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Haunted by a Victorian Novelist

THE VICTORIAN AND THE ROMANTIC
A Memoir, a Love Story, and a Friendship Across Time
By Nell Stevens
258 pp. Doubleday. $26.95.

What happens when the life of the person you spend your days studying starts to leak into your own? In “The Victorian and the Romantic,” her whip-sharp memoir, the British author Nell Stevens describes how she found herself increasingly haunted by the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, the author of “Mary Barton” and “North and South,” whom she had recently chosen as the subject of her Ph.D.

After a few false starts, Stevens decides to concentrate on the three months in early 1857 that Gaskell spent in Rome living among a colony of expatriate British artists and writers. The 46-year-old author had timed her flight from her home in rainy Manchester in terrified anticipation of reaction to her new book, a biography of her late friend Charlotte Brontë. Already Gaskell had received several intimations of legal action from people who believed that “The Life of Charlotte Brontë” had libeled them, including the family of the Rev. William Carus Wilson, founder of the criminally negligent boarding school for clergy daughters that appears in the opening chapters of “Jane Eyre” as the hellish Lowood.

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Along with strategic distance from what Gaskell called “the hornets’ nest” of voyeuristic reviews and outraged lawyers’ letters, her stay in Rome brought an entirely unexpected pleasure. She found herself falling in love with 29-year-old Charles Eliot Norton, the Boston Brahmin who later became a distinguished professor at Harvard. This being 1857 and Gaskell being securely married to a Unitarian minister, there is no suggestion that the holiday romance developed beyond an intense friendship, a kind of Jamesian encounter avant la lettre. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Norton remained crucially important to Gaskell, who would always wistfully refer to her Roman spring as the “tiptop point” of her life. She never saw Norton again, or visited America, but her correspondence with her new friend became one of the sustaining pleasures of the remaining eight years of her life.

While Stevens is meant to be theorizing about Gaskell’s Italian sabbatical in one of several ways suggested by her increasingly frustrated academic supervisor, what actually captures her imagination is the way Gaskell’s fugitive love affair uncannily echoes her own. For Stevens is also preoccupied with a charming Bostonian, a lawyer-turned-scriptwriter named Max, whom she has pursued for years and recently bedded in Paris. When she should be concentrating on graduate seminars on “The Role of the Doorstep in the Fiction of Charles Dickens” or “Pig-Human Relations in ‘Jude the Obscure,’” Stevens is actually working out how long she must wait until she can afford a Eurostar ticket to reunite with her lover.

There is a continuing literary trend in which (usually) female narrators twine their own life into that of a classic author: Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch” is one of the more successful efforts. What Stevens brings to the now-familiar form is an incisive wit that, more often than not, she deploys against herself. In one painful incident, she tells of splurging her student grant money at the beauty parlor in anticipation of a visit from Max, only to receive a last-minute announcement via Skype that he has decided to end their relationship.

Those who are familiar with Gaskell’s work — and she continues to inspire loving devotion around the world — may fret about the way Stevens has ruthlessly filleted the novelist’s life and reoriented it for her own purposes. Then again, this is exactly what Gaskell did to Charlotte Brontë in her revisionist (for which read “borderline-fictionalized”) biography, so one could argue that there is a neat symmetry in play. Certainly, there can be no doubt about the genuine affection that drives Stevens’s project. She draws her book to a close by furnishing Gaskell with a make-believe finale in which her heroine takes the longed-for trip to America and finds Norton waiting for her on the dock. By this point, it would take a stonyhearted reader to begrudge Elizabeth Gaskell her happy ending.

Kathryn Hughes’s latest book is “Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum.”

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