The Story Behind the Book

Writer of ‘sort-of memoirs’

Nell Stevens
Nell StevensDavid Wilson for The Boston Globe

Nell Stevens’s first book, “Bleaker House,” was a “sort-of memoir,” a first-person account of the author’s attempt to write a novel. With her second, “The Victorian and the Romantic,” slated for release Tuesday, she once again explores the interaction between novel and memoir, this time with a book in two alternating story lines: one in which she recalls her own romantic tumult amid graduate-school ambivalence, and another in which she imagines her way into the life of the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell. “I’m calling it memoir with historical fiction,” Stevens said, “but when I have more space, I end up calling it a true account of how I imagine it.”

Gaskell, who was a biographer of Charlotte Brontë as well as a novelist, was among the subjects of Stevens’s doctoral dissertation. “I followed her to Rome and ended up staying for my research,” Stevens said. She found herself fascinated by the creative community that grew up around expatriate English and American writers, artists, and scholars in 19th century Rome. “I desperately want to believe that that can exist in some ways,” she said, but it wasn’t what she found while earning her doctorate at Kings College, London, a process she lovingly skewers in the present-day, first-person sections of the book.


Both portions of the work feature trans-Atlantic love. In addition to her PhD, Stevens earned an MFA in writing at Boston University. “I fell in love with America quite hard,” she said. “For me, Boston is a place where I can think clearly.” Bostonian Charles Eliot Norton, with whom Gaskell shared a deep and passionate friendship, figures prominently in the Victorian chapters.

As for Stevens, after her two “sort-of memoirs,” she said, “I’m trying so desperately to pivot back to fiction. So I’m trying to write a novel now.”

Stevens will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Brookline Booksmith.


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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.