Review: The Victorian and the Romantic - Nell Stevens

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My Rating: ★★★★

Genre(s): Nonfiction, Memoir, History

Reading Challenge: 21 out of 35

Goodreads Synopsis

In 1857, English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell completed her most famous work: the biography of her dear friend Charlotte Bronte. As publication loomed, Mrs. Gaskell was keen to escape the reviews. So, leaving her dull minister husband and dreary provincial city behind, she set off with her daughters to Rome. There she met a dazzling group of artists and writers, among them the American critic Charles Eliot Norton. Seventeen years her junior, Norton was her one true love. They could not be together--it would be an unthinkable breach of convention--but by his side and amidst that splendid circle, Mrs. Gaskell knew she had reached the "tip-top point of [her] life."


In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her PhD--about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-19th century--and falling head over heels for a soulful American screenwriter in another city. As her long-distance romance founders and her passion for academia never quite materializes, she is drawn to Mrs. Gaskell. Could this indomitable Victorian author rescue Nell's pursuit of love, family and a writing career?
Lively, witty, and impossible to put down, The Victorian and the Romantic is a moving chronicle of two women each charting a way of life beyond the rules of her time.

My Thoughts

Here are the things I knew (or thought I knew) about Elizabeth Gaskell before reading this book:

  • She wrote some classic novels, including North and South (but I don’t remember any other titles)

  • She was an author in 19th century Britain

  • She wrote a highly controversial biography about her dear friend, Charlotte Brontë after her death

And that’s literally it. But there is so much more to her than what meets the eye. That’s sort of my favourite thing about history - oftentimes, some of the best figures in history are actually the most overlooked.

Nell Stevens told a (somewhat fictionalized?) autobiographical story about her troubles navigating the post-grad educational world as well as her romantic life while slowly building a strong friendship with Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell, a relationship that was unaffected by time or distance. I thought that her story was super relatable. She really showed the difficulties and awkwardness of academia, something I’ve grappled with since the moment I went into university. It’s a cut-throat world and from what I can tell, it only gets worse in grad school! Lol. But I found it relieving to see her fumbling around, uncertain of what she was doing or what she wanted. I also loved seeing the development of her relationship with Max, how she came into her own and found her footing in her own direction.

Most of all, this book made me really interested in the life of Elizabeth Gaskell. Do not believe what you’ve heard!! Victorians were not prudish, boring people. They could be very complex and saucy even. Elizabeth Gaskell was a married woman who was engaged in a flirtation with a much younger man whilst on a trip to Rome without her husband - quel scandale. It was actually so interesting to read about and I intend to read more about this fascinating woman in the future!

Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Gaskell?

Felicia x