Savagely Wed

Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of a Marriage, a Trial, and a Self-Made Woman BY Chloe Schama. Walker & Company. Hardcover, 272 pages. $24.

The cover of Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of a Marriage, a Trial, and a Self-Made Woman

Theresa Longworth, a middle-class English girl fresh from a convent school, met William Charles Yelverton, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, on a boat crossing the English Channel in 1852. She was nineteen, and he was a decade older. They talked all night on the open deck and then began a correspondence lasting five years, during which time Longworth served as a nurse in the Crimea. Her letters, which the whole world would soon be invited to read, were not the sort that usually dripped from the quills of Victorian women: “I have made up my mind to turn savage,” she told Yelverton, “I am weary of civilisation.” In another letter, she explained that “conventionality is not the question between us. . . . My whole life, you know, has been a protest against it, and in my relations with you it has never been brought to bear or wished for.”

In Wild Romance, Chloë Schama takes these statements with a pinch of salt. Because Longworth wed Yelverton twice in 1857, the first time in an irregular service in Edinburgh and the second in a Catholic church in Killowen, Ireland, and then fought to have her married status recognized, Schama argues that she secretly craved a “relatively subservient position.” But I see no reason to put out Longworth’s fire: For much of her life she did “turn savage,” and conventionality eluded her at every turn.

The newlyweds honeymooned in Scotland and later traveled to the Continent. Longworth, greatly enjoying her “wild romance,” didn’t smell a rat when Yelverton asked her to keep their union secret. The following year, he returned to Edinburgh and got married again, this time to a widow called Emily Forbes. Whether or not his other marriages had ever been legal (as a Protestant, Yelverton could not be married in a Catholic church) became an issue that baffled courts in Scotland, Ireland, and England. Six years of Jarndyce-like proceedings followed, during which Longworth’s racy letters were published and the press talked of little but the Yelverton bigamy case. But as Schama puts it, “Neither love nor law nor literature nor logic secured Theresa’s position as Yelverton’s wife.”

With her blonde tresses, her black dress, and her “dignified and lady-like manner,” Longworth briefly became an icon of feminine virtue, particularly in Ireland. Yelverton, with his “well shaped and rather voluptuous mouth,” remained to all but his family a pantomime villain. When Longworth lost her appeal in the House of Lords, Yelverton sloped off and, regrettably, drops out of the story. Longworth, however, began a second act as a rolling stone, monologuist, and writer. In 1867, she left for Boston and New York, where she exploited her celebrity status by reading Tennyson to paying audiences. She then went west, recording her experiences and opinions in the book Teresina in America (1875). The end of slavery was, she informed her readers, “like throwing open the flood gates of hell,” while “negro children” were “little pigs, lacking entirely that exquisite loveliness and angelic sweetness, which surrounds the rosy form of a white infant.” Longworth’s expositions remind us that a refusal to let your husband get away with bigamy does not necessarily make you a social visionary.

Longworth then settled down with the Mormons of Salt Lake City, whose clear-headedness on the subject of polygamy impressed her. In California, she enjoyed a flirtation with the essayist Charles Warren Stoddard, who described her as looking “well-nigh wrecked” by “grief, disappointment and distrust of the world.” She was now thirty-six and reciting poetry to empty auditoriums. In the Yosemite Valley, she was chased by bears and flirted with the conservationist John Muir. While Schama does her best to convince us that Longworth slots into a tradition of jolly lady travelers and found, in America, “like-minded souls and danced in their company,” it is impossible to tell whether all this wandering and dancing made her happy or sad and whether she was lost or found. Longworth died, age forty-eight, in South Africa with ten pounds to her name. Yelverton, with whom she had had no contact for twenty years, died shortly afterward.

It is a shame we can’t have a peep inside the marriage of the second Mrs. Yelverton, but she has left no trail. In general, though, Schama tells Longworth’s story well, keeping a steady eye on the sources and placing her firmly within whatever extraordinary context she found herself. There is some strong critical commentary, particularly on the marriage laws, but all too often a flutter of creative writing—such as the opening sentence’s “Somewhere, across the silver plane of dimpled water”—that needs to be brushed away.

Also redundant is the first-time author’s preface. Schama, who is the daughter of the British historian Simon Schama, tells us all about herself (“In the summer of 2004 I lived a quiet life”) and her own wild romance with Longworth (“Theresa and Yelverton began to invade various corners of my physical world as well as my mental consciousness,” etc.). These personal intrusions, which appear to have become de rigueur for some female biographers in the past ten years, insist on the mystical bond between the biographer and her subject and attempt—unsuccessfully—an intimacy with the reader. The extraordinary Theresa Longworth is quite capable of forming her own intimacies and can clearly speak for herself.

Frances Wilson is the author of, most recently, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009).