Admittedly, I am at the center of the demographic most likely to enjoy a memoir about having a passionate attachment to a female Victorian novelist, but “The Victorian and the Romantic,” a new book by the English writer Nell Stevens, about her same passionate attachment, would be utterly engaging even if you’d never heard of Mrs. Gaskell. (Indeed, Stevens’s American publisher is assuming you haven’t: in the U.K., the book is called “Mrs. Gaskell and Me.”) Elizabeth Gaskell, the once-popular author of “Mary Barton” and “North and South,” lived in the English city of Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century, and is now read principally by Ph.D. students, of which Stevens was one in the period she describes in this winning book. (It follows her début memoir, “Bleaker House,” a deft and funny account of trying and failing to write a novel while sequestered in the Falkland Islands.)
In “The Victorian and the Romantic,” Stevens weaves together two love stories. One is the rapport between the best-selling, middle-aged Gaskell and the much younger American critic Charles Eliot Norton, whom she meets while sojourning in Rome; the other is Stevens’s own long-distance relationship with an American writer named Max. She embeds both those narrative threads in yet another love story, that of her admiration and affection for Gaskell. The result is a gentle satire on the ways of academia—I was particularly amused by her description of a seminar discussing pig-human relations in Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure”—coupled with a painfully credible account of late-twenties love, freighted with all its unanswerable questions about the future. Stevens is a very artful writer—the structure she chooses is inspired—and the book builds to a surprising, and surprisingly moving, ending. “I had never encountered a writer who could fill a page so entirely with herself,” Stevens writes, of Gaskell. She does a pretty good job of it herself.
More Info: www.newyorker.com