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Review: Wild Romance, Chloe Schama

A single steamer ride threw Theresa Longworth and Charles Yelverton together in 1852.  They didn’t begin to correspond immediately, but Theresa soon found reason to write a letter to Yelverton, starting off a haphazard courtship and irregular marriage that would change the course of her life forever.  Theresa’s fight for recognition as Yelverton’s wife highlight the serious issues with Victorian marriage laws in Great Britain, while her sojourn and writings later on in her life demonstrated her will to retain independence and support herself no matter the cost.

This was a truly fascinating book.  Theresa and Yelverton’s courtship is carried on almost completely in letters, and while there were not nearly enough excerpts for me, Schama’s narrative was enough to keep me curious and wondering about Yelverton’s motives in particular.  I particularly enjoyed the sections where Theresa was a nurse in the Crimean war; they were disturbing but illuminating, and I appreciated the references to the better-known Florence Nightingale.  I was astonished at the fact that a couple could essentially get married twice, have it certified as legal in both Scotland and Ireland, yet allow the man to marry again and acknowledge the second marriage over the first in England, more or less because he chose that marriage.

Just the various court battles provide for surprisingly good reading, especially the first one.  There’s a curious dichotomy between Theresa’s somewhat obvious “promiscuity” – staying with Yelverton as his wife despite the questionable legality of their marriage, surely a Victorian no-no – and the courtroom portrayal of her as a virtuous innocent used by a man.

The second half of the book covers the end of the court battle, with Theresa continuing to use Yelverton’s name but going off to live her own life.  At times, the book definitely suffered from having a less coherent narrative here.  Schama sometimes has to delve into various backstories of history to explain why Theresa does things and goes places, which was necessary but dragged.  Without the love letters, the book had a less personal feel and I felt like I couldn’t relate to the older Theresa as much as the younger one.

But what she accomplished was fantastic – making herself a living off of her writings and traveling the world.  She traveled throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia, documenting it all in a series of fictional retellings.  I wish these books were still in print.  I loved that Theresa’s writings to defend herself early on in her life lent her the voice and independence to make it on her own at a time when women had few rights.  The rest of her life almost reads like defiance; if the courtroom couldn’t recognize her right to her marriage and a husband’s protection, she was going to prove that she didn’t need it anyway.

I’ve seen a few reviews around that suggest the book was written in too scholarly a tone, so I think it is important to note here that it’s non-fiction and reads like a non-fiction book.  I didn’t have a problem with this at all and in fact enjoyed the more factual tone – the book never slips in sensationalism as it so easily could have done – but it’s worth briefly noting.  The entire thing is less than 300 pages long, so even when parts do drag they’re usually over in 10 pages and something more interesting has happened again.

I also totally loved the literary references sprinkled throughout the book.  Schama especially notes how the courtship and later court battle between Yelverton and Theresa gave rise to numerous fictional stories around similar subjects; she actually discovered the story through a literary footnote.  I think these little tidbits perfectly tied the book into its historical and literary context, reminding me of what I’d read before and what I really should read again.

Overall, Wild Romance was an excellent book.  It’s a fascinating historical account of an extraordinary Victorian woman, poking at the society’s flaws – not just in England, but worldwide – while demonstrating how a truly motivated woman could go about making a life for herself in nontraditional ways. The first half was better than the second half, but it’s all worth reading.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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