There is a continuing literary trend in which (usually) female narrators twine their own life into that of a classic author ... What Stevens brings to the now-familiar form is an incisive wit that, more often than not, she deploys against herself ... 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 ... it would take a stonyhearted reader to begrudge Elizabeth Gaskell her happy ending.
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.
A lover of research, Stevens falls under the spell of Elizabeth Gaskell, Victorian writer and wife of a dull parson. Stevens alternates chapters between her own life and her discoveries of Gaskell’s, using the device to great effect. When Norton finally visits Gaskell, a perfectly nice visit essentially goes nowhere. Stevens encounters much the same with Max. Such juxtapositions add up to a delightful read.