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Trisha Gupta

Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (

The marrying kind: Domestic portraits from East and West

e tend to talk informally about other people's marriages and to disparage our own talk as gossip. But gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads us to self-understanding. We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves..." It was with this remarkable train of thought that Phyllis Rose set in motion her absorbing examination of the private lives of five 19th century couples — Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983). Her motives were partly feminist — scrutinising the balance of power and equality within each relationship — and partly literary. 'Literary' not just because at least one half of each couple is a writer — Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes — but in the wider sense that the act of living involves imposing a narrative form onto our experience. Marriage — and Rose was concerned with the long-term nature of these partnerships, not their legal status — was thus fascinating to the biographer-critic, because it takes the same life experience and gives us two (often contrasting) narratives of it.

So Ruskin is able to see his failure to consummate his marriage as a choice, and his wife's desire for company as wilful and petty — while Effie sees him as strange and cold, brutal in his refusal to accommodate her normal human desires. Dickens' marriage provides a different sort of example, in which Dickens' own narrative changes. In the early years, Dickens was thrilled with being married: his household was arranged for him, the distraction of romantic entanglements was curbed, he could focus wholly on work – and children seemed only to make him happy. "He enjoyed himself as a family man, the centre of a growing circle of devoted people. He took satisfaction in how well he was able to provide for them." It was only after 15 years that Dickens decided that his wife and he were absolutely mismatched. The amiability and willingness to go along that had made Catherine a perfectly adequate partner now appeared to him as supine acquiescence. He transferred onto her all his dissatisfaction with the marriage, even — in a bizarre but recognisable pattern — the responsibility for her continuing pregnancies.

More subtle equations of power are provided by the other marriages. Until Carlyle is wooing a reluctant Jane Welsh, he is insistent on her cultivating her gift for writing. As soon as she agrees to marry him, his encouragement of her ambition is replaced by a vision of her housewifely duties, her intellect and talent for organisation placed at the service of his literary career. Undeniably, though, Jane enters willingly into this vision of their life together. In Rose's remarkable summation: "He created himself with her help and support, she created herself, in service, in mockery, in resistance."

oon after I finished reading Parallel Lives, a very different series of 19th century marriages came my way via Aruna Chakravarti's Jorasanko — a fictionalised version of the lives of the women of the Tagore family. The novel is named for Jorasanko Thakurbari, the Tagores' ancestral home in Calcutta, the place where all the family's daughters-in-law arrived as little girls (and with few exceptions, stayed on till they died). Digambari was married at five to the 15-year-old Dwarkanath. Their son Debendranath married Saradasundari when she was six. Their sons did the same: Satyendranath married Gyanadanandini, aged seven, and Rabindranath married Mrinalini when she was ten and a half — and he was already a well-regarded poet. The practice of arranging marriages between teenage boys and girls often a decade younger meant, of course, that the relationship between husband and wife was an odd one — half-parental, half-sibling. Marital reminiscences were really about childhood: the young wife climbing a tree in search of a place to hide her fallen tooth. The question of individual and sexual compatibility could not arise where there was not a glimmer of choice. What there was instead, if all went well, was an internalisation of the idea of marriage that could form the basis of long — sometimes even happy — unions.

As Rose observes with her usual perspicacity, the justified feminist scepticism of marriage cannot belie its psychological purpose. "It provides limits within which one defines oneself, against which one can usefully rebel... One's relationship to a person known over years is unlikely to be 'happier' than one's relationship with a stranger (hence the perpetual appeal of strangers), but is qualitatively richer, deeper." Time and intimacy can create meaning, whether negative or positive.

Reading the two books side by side is an education in how culture shapes ethics. George Eliot must decide whether duty lies in pleasing family and friends by conforming to conventional moral codes, or in staying with the man she loved, even if he was officially married to another. Digambari's dilemma is the exact mirror image of Eliot's: did her duty lie in serving her husband, even if Dwarkanath had parted ways with dharma — or in rejecting him?

The marriages of Jorasanko may appear light years away; we may identify more with Eliot's personal code of ethics, where the seriousness one brings to a relationship triumphs over any social disapproval of it, or however uneasily, with Jane Carlyle. But Rose's Prologue ends with a twinkling-eyed imagining of a "marriage-less, anarchic, free-form" future. Thirty years later, in a week where the US has successfully extended the idea of the couple beyond the traditional man-woman partnership, it is clear that the narrative of parallel lives will be with us for some time still.

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