Parallel Lives illuminates the mechanisms by which the stories we tell – about our own lives as well as those of people long dead – are structured by our own need for narrative fulfilment, and vice versa. It might not be enough to rescue the Catherine Dickenses of the world, but it teaches us to look at who, in the official marital record, is playing the role of narrator.
Couples therapy, then, with Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle (married, impotent, enduring); Effie Gray and John Ruskin (married, unconsummated, divorced); Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill (married, sexless, intellectually intimate); Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens (married, ten children, separated, acrimonious); and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes (unmarried, devoted, till death do us part). If this is a book about who to marry and how to stay married, it is also a book about how to write — solitary, selfish — within a partnership. It is about power, sex, shared bedrooms and who goes out to bat against the neighbours when the cockerel starts crowing at dawn.