In this tale of two writers, Nell Stevens interweaves her own life as a twenty-something graduate student with that of the English author, Elizabeth Gaskell. Although they are separated by more than 150 years, Nell finds herself drawn to the Victorian novelist by their shared experiences of unrequited love—Gaskell for an American critic she met in Rome, Nell for a soulful American screenwriter living in Paris. As Nell’s romance founders and her passion for academia fails to materialize, she finds herself wondering if the indomitable Mrs. Gaskell might rescue her 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.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Nell Stevens has a degree in English and creative writing from the University of Warwick, an M.F.A. in fiction from Boston University, and a Ph.D. in Victorian literature from King’s College London. She is the author of the memoir Bleaker House and is at work on a novel. www.nellstevens.com
Read an Excerpt
WHAT YOU HAD
1. A husband
When you wanted to talk about your husband, you talked about sermons. Sermons, you said, bored you. You sometimes called yourself a “sermon-hater.” In the front row of the Cross Street Chapel, you’d fidget, your mind would wander, as your husband, the minister, preached. You mused about the people in the pews around you—about their lives and secrets, the things that they were thinking about instead of listening to your husband—and when you came back to yourself you found you had missed almost nothing, he was still speaking, the congregation was still waiting in silence, coughing and sighing, crossing and uncrossing their legs.
Sermons, of course, were meant for good; were meant to help you, support you, reform you. And yet, all the same, they were dull, dull, dull, and what you really wanted was to feel something, do something: to be moved, to move, to love.
Your husband: the minister, Mr. Gaskell. Sequestered in his study in the middle of your house, in the middle of newly industrial Manchester, square in the middle of the nineteenth century, he was good to the core. He cautioned you when you were reckless or impulsive. He corrected the grammar of your letters before you sent them. He helped you, supported you, reformed you.
And you, Mrs. Gaskell, waited outside his study door; you raised a hand to knock, to see if today he would come to the parlour and sit with you and the girls. You wondered whether today, perhaps, you might find in your husband a conversation rather than a sermon. A faint tap, quiet enough that he could pretend, if he wanted, not to hear. You pressed your ear to the wood and listened until it was clear there would be no reply, and then you stood there far longer than you needed to, resting your cheek against the cool surface. You were always lucky, Mrs. Gaskell; you were always grateful for what you had, and yet, all the same, you were restless.
2. A career
Sometimes days on end went by in a blur of what you called Home Life—meals and clothes and correspondence, hosting and visiting—and by the end of it you were tired and grumpy, but not tired in the way you wanted to be. You lay awake, exhausted,your mind alert. Beside you your sleeping husband was eerily still. His body, his very breathing, was moderate, controlled. You imagined moving away, back to the village where you lived as a child, or even somewhere entirely foreign, where nobody knew you, and you could say you were unmarried and had no responsibilities.
You told stories all the time, to friends, to yourself; you exaggerated in letters, made up white lies that entertained you and seemed to entertain others too; you gossiped unapologetically. None of this was enough. There were stories left over. Lying awake in the night beside the motionless Mr. Gaskell, they overwhelmed you, and yet, you craved them.
You began to keep a diary. It was about the children, you said, to people who asked: a record of their development. But it was about you too—you couldn’t keep yourself and your stories out of it—and soon you moved on to articles about culture and country life, and sent them, sheepishly, to magazines. They appeared in print. Next, you published short fiction using a pseudonym: quiet, sad tales about ordinary people like the ones in church, about whose private lives you couldn’t help but wonder. And then you wrote a novel called Mary Barton, a great big pounding book about the people around you in the city, the ones you saw crammed into factories and warehouses and tenements, whose griefs you could only, and did, imagine. It became the sort of book that people bought and reviewed and talked about, and all of a sudden you had a career.
This thing you had now, this career, was all your own. It was a portal. It drew you away from Manchester, away from Mr. Gaskell, to new places and new acquaintances: painters, philosophers, critics. You became friends with Florence Nightingale. You became friends with Charlotte Brontë. At a party in London you met Charles Dickens, who complimented you on Mary Barton and you thought, for the rest of the night, over and over: Charles Dickens has read my book. Charles Dickens has read my book. Charles Dickens. You paid no attention to the earnest, impressed men and women who spoke to you after that. Your mind was fully occupied: Charles Dickens has read my book.
You went home. You wrote more books.
By the time you opened it, the letter was four days old. You had been in Paris and were still giddy from the memory of it. There had been parties in your honour at the house of Madame Mohl, and there had been cream cakes (never enough, but still) and best of all there had been Americans everywhere, intriguing and exotic. You had talked and talked and name-dropped more than you knew you should, and in particular you had boasted of how, thanks to you, your cherished friend Charlotte Brontë was happily married and soon to be a mother. Dear Charlotte: you had encouraged and cajoled her towards accepting the proposal of a smart, earnest curate called Mr. Nicholls; she had been reluctant; her father had disapproved; you had known better and helped her see that after all the hardship and grief of her life, a drop of domesticity was exactly what was needed. You had not, then, observed any conflict between your personal feelings about Mr. Gaskell, and your advice to Charlotte regarding Mr.Nicholls.
In Paris, people had listened to you. People had praised you. They had given you cake and sherry. In Paris, there had been all your favourite things at once.
At home, the letter was waiting for you, halfway down a stack of correspondence that had amassed from your weeks away. You worked your way down the pile, scanning for gossip. A girl you had known as a child was having marital problems after running up extravagant debts. A prominent writer was entangled in controversy over whether he was the true author of his works. The daughter of a distant cousin was turning twenty-one and considered pretty, would soon be engaged. And then, there it was: a note to say that your friend, Charlotte Brontë, was dead.
In place of a friend: a book. You began to think of writing The Life of Charlotte Brontë almost at once; it was an outlet for the sharp energy of your grief, and a distraction. You fired off letters to her father, her husband, her publisher, requesting every detail of her life and death, hoping, perhaps, to be asked to write a biography. And eventually the request came from old Mr. Brontë: Finding that a great many scribblers, as well as some clever and truthful writers, have published articles, in Newspapers,and tracts—respecting my Dear Daughter Charlotte, since her death—and seeing that many things that have been stated, are true, but more false . . . He wanted an official biography to set the record straight. You seem to me to be the best qualified for doing what I wish should be done, he said. Could my Daughter speak from the tomb, I feel certain, she would laud our choice.
Mrs. Gaskell: at the ready. Mrs. Gaskell: pen aloft and in possession of a new project.
You had always loved ghost stories, after all, and Charlotte, even in life, was nothing if not ghostly. She had paced between the corners of her dim little parlour, muttering to herself after dark. Her siblings, one after the other, had slid before her into the grave: Maria, Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily, Anne. And the deathly expanses of the moors stretching away from the parsonage in Haworth: you had walked them with her, and felt for yourself the chill of the fog, the suck of the boggy ground underfoot. It was a real-life ghost story waiting to be told, waiting for you to tell it. The Life of Charlotte Brontë would practically write itself.
But Charlotte had been brash, too, and usually at the wrong times. She had written big and tricky books that made faraway readers in London raise their eyebrows. There was a whiff of sex and lust and impulsiveness about Charlotte and her stories. She was not, exactly, proper. Ghostly, yes, but also, often, a little too alive.
For this you had never judged her. People wrote outraged nonsense about your books, too. You knew what it was to be a woman with a career, to be a woman who wrote about everything in life, even the unpleasant things. You knew, too, the use of a husband, of children, to persuade your critics that while your books might be wild and alarming, you yourself were well mannered, dutiful and tame. And so you had clucked and mothered her, as you did everyone, and for her protection and her happiness you had done your best to drag her onto the terra firma of domestic life. Despite your personal antipathy to sermons, you had thought that marriage to Mr. Nicholls the Curate would make Charlotte happy. You really had.
You had encouraged her to marry, to keep her safe: irony of ironies that her pregnancy killed her. Did you begin, at once, to blame yourself? Was the project of writing her biography doomed from the start by your own uneasy conscience?
The Life of Charlotte Brontë took two years to write and more pain and worry than you could possibly have anticipated. There were so many people to insult: the terrible master of the school that caused the deaths of two of the Brontë girls, and which Charlotte described in the opening chapters of Jane Eyre; the married woman who had seduced and ruined Branwell Brontë; the Belgian teacher after whom Charlotte had pined so openly and so embarrassingly. You sent frantic letters to your publisher enquiring about libel laws. There were so many people, you said, whom you wanted to libel.
And everyone, all the time, was offended. If you suggested the story was one way, someone would write and correct you. If you suggested it differently, someone else complained, would swamp your desk with letters detailing the true facts of the matter. You owed it to your dead friend to tell the truth, but the truth was evasive and slippery and fought back tooth and nail from the page.
Mr. Gaskell’s sermons were unwavering on the subject. They made honesty sound so simple. How easy it was, they implied, to live honestly. But you were not Mr. Gaskell. You were not a minister. You were a writer, and to you, everything was complicated.
5. A plan
The Life of Charlotte Brontë was no fun to write, and everybody was angry about it, even before it was published, and you found that when you did manage to fall asleep you’d wake, heart racing and sweat prickling along your breastbone. Your mind was full of new, competing visions of how it might all go wrong, how your attempt to write a book about your friend might end with the disgrace not only of you and your family but of her and hers.
Your nerves were overactive, but perceptive, too. You must have seen the trouble coming, because, amid the chaos of writing and letters from your publisher and letters from Mr.Brontë, the general noise of Manchester life and the sermons, the demands of daughters and friends, the idea came to you that when the work was done and the book was finally out inthe world, you would escape the reviews and go, instead, to Rome.
There is a sniffer on the 4 p.m. train from London St. Pancrasto Paris Gare du Nord. From my window seat with a view ofthe black wall of the Channel Tunnel, I hear it: the rumble and hiss of the wheels on the tracks, the giggles of a child playing peek-a-boo with its mother, the murmur of conversation at the far end of the carriage, and then, sporadically, that loud, wet sniff. I crane my head around to get a look at the culprit: a man in a suit who is frowning at his laptop over an inflamed nose. If he does it again, I decide, I will offer him a tissue, passive-aggressively. But then of course he does do it again, and all I do is glare, which he doesn’t notice. I drum my fingers against the tray table in front of me, which must be at least as annoying to people nearby. I jiggle my knee up and down.
I’m on edge. If it wasn’t the sniffer driving me crazy, it would be something else.
I am going to Paris to visit my friend Max, who has recently moved to a top-floor apartment in the second arrondissement, and with whom I have been pathetically, persistently in love for the past year. We were in the same fiction workshop at Boston University, and at the beginning of the summer, we graduated; I haven’t seen him since. It is autumn now, and our cohort has been scattered across the globe: some to New York, some to L.A.; one girl is teaching English in Turkey, another is in Romania on a research fellowship. I have returned home to London to begin a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century literature; Max has moved to Paris to write.
The London I have left behind is at its loveliest: crisp and leafy, just beginning to turn mulchy, and the drizzle-grey texture of the streets and buildings is delightful to me after a year abroad. Ahead, on the other side of the tunnel: Paris, an apartment in a tall, old building near Les Halles, and inside it, the man I love—the man who has made it abundantly clear on repeated occasions that he does not love me back.
I am on my way to Paris to make a declaration.
Evidence to suggest that Max is not in love with me:
1. When, early on in our year at Boston University, I forwarded an email advertising a poetry reading to him, suggesting we go together, he replied the day after the event, apologizing for “only having seen this just now.”
2. When I was standing in line to get a coffee at the campus café before class, he walked in, saw me, turned around and left.
3. Once, towards the end of the year, he gave me a lift home and as we drew up outside my house I took a deep breath and said, tremblingly, “I need to tell you something.” He said, “What?” and I said, “I like you,” and he said, “Well, I like you too,” and patted me on the knee.
4. When, after the knee-patting incident, I worried that the phrase “I like you” was open to too broad a spectrum of interpretation and followed up with an email saying, “Just to clarify, what I was trying to say is that I have had feelings for you all year,” there was a long silence, and then, eventually, he suggested, in a one-line message, that we meet for dinner the next day at a place called Lineage in Coolidge Corner. At the restaurant, we talked about everything we could think of except my email. We got through starters, mains, dessert, coffee: no mention. Afterwards, we went out into torrential rain, and he lent me his coat and we linked arms and walked, bent over, through the downpour to his car. I could feel the heat of him pressing against me, and by the time we reached the parking lot we were both completely drenched and my cheap, worn-out shoes were disintegrating around my feet, and instead of getting into the car he stood by it and looked at me and I thought, This is it. He’s going to kiss me now, and I waited and the rain thudded onto our faces and then he turned and opened the passenger’s-side door. I hesitated, and then got in. Max dashed round and ducked into the driver’s seat, but, once there, he didn’t start the engine, just sat and stared at his hands on the steering wheel for a very long time. “I’m not looking for a relationship right now,” he said. And then he drove me home.
Somehow, after the incident in the car park, Max and I salvaged a friendship. We spent our final weeks in Boston working on a pilot script for a TV show about a nineteenth-century music-hall performer loosely based on the life of a real musician called George Leybourne. The script entertained us endlessly, and we spent hours composing lyrics to music-hall songs. It was an easy distraction from the awkwardness of our previous encounters. We went out for dinner at Lineage a lot, and to see films at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and often we would text each other last thing and first thing: goodnight, good morning. We were, in the disapproving words of my friend Holly, “drydating,” and it was fun—so much fun that for a while I wondered whether this was, after all, enough. He never once mentioned the knee-patting, the email, and whenever I, towards the end of an evening spent sharing a bottle of wine, looked as though I might be about to bring it up, he steered the conversation away from it so expertly that I lost momentum and forgot what I had been about to say.
I was persuaded by Max’s tact: why should the fact that I was in love with him stop us being friends? Why shouldn’t I have dinner with this beautiful, well-dressed former lawyer who gave up his job to become a writer and made me laugh and drove me home and loved all the same books as me, and who wrote quiet, immaculate short stories about sad bachelors that were always a perfect balance of hilarious and gut-wrenching?
Except that now I lived in London and he lived in Paris and I was beginning my Ph.D. and he was writing in cafés and wandering by the Seine, and life, in short, had moved on. Being in love with Max was all well and good, but it did seem to preclude being in love with anyone else—someone who might, if I was lucky, actually love me back—and so, when Max invited me to stay with him in Paris for a few days, I accepted, but I told myself it was time to make the declaration.
I can’t be your friend anymore, I was going to say. I have to fall out of love with you, and if I’m going to do that, I can’t be your friend.
I would spend the weekend with Max; we would go to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and climb up the steps to the Sacré-Coeur and it would be lovely, but it would also, though he wouldn’t know it at first, be a goodbye. At some point before I left, I’d explain why I could never see him again, and it would be sickening and I would probably feel numb and empty and horribly lonely for weeks, but it was necessary. At some point in the future I would wake up in London and realize that I was all right again. I would be ready to start afresh.
The train slows as it reaches Paris, sliding past the grey tower blocks of the banlieu, between banks of graffiti. The sky above the buildings is soft and dense. The sniffer sniffs again, and the peek-a-boo child begins jumping up and down, shouting, “Onest là! On est là!” and as I stand to take down my case from the luggage rack I feel unsteady on my feet, and wish the journey could go on longer. The glass roof of the Gare du Nord extends over the carriage like a grasping hand. The train crawls on, and then stops.
Air outside: crisp. Sound of the station: echoey and deep behind the clatter and rumbling of suitcase wheels. The sniffer: vanished into the crowd. My heart: nervously arrhythmic. At the end of the platform, behind a barrier, surrounded by the expectant smiles of people waiting for other passengers from the London train: Max’s face.