I'm not quite ready to deliver ye olde righteous smackdown onto The Good Mother yet, because I'm re-reading another book I had to read in high school for comparison (and -- while I still don't believe in its conclusions, it's a WHOLE lot better this time around). But I don't feel quite like going to work on job searching or therapist-hunting after the unemployment debacle today, I'm going to write about a book I read while also reading Kushiel's Chosen.


This book, written by feminist Phyllis Rose, aimed to be a critical examination of marriage through looking at the lives of five unusual Victorian England-era marriages: Thomas Carlyle & Jane Welsh, John Ruskin & Effie Gray, John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor, Charles Dickens & Catherine Hogarth and Marian "George Eliot" Evans & George Henry Lewes. Rose's thesis was essentially that when people get married, they behave according to a certain script of what a marriage should be like, and conflict arises when the two members of the marriage are following divergent scripts. I guess that's kind of true, but I was more into it for, as she puts it, the "gossip" of what these marriages were like, and the book delivers.

I, of course, got the book for the Dickens & Hogarth section. It was pretty good. While it didn't tell me too much that I didn't know before fact-wise, I very much appreciated that Rose tried to get a sense of what Hogarth was like from the little scraps of her correspondence that still exist and had a clear amount of sympathy for her. This was actually the first time I really got a sense of her personality. Anyway, it was a nice change after Peter Ackroyd's treatment, which was something like, "Well, sure Dickens DID kick his wife out of his life and call her a crazy bitch in the press, but in his defense she was a Fatty MacFatFat* who couldn't get her depressing lard-ass off the couch to care of her kids anymore. Plus, she'd put on a little weight in her later years."

The treatment of most of the other marriages were also good. Of course, some were more interesting than others. While Jane Welsh seemed like a pretty unique woman, and I can see why Rose liked her, I didn't quite understand why I should like her so much. Maybe this is because I never read Carlyle, but for a writer who liked them so much that the Carlyles not only were the bookends of the book (the beginning of their courtship was the first chapter and the end of their lives the last) but also starred in interludes with all the other couples before Rose told the story of those couples ... I didn't quite get INTO Carlyle. Nothing about his life made me want to read about him. I know he was an important historian at the time but ... I don't know.

John Ruskin & Effie Gray I also felt like were just in there for the "Oh my God! The never had sex because Ruskin was afraid of tits. Or pubic hair. Or was a pedophile" factor. Which, okay, the story IS fucking bizarre and it's nice Gray got out of the relationship, but while it has the OMG! factor, their story didn't really stick with me.

I did like the story of George Eliot & George Henry Lewes. Rose said they were her favorite couple and I can see why. For not being married, they seem to have a very sweet relationship, with Lewes helping Eliot to grow into the writer she was intended to be with encouragement (and a fair bit of protecting her from unfair reviews), while they both enjoyed each other's company as the forgotten spinster and the cuckolded husband.

But the couple that really stayed with me was John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor. Like the Ruskins and the Carlyles, they had a mostly non-sexual relationship (Rose said they may have had sex when they were formally married), and yet it's impossible to deny how much these two needed each other. They got together after Taylor, who thought her husband was boring and hated having sex with him, went to her pastor for help and he suggested Taylor and Mill hang out. And Mill really appreciated this because he was going through a "Nothing in this world MATTERS!" freak-out and Taylor helped give him direction. In fact, near the end she was giving him so much direction that he pretty much wrote whatever she said for years to come.

Rose suggests that Mill was pretty much "henpecked" by Taylor. I don't know so much. Yeah, she pretty much told him what to do a lot ("We're capitalists, baby! Oh, wait ... no. My friends are big into this socialism thing. Can you re-write part of your book for me, pumpkin?") and he was cool with that because he pretty much worshiped the ground his wife walked on (after her death he called her smarter than Carlyle and more talented the Percy Shelly -- and everyone else was like "I don't think so, John"). But it also seemed like the man lacked direction.

Thinking about that couple made me wonder if artists who marry aren't necessarily following a certain script, but maybe the successful ones marry/happy to marry the ones who best serve their needs to work the most. Like, Dickens WANTED to have a family as a measure of his success -- so he marries a woman who is the daughter of someone in his field and who is pretty submissive and she gets the job done while her sisters (Mary and Georgina) flatter his ego. Mill didn't have any direction, so he marries someone who gives him direction. Eliot didn't have confidence, so she shacks up with someone who makes her feel better about herself. I don't know. Maybe it's just a difference in how I choose to see them (and marriage) versus how the author does.

By the way, the book was also interesting for its perspective on how issues were perceived from a feminist viewpoint in the 18th century. For instance, most feminists were anti-birth control, but not because they thought it meant murder. They were anti-birth control because women were considered the sexual property of their husbands, were in some sense raped by their husbands on a regular basis, and the wish not to get pregnant could be seen as a respite from that. However, take away the birth control and one of the few barriers were gone.

One day I'm going to use this when I talk about how the whole "But Susan B. Anthony was PRO-LIFE! Why do you hate on Susan B. Anthony?" argument is full of shit. But that's another story.



*"Mac" instead of "Mc" because she's Scottish, you know?
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