First, Nell Stevens wrote Bleaker House, a memoir about failing to write a novel. Now, in The Victorian and the Romantic, she has written a memoir about struggling to write her doctoral dissertation.
Writing about how writing is hard tends to be solipsistic and dreary, but these procrastination-born books have, instead, a kind of truant charm — like they know they should really be the other, more serious thing, the great work, but we're all here now so we may as well go get a drink.
Bleaker House is a shambling and appealing book about her time not writing a novel in a grim writer's-retreat-for-one in the Falkland Islands. Her new memoir, The Victorian and the Romantic, is an uneven but undeniably pleasant book; it braids Stevens's story of doing a PhD amid an uneasy love affair with imaginary scenes from the life of the 19th century English author Elizabeth Gaskell, who is the subject of Stevens's academic research.
Gaskell's story is centered on her deep and loving friendship — Stevens would say romance — with the American scholar Charles Eliot Norton. Stevens implicitly ties Gaskill's presumed desire for Norton to her own love for an American writer, Max, who is noncommittal and distant.
Stevens's story can feel paltry in comparison to Gaskell's, not because she hasn't lived an interesting life but because the only thing she seems to find important in it is Max — who has no defining characteristics aside from being American and emotionally unavailable. It is frustrating to watch so much intelligence and feeling poured into a person-shaped hole.
The Victorian and the Romantic is written fluidly — so fluidly, in fact, that I wished there were more texture: There is little particular beauty or strangeness for the reader to snag on, just a pleasant stream of clean writing.
There is also slight notice paid to Gaskell's own writing: This book has none of the tender attention to language that, for instance, Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch has. None of the writer's novels are especially illuminated — and neither is Mrs. Gaskell, whose life and ideas appear in quoted flashes, but who otherwise seems to have been modernized to fit our palates, drained of oddity and character.
Stevens writes to Gaskill in an intimate second person that seems both deeply felt and wholly impersonal: "You were always lucky, Mrs. Gaskell; you were always grateful for what you had, and yet, all the same, you were restless."
It's tempting to consider people from other eras as our peers: Stevens thanks Mrs. Gaskell, in the acknowledgments as "my great friend," and the book's subtitle describes a "a friendship across time." Gaskell appears as a spirit hovering over Stevens's hospital bed during an emergency procedure, counselling her on life choices, like a therapist in a crinoline: "You have a choice to make..."
In these moments, Gaskell is made familiar and neighborly. Max, too, appears more as a screen for Steven's wishes than a real person.
At one point, Stevens writes about spiritualism, the 19th and early 20th century mania for "summoning" spirits — really the work of a con-artist making guesses about what people hoped to hear from dead loved ones. Like Stevens, those audiences felt a desire so strong they imagined entire people out of a few flickering lights.