermining the "priority of desires" of the two partners. Amarriage is sustained so long as there is a mutual understandingof the terms of the balance of power and mutual gains to bederived from it; it fails when the terms are violated or are nolonger satisfactory, when "the weaker member feels exploited orthe stronger feels unrewarded for his or her strength." Love is themask used to "disguise transactions involving power"; it is the"ideological bone thrown to women to distract their attentionfrom the powerlessness of their lives." It may momentarily "inhibitthe process of power negotiation," thus promoting the"illusion of equality so characteristic of lovers." If this inhibitioncomes from within, it is "one of life's graces and blessings." Butif, as is often the case, it comes from without, if it is "culturallyinduced" or desired more by one sex than by the other, it is a"mask for exploitation."
It is a powerful thesis (the pun is irresistible), powerfullystated, with some interesting turns to redeem it from banality.Divorce, we are told, so far from ameliorating or correcting theinequities of marriage, compounds them which does not mean,Rose hastens to add, that she would like less divorce, only lessmarriage. "Bad enough to choose once in a lifetime whom to livewith; to go on choosing, to reaffirm one's choice day after day,as one must when it is culturally possible to divorce, is reallyasking a lot of people." It was better in the old days, whenindissoluble unions were combined with "a great deal of civilizedbehavior—in other words, secrecy, even lying—for the sake ofharmony." Or better yet, the way of the future: "frankly personalunions entered into personally, with carefully articulated andindividualized pledges of fidelity, if any."
In view of the boldness of the thesis, one may be surprised thatit appears (intrudes, an unsympathetic reader might say) onlyoccasionally in the course of the book. Yet it is precisely itsboldness that makes it relatively unintrusive. If every kind ofmarriage—regardless of the peculiarities of character, circumstance,sentiment, or sexual disposition is a form of "sexualpolitics," it is enough to record the manifold ways in which these"imaginative projections and arrangements of power" revealthemselves. No judgment is called for because all such arrangementsare equally political. Thus sexless marriages can be tolerantlydescribed as "examples of flexibility rather than of abnormality."And sympathy can be extended impartially to everyoneunwittingly caught up in these power relationships, the exploitedand the exploiters being alike victims of an institution morepowerful than they, which oppressed them even as they oppressedtheir mates.
There is another reason why the thesis is more prominent inthe prologue than in the rest of the book and in some chaptersmore than in others, and that is that it is so often irrelevant tothe case in point. If it appears hardly at all in the account of theRuskins, it is because the only kind of power that is at issue hereis sexual potency, in which Ruskin was sadly lacking—and thisis not, presumably, what the author has in mind when she speaksof marriage as a "projection" of power. Ruskin did not evenchoose to use what legal power he had to prevent his wife fromleaving him, or, later, to contest the annulment. Since there is noevidence of this kind of "political" power, the author makes themost of the conspicuous failure of sexual power. Ruskin's impotencethus becomes the occasion for generalizations about the sexlife of the Victorians.
Ruskin's was a notorious case in his own time and continuesto fascinate biographers. And for good reason—it is not oftenthat the subject of a biography provides so many titillating detailsabout his intimate life. In a letter to his lawyer, Ruskin explainedthat he did not consummate his marriage on his wedding nightbecause he was repelled by the sight of his wife's body. There wassomething wrong with it, he felt; it was not as he had imaginedit; it was "not formed to excite passion." One theory has it thathe was especially repelled by her pubic hair and possibly by herbreasts, his image of the female body having come from thehighly idealized, de-sexualized nudes he was familiar with inpaintings and statues. This would also explain his later attractionto little girls not marred by the unsightly evidence of maturity.Rose is intrigued by this explanation: it offers proof of the"radical innocence" of the Victorians, and, better yet, of thepower of art over experience. Unfortunately, she adds, it wasprobably not true, Ruskin having told his parents that he had seenpictures of "naked bawds" while at Oxford. (And were thosepainted nudes—by Raphael or Rubens, for example—as asexualand immature as this theory supposes?)
Whatever the source of Ruskin's impotence (presumablypaintings and statues were the least of it), Rose is less interestedin what was peculiar about Ruskin's wedding night than in whatwas typical about it, the light it sheds on "Victorian sexuality."And what was typical was the ignorance and inexperience thatmade the Victorian wedding night a "barbaric trial" for at leastthe woman, and sometimes the man as well. That experience wasall the worse because sexual relations, having been utterly forbiddenbefore marriage, became an absolute requirement after marriage—acertain prescription for impotence and frigidity. Whilethe Ruskins were not a representative couple, their plight was"probably less extraordinary and eccentric than one might thinkat first." Were it not for a footnote at this point, one might letthis statement pass for the speculation it frankly is. But the noteitself, raising the expectation of proof, only makes the generalizationmore dubious, for it cites a similar and even more unsubstantiatedspeculation concerning an equally unrepresentative andthoroughly un-Victorian figure, the American poet DelmoreSchwartz.
The question of proof is almost irrelevant, however, for thethesis is so comprehensive it can accommodate itself to any formof sexual or domestic behavior, any symptoms of normality orabnormality, any kind of adjustment or maladjustment, any evidenceof frigidity or fertility. If marriage itself is anomalous, ifthe legal commitment itself taints any relationship, then any ofits manifestations must be equally anomalous. The footnote aboutDelmore Schwartz, for example, goes on to explain that evennow, when premarital sex is the rule rather than the exception,there may be "wedding night trauma," although of a differentkind. "Can society's sudden approval quench one's private pleasuresas society's disapproval did before?" It is not clear what ismeant by "society's sudden approval," if indeed premarital sex isso prevalent and acceptable. But one takes the point: a permissivesociety creates its own traumas—and not only, one may add, onthe wedding night but also in that supposedly voluntary, spontaneous,premarital period unfettered by legal bonds.
If some Victorians were rendered impotent by the prevailingsexual code and marital fetters, others, brought up under thatsame code and bound by the same ties, were evidently sexuallystimulated to a degree that could not be contained within marriage.Charles Dickens was one such. After twenty-two years ofmarriage and ten children, Dickens moved out of his home,arranged for a legal separation from his wife, and entered intoa long-standing affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. The situationwas one that might be expected to evoke the sympathy of acommentator who takes so dim a view of marriage, who thinks"personal unions" more meaningful than legal ones, and, in theabsence of such an enlightened alternative, recommends marriagecombined with "a great deal of civilized behavior"—i.e., clandestineaffairs.
Dickens was twenty-four when he married, his wife twenty-one.Within nine months of their wedding, their first child wasborn and his first successful book published. Thereafter he siredas many books as children, each book taking him further awayfrom a wife who was ineffectual even in the household, still morein the literary and social world (to say nothing of the private,creative world) inhabited by England's premier novelist. It wasan all-too-familiar, and not peculiarly Victorian, situation, andDickens handled it in the all-too-familiar way, with protestationsof innocence and professions of outrage that he should be somaligned as to be accused of having an affair. Rose admits thatDickens's life after the separation was far happier than it had beenbefore, and confesses some sympathy for his "flailing againstmiddle age and domesticity," for "living as though no one hadever lived before." She nevertheless chastises him for his "ungentlemanlybehavior" (as a Victorian would put it), and presentshim as a "fine example of how not to end a marriage." Therebuke is worthy of a good Victorian, but it comes oddly froman opponent of marriage and a proponent of sexual liberty. Onewonders whether she would have been so severe on a wife whoexhibited such "unladylike behavior."
Another kind of double standard is evident in the discussionof the Mills. Here the wife was not the pathetic, vulnerablepartner but the aggressive, dominant one. Rose does not concealher distaste for Harriet Taylor, later Harriet Mill, who manipulatedboth of her husbands with as fine a disregard for theirsensibilities as for the conventions, whose domestic bullying wasmatched only by her intellectual arrogance, and whose self-esteemwas as inordinate as Mill's uxoriousness. It was she whoread and approved of those extraordinary passages in Mill's Autobiographyin which he praises her as superior to himself intellectually,emotionally, and aesthetically, her mind the "same perfectinstrument" in penetrating into the "highest regions of speculation"as into the "smallest practical concerns of daily life." Shelleywas but a child "in thought and intellect" compared with her;Carlyle could only be interpreted "by one greatly the superiorto us both—who was more a poet than he, and more a thinkerthan I"; Coleridge and the German poets and philosophers werean amalgam of truth and error, whereas in her, "I could not, asI had done in those others, detect any mixture of error"; his ownfather had no equal among men and "but one among women."After that it comes almost as an anticlimax to find Mill endowingher with "excellencies" so unique that "the highest poetry, philosophy,oratory, or art, seemed trivial by the side of her, andequal only to expressing some small part of her mind." Nor isit surprising to find him altering crucial passages in his Principlesof Political Economy, against his own judgment and in spite of thelogic of the argument of the book, "even if there were no otherreason than the certainty I feel that I never should long continueof an opinion different from yours on a subject which you havefully considered."
This record of self-deception and self-abasement is, at firstsight, disconcerting. "How splendid it would be," Rose observesruefully, "if we could find in the Mills' marriage whatthey hoped we would find, an exemplary model." Instead, wefind a reversal of the patriarchal model: "A female autocratreplaced the usual male." This was much the view of Mill'sfriends, one of whom described him as in a "state of subjection"to his wife (an ironic play on the title of Mill's famous essay,"The Subjection of Women"). But unlike his friends whothought this a violation of the natural order of things, andunlike later commentators who think it a violation of his ownprinciple of the "perfect equality" of the sexes, Rose makes ofit a higher principle, a more advanced form of equality. Millmust have been aware, she argues, that by claiming to be hiswife's inferior he was "altering the usual allocation of powerbetween the sexes." It was precisely because this "great experiment,"the attempt to create "a true marriage of equals," was sounusual that it required unusual measures. Unwittingly echoingOrwell's Animal Farm, in which some pigs are more equal thanothers, Rose explains that "for Harriet to be anywhere nearequal she had to be `more than equal.'" "Think of it," shesuggests, "as a domestic case of affirmative action. To achieveequality, more power had to go to Harriet, in compensation forthe inequality of their conditions."
It is curious to find, in this insistently political interpretationof marriage, so little concern for the actual political ideas (or, forthat matter, ideas of any kind) of the individuals. Was there acorrelation between liberalism and marital liberality? Betweenradicalism and sexual liberation? Between conservatism and domesticauthoritarianism? Even within the limited scope of thisbook, in the lives and minds of these five couples, there is matterenough for speculation, if not for generalization. Ruskin, Dickens,Mill, Eliot, Carlyle—they were all people of strong politicalconvictions. Yet only in the case of Carlyle does politics cometo the fore, and then only in terms of a single incident, the famousEyre case.
Edward Eyre was the colonial governor of Jamaica in 1865when a riot resulted in the death or torture of dozens of whitesettlers. In suppressing the riot (which Eyre declared to be arebellion), government troops killed almost a hundred blacks,court-martialed and executed hundreds more, and flogged andtortured still others. When news of the event reached England,it provoked a heated controversy that went on for years in thepress and Parliament and that was not quelled by the appointmentof a Royal Commission or by the dismissal of Eyre. In thisaccount, the two sides in the controversy appear as a line-up of"two hockey teams ranged for the face-off." Opposing Eyre werethe "liberals and scientific progressives": Mill, Darwin, Huxley,Spencer, Lewes; defending him were the "romantic authoritarians":Carlyle, Dickens, Tennyson, Tyndall, Kingsley. To aknowledgeable reader, the names themselves suggest the inadequacyof these labels. But Rose sees the affair as symptomatic ofall the "great democratic movements" of the century—"emancipation,nationalism, universal suffrage, women's rights, eventrade unionism"—in each of which progressives sought a redistributionof power while authoritarians regarded the status quo as"divinely ordained." Since marriage is also a matter of thedistribution of power, political authoritarianism is said to havea natural affinity with patriarchy and domestic tyranny.
It is an intriguing idea, or would be if there were any seriousattempt to demonstrate the correlation between sex and politics.Were trade unionists, for example, less tyrannical, as husbands,fathers, and lovers, than non-trade unionists? Or the supportersof Italian independence than those opposed or indifferent to it?Or little-Englanders than imperialists? Or, to be more specific,Gladstone than Disraeli? Is the correlation even true of the subjectsof this book? Was Eliot being patriarchal when she opposedfemale suffrage, as she did? Or Ruskin when he permitted hiswife to leave and gave her an uncontested annulment? Or Carlylewhen he married so strong-minded a woman and made no attemptto curb her tongue and pen—indeed, urged her to read andwrite, and not casually but seriously?
And what of Jane Carlyle herself, who, in spite of her husband'sencouragement, did not do any serious writing but didhave trenchant opinions and was in the habit of expressing themincisively? She, it appears, was as vehement a supporter of Eyreas he was, and she evidently came to this position on her own.At a dinner party, in the absence of her husband, she found herselfengaged in conversation with an irate man who would have likedto see Eyre, as she reported it, "cut into small pieces and eatenraw." He told her that women might patronize Eyre, becausethey were naturally cruel, but that no man would stand up forhim. "I hope Mr. Carlyle does," she retorted. "I haven't had anopportunity of asking him; but I should be surprised and grievedif I found him sentimentalising over a pack of black brutes!"This is hardly the kind of "progressive" sentiment Rose mightbe expected to approve of. Yet it is Jane Carlyle who emerges,only a few pages after this quotation, as the principal "heroine"of the book, and this in the closing sentences where the statementcarries the largest weight.
Feisty Jane went down fighting, demanding equal time, and writing about it all in marvelous prose which just might outlast her husband's. Because of her, the Carlyles' marriage seems, in the strange afterlife which literature grants, to be also a marriage of equals, where equality consists—as perhaps it must, in an imperfect time such as hers, or ours—in perpetual resistance, perpetual rebellion.
Excerpted from MARRIAGE AND MORALS AMONG THE VICTORIANS by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Copyright © 2001 by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction to the 2001 Edition||ix|
|1.||Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians||3|
|2.||A Genealogy of Morals: From Clapham to Bloomsbury||23|
|3.||The Victorian Trinity: Religion, Science, Morality||50|
|4.||Social Darwinism, Sociobiology, and the Two Cultures||76|
|5.||Bentham Versus Blackstone||94|
|8.||Who Now Reads Macaulay?||163|
|9.||Disraeli: The Tory Imagination||178|
|10.||The Webbs: The Religion of Socialism||192|
|11.||Michael Oakeshott: The Conservative Disposition||210|