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Book Review: Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of a Marriage, a Trial, and a Self-Made Woman by Chloë Schama


Book Review: Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of a Marriage, a Trial, and a Self-Made Woman by Chloë Schama

Wild Romance by Chloë Schama
Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of a Marriage, a Trial, and a Self-Made Woman
by Chloë Schama
Walker & Company, 272 pp.
CLR [rating:3.5]

Those Lusty Victorians

A secret affair. A scandalous sex-filled trial. A tell-all novel. If it’s any consolation to Tiger Woods and Jesse James, they’re not the first to be stripped down to their Jockeys on a worldwide scale. Welcome, William Charles Yelverton, Victorian seducer.

And welcome Theresa Longworth, supposed seducee. But as Chloë Schama illustrates in Wild Romance, there’s a little more to this story of lust and intrigue than the 19th century press might have had you believe.

Theresa Longworth and William Charles Yelverton met, romantically enough, in 1852 on a steamer bound for Dover. She was nineteen, he was twenty-eight – a dashing Irish soldier of the Royal Artillery. They struck up an acquaintance and, after separating, a correspondence.

To paraphrase Carson McCullers, love always consists of a lover and a beloved. The lover pursues, the beloved hedges, and everyone is equally miserable.

Reading between the lines, it seems that Theresa was doing a lot of the chasing in the early stages, albeit chaste epistolary chasing. At a distance, Yelverton was clear about his intentions: “L’amore, is not, never was, and never can be, my insanity, temporary or otherwise.”

When confronted with the living woman, however, Yelverton appeared willing to sacrifice his sanity. They met again during the Crimean War, on the Bosphorus. A romantic by nature, Theresa had joined the Soeurs de Charité in order to be closer to her love (and sneak in some adventure). Their encounter persuaded her against becoming a nun.

She then followed him to Edinburgh, where Yelverton began to see her daily in her apartment. What’s more, Theresa claimed, he “declared himself her husband with his hand on a Book of Common Prayer.” Under Scottish common law, that meant legal marriage, but judging by their subsequent conversations, neither took the declaration seriously.

“I am not a free agent, and never shall be,” Yelverton wrote to her from Ireland, echoing his previous negative statements. And then, typically, he hedged, “or not for many years.”

He underestimated Theresa’s desire to be legitimate. She followed him again, and this time got the Catholic Church involved, enlisting the help of a Reverend Bernard Mooney, the parish priest of Kilbroney. Yelverton gave her a plain gold band (but demanded back the ring with his seal) and they declared their mutual devotion in church. And that’s where the trouble begins.

At this point in the story you have to wonder what in the hell Yelverton was thinking. While simultaneously fending off his mistress with one hand and pulling her closer with the other, he apparently didn’t realize that he is tying himself in knots. A snarl he increased by marrying a widow named Emily Forbes soon after his Dublin excursion.

Theresa was less than amused. She went public and, with all the energy of a modern-day reality star, charged him with being a bigamist and deserter. His trial took place in Dublin and was the talk of the town. The sordid details of their love affair were revealed, much to the delight of onlookers, while the two opposing lawyers sparred over the legal definition of marriage.

It was pure theatre, with Theresa playing the part of the wronged innocent (see D’Urberville, Tess) and Yelverton the soldier-seducer (see Troy, Sergeant Frank, Far from the Madding Crowd).

In this Irish fight of Catholic and Protestant, the Catholic side triumphed. Theresa was declared Yelverton’s wife and her carriage was carried on the shoulders of the crowd to her hotel. She was then forced to figure out what she was going to do with the rest of her life.

Appropriately, she decided to fictionalize her troubles and to travel. Since subsequent appeals by Yelverton weakened her position, she wrote to make money. Like Dickens and Frances Trollope she toured the eastern United States, and then kept going – to Yosemite (where she forged a bond with John Muir), to San Francisco, then on to Hong Kong, Ceylon and India. She even adopted a Singhalese boy from Borneo.

A fascinating woman, Theresa Longworth, prone to exaggeration and romantic visions, but capable enough to roam around the world by herself. A woman who was aware of her one-sided obsession,

Earn your eternal gratitude by marrying Mr. Shears. So sorry can’t oblige you. Had you only spoken sooner, especially at Malta, we no doubt would have been happy to come to an amicable arrangement on the point and relieved you of your burthen.

but determined come hell or high water to have the one thing she so desperately loved:

The strongest and most prominent of my character is the extreme tenacity of purpose…and… the incapacity to relinquish an object once fairly sought.

A woman worthy of a book. Yet, despite her admirable research and the intriguing details she presents, I’m not sure Schama should have published hers so soon.

Wild Romance began as a thesis and still reads like one in places (the title, taken from Theresa’s own words “Life, indeed is a wild romance, if truly written,” doesn’t quite sum up the contents). Schama is trained as an academic, so behind the flesh and blood moments,

The ink sploshed over the edge of the bottle and formed a kidney-shaped splotch at the edge of Theresa’s writing pad… She was trying to write – was almost successful in ignoring the odor emanating from the propped-up feet of the so-called gentleman beside her…

we see the muscle and bones of her original arguments,

The Yelverton-inspired literature shows the myriad social and legal problems made explicit by the trial; Theresa’s biography shows the numerous historical forces reified in one woman’s life.

Both approaches, public and personal, are valid. Even together they can sometimes work (see Ackroyd, Peter). But here, like Yelverton and Theresa, they seem to be having trouble getting along in one small space.

So while Wild Romance is strong, for instance, on Theresa in general – quotations from her letters are particularly fascinating – I didn’t get a sense of her inner motivations. Nor did I emerge with a good grasp of Yelverton’s contradictions. My notes are filled with exclamations about wanting to hear their conversations.

Now Schama might argue, quite rightly, that this kind of delving is the duty of a novelist. To which I would answer, “Yes! Make it a novel! Go for the jugular! Fictionalize away!” Perhaps she considered that her subject had already preempted her – Theresa’s first autobiographical volume was called Martyrs to Circumstance, a title that rivals even Wild Romance.

Ah well, maybe next time. For if Schama can shake off the ivy of academia, her career as a writer looks quite promising.

Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.

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