cover image The Victorian and the Romantic

The Victorian and the Romantic

Nell Stevens. Doubleday, $26.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-385-54350-7

Stevens (Bleaker House) movingly interweaves her love life with that of 19th-century English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell in this lyrical work. In 2013, Stevens, a graduate student studying mid-19th-century British expat life in Rome, fell in love with an emotionally distant American named Max while both were pursuing advanced degrees. As she fought for Max’s attention, she began to explore the relationship between the married Gaskell and the younger, aloof American critic Charles Eliot Norton, with whom Gaskell fell in love while on holiday in Rome in 1860. She alternates the first-person chapters of her own life with second-person chapters on Gaskell’s. When Stevens decided to move on from Max and look for love elsewhere, he suddenly became romantically involved with her—but the relationship was fraught and ended with Stevens so distraught that she couldn’t “think about anything that isn’t Max, and at some point overnight I must have crawled onto the floor.” Eventually, Stevens rewrites her own ending, offering three outcomes to her story—the one that actually happened, and two others she imagines. She also gives Gaskell an alternate ending to her romance. Steven nimbly explores the complexities of unrequited love, and of the camaraderie she formed with a writer who lived more than a century earlier. (Aug.)