Home » Romance » ‘The Victorian and the Romantic’ Review: A Doctorate in Desire

‘The Victorian and the Romantic’ Review: A Doctorate in Desire

29 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

 As a burgeoning memoirist, Nell Stevens specializes in starting out in the wrong direction. In 2013 she went off to the Falkland Islands to write a novel. She ended up writing a memoir about not writing a novel, published last year as “Bleaker House.” In this year’s memoir—“The Victorian and the Romantic”—she details her efforts to finish her dissertation on the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and describes her pursuit of love instead.

In parts of Ms. Stevens’s narrative, former graduate students will recognize the narrow monomanias of early attempts at scholarship: the gnomic comments from advisers, the Sitzfleisch in rare-book rooms, the heart-stopping error in a transcribed quotation. But that’s all really just background for Ms. Stevens’s grande passion: Max. Even as she waxes lyrical about Max’s “tousled black hair,” “the reassuring thickness of his forearm” and the charm of his “chin, or his waist, or his knees,” Ms. Stevens is conscious that “other people’s desires . . . are always hard to comprehend.” As she notes, “former passions of my own . . . seem overblown and embarrassing with hindsight.” And yet she cannot resist the all-too-human desire to see her own feelings for Max reflected everywhere around her. Which takes us to back to Elizabeth Gaskell.

Outwardly, the journeys of Ms. Stevens and Mrs. Gaskell are quite dissimilar. In 1857, Gaskell, the middle-aged wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, traveled to Rome with two of her daughters to give herself a vacation after writing what turned out to be a ground-breaking biography of her recently deceased friend Charlotte Brontë. In 2013, Ms. Stevens, a doctoral candidate at King’s College London, took the Eurostar to Paris to meet up with her as-yet-unrequited love interest, a former MFA classmate whom she had gotten to know when she was studying in Boston.

Inwardly, however, Ms. Stevens identifies her own situation with Gaskell’s: embarked on a quest for a marriage of true minds. One member of Gaskell’s Roman circle was a younger man already famous for his gift for friendship, the sunny-natured Charles Eliot Norton. His father had had the distinction of being Emerson’s most disliked professor at Harvard, and he himself was a Harvard professor (in fine arts) as well as one of the co-founders of the Nation magazine. He showed his good literary judgment in writing the first positive review of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in 1855. From across the Atlantic he had already admired Gaskell’s novels, the best known of which today are “Cranford” and “North and South.” “A wonderful story-teller,” Norton had written of her, “never exaggerating and always dramatic.”

. . . .

Here, for instance, is a piece of a letter that Gaskell wrote to Norton four years after their time in Rome: “Oh! Don’t you long to go back to Rome. Meta & I were SO talking about you . . . and about your face as we first saw it,—and this morning comes your letter.” How did Gaskell feel as she wrote this sentence? Ms. Stevens believes Norton’s face was “an object of desire” that made Gaskell’s “heart thud and her cheeks flush.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Romance