In The Victorian and the Romantic, Nell Stevens traces her journey through the trials of a Ph.D. program in English literature as well as her misfortunes in love. While writing a thesis on Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and the community of artists she met in Italy, Stevens begins to see parallels between her literary hero and herself. While Gaskell dreams of a life with a member of the Italian literati, Stevens imagines an intellectual but domestic lifestyle with Max, an old classmate. As both dreams fall apart, Stevens wonders what is it that gives her life purpose and if she needs another person by her side to answer that question.
Like Stevens's debut, Bleaker House, The Victorian and the Romantic experiments with the boundaries of nonfiction, seamlessly interweaving memoir, historical research and fictional biography. For all its blurry borders, this book's backbone is the author's often insightful, always charming narrative voice. Never shying away from vulnerabilities and doubts, she relays her inner nature convincingly and sympathetically, even if it may be fictional. The sections dedicated to Gaskell glow with Stevens's self-revelations and wit; the Victorian becomes a mirror for Stevens in addition to being a historical figure. Stevens writes love letters to her, making these sections all the more lovely for the light each woman shines on the other--a light that marks the kind of bright, electrifying clarity Stevens's character is searching for throughout the narrative. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor