Phyllis Rose is an American author and former academic whose books include Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf and The Year of Reading Proust. She is best known for Parallel Lives, her acclaimed study of Victorian marriage as seen through the relationships of five literary couples including Effie Gray and John Ruskin, and Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens. The book is being reissued in a new edition with an introduction by Sheila Heti.
Parallel Lives first came out in 1983. What’s your relationship with it now?
I’m astonished by it. I’m very proud of the girl who wrote it. It’s miraculous that this girl knew so much, and was able to write so wittily.
Does that girl strike you as having been unnervingly wise?
“Unnerving” is a good word for it. I can’t tell you where that wisdom came from, except that the magic of biographical writing is that you get out of yourself: you’re up in the clouds, looking down on people. You get a distance that isn’t available to you in terms of looking at your own life.
How did the idea for the book come to you?
I had two models. The first was Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. The second was Diane Johnson’s book Lesser Lives, which was a biography of the first Mrs George Meredith, Mary Ellen Peacock. That was very important for me: the idea that there was someone there in the room [with a great writer], whose life was as important to her as his was to him. I’d written my PhD on Dickens, but it was never published. But I knew a lot about Victorian writers. The material sat in my mind, and then the early feminist movement gave me the point, which was to look at the structures which shape women’s lives.
Was it immediately apparent which couples you would write about?
Everything about the book seemed to fall into place. Jane Carlyle [best known for her letters, she married the historian Thomas Carlyle in 1826; they became a famously unhappy couple] was tremendously appealing to me, so I began with them. I wrote about their courtship and that gave me the book’s structure: for each couple, I would write about a different stage of their relationship. Effie and John Ruskin, for instance, were my newlyweds, and the Dickenses I wrote about in middle age. With each essay, then, I knew where to start, and where to stop.
I think George Eliot and George Henry Lewes are the beating heart of the book…
You might be right. Each couple reminded me of people I knew in real life. George Eliot reminded me of Annie Dillard [the Pulitzer prize-winning writer], who lived round the corner from me: her moral seriousness, her slight disconnection from the world. George Eliot the writer wouldn’t have existed without Lewes. He was one of those men who are proud of their wives, and are willing to put themselves at their service.
People like to say: oh, the Victorians were more like us than you think. But they really were very weird, weren’t they?
Absolutely, and that was a gift for me. Our culture has made us very different. They were pre-Freudian, so they weren’t self-conscious about expressing themselves. Look at Dickens. When he tired of Catherine, he just said: it’s my wife’s fault. No one could get away with that now. These days, Catherine would be represented by [the high-powered women’s rights lawyer] Gloria Allred or something.
Does it worry you that people are currently so unwilling to separate art and life, with the result that writers like Dickens are in danger of being “cancelled”?
Yes. I try never to forget that men like Ruskin or Dickens, who were naughty or sick or cruel, produced things that affected people for generations. You don’t want to slap the hand of a genius – at least, I don’t. The worst reaction to Parallel Lives is when people say: I used to read Dickens with pleasure, but I won’t any more, because of how he treated his wife. It is disappointing, and incredibly small-minded. These people are looking for reasons to dismiss writers. They won’t see the bigger picture. It upsets me that while people still associate Ruskin with this mythology over the pubic hair [the story goes that Ruskin did not consummate his marriage to Effie Gray because he was disgusted by the sight of her pubic hair], no one ever sits down and reads Modern Painters or Praeterita [his autobiography], or even looks at his watercolours, which are astonishing.
In the prologue to Parallel Lives, you say that gossip is the beginning of moral inquiry. Do you stand by that?
Yes, I think that’s true. It’s the reason that women in general have finer sensibilities than men. They’re used to talking about other people’s behaviour. Men don’t do that, and they’re a little morally dull.
Is biography just high-class gossip?
I feel that it’s an art form, but also that it’s never definitive. When I was writing about Virginia Woolf in 1979, her nephew Quentin Bell was about to publish his own book about her. I was anxious. It seemed to me that what I had to say about her – which had to do with the fact that being a woman was central to the way she saw life – was so obvious that he would say the same thing. But though he wrote a great book, he didn’t see that, and I was so happy and relieved.
You also say in your prologue that human beings invoke love at moments when they want to disguise transactions, like marriage, that involve power. Do you still see marriage like that?
Women may be less inclined now to be hoodwinked by romantic folderol. But power still resides in marriage, and the stuff about weddings is still incredibly potent, which is why it gets Instagrammed. That’s part of the cover-up.
What are you working on now?
A book about the relationship between the Jesuit priest and geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin [1881-1955], and an American woman in Paris who was married to a communist. It’s about friendships that begin in erotic attraction, but don’t end there…
• Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose is published by Daunt Books (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837