Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans is the author, most recently, of “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters.”
Nell Stevens’s “The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, a Love Story, and a Friendship Across Time” is a book about writing a book. It is in some ways the opposite of Stevens’s debut, “Bleaker House” (2017), which was a book about not writing a book, specifically a novel on which she was procrastinating while encamped on a remote part of the Falkland Islands. This time, we know that Stevens will accomplish her goal, namely writing her PhD thesis at King’s College, London. And she will take us to much livelier spots: London, Paris, Boston, Los Angeles and Austin along the way.
The topic of Stevens’s thesis is the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and the largely American circle of artists and writers she befriended in Rome in 1857. Stevens documents how her thesis develops from the germ of an idea into an obsession, what her research reveals along the way and the shape the book takes as it intertwines itself with her life. The result is a fascinating, if at times frustrating, view into the enigmatic experience of authorship and the vagaries of love.
As any writer knows , stories have a way of worming their way into their creators’ lives. They don’t reside securely on the page or on a computer hard drive. Characters — fictional or nonfictional — become friends, objects of desire, sometimes even nemeses. Stevens shows how this happens more literally. In alternating chapters she explores her own life as it unfolds alongside Gaskell’s.
Author and subject are bound by doomed love affairs. Stevens has fallen in love with a Boston screenwriter named Max, who is living in Paris, where the two begin an affair. They visit the sights, eat in cafes and make love. Later, when Max has returned to the United States, Stevens spends a blissful summer with him but must then go back to her thesis and dreary London. While Stevens yearns for Max, who is mostly an ocean away, Gaskell sits in Manchester, England, yearning for the American scholar and writer Charles Eliot Norton. They met in Rome and instantly fell in love, spending their mornings lingering over breakfast before the rest of the house awoke, but Gaskell was married to a minister, so, in true Victorian fashion, she and Norton maintained a platonic yet treasured friendship. In their letters, the pair continued their attachment and deep understanding of each other until, finally, Gaskell learned he was to marry. She felt sick about it but could only smile and express her congratulations.
Meanwhile, the romantic Stevens plunges into a passionate affair that threatens to spiral out of control — and cause her to lose sight of her studies. It becomes clear that her only true object of desire is Max, even long after he has broken things off. While the resigned Gaskell looks back on those few months in Rome as the “tip-top point in my life,” Stevens continues to ache for an idealized past with Max, wondering if her “tip-top point” has already passed her by. Will she also spend her life, as Gaskell did, memorializing and romanticizing the past? Or could her “tip-top point” still be in front of her?
“The Victorian and the Romantic” is at its best when it shows the messiness of trying to recapture the past. Stevens’s thesis work begins with a quote from one of Gaskell’s letters that she is told she has misread and that, it turns out, scholars have interpreted in various ways. In one poignant moment, Stevens transcribes a handwritten poem by the sculptor William Wetmore Story, one of Gaskell’s friends in Rome, that reflects, in both theme and form, the very elusive nature of human understanding. One part of the poem reads: “Thought comes to its flower at times for an hour / In a moment — then withers and dies / And strive all we will with our utmost of skill / The [??] we seek, Life denies.” As here, her transcription is full of question marks, indicating how incomplete her comprehension must be.
Unfortunately, the book’s dual love story is less effective. The thread between Stevens and Gaskell is a thin one, and Stevens doesn’t turn the same critical lens on her memories of Max as on her attempts to reconstruct past lives. In the end, she turns away from being, as she says, a “critic” who takes a deeper look at herself and her relationship, in favor of becoming an “author” — of her own life and of fiction, presumably.
Stevens’s author biography announces that she is writing a novel. It will be interesting to see what she creates when she leaves her musings on the process of writing — or not writing — behind.
By Nell Stevens
258 pp. $26.95