Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Swan's Nest

The Swan's Nest by Laura McNeal
  The Swan's Nest
Author:  Laura McNeal
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2024. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1643753207 / 978-1643753201

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She was stuck when she wrote it."

Favorite Quote:  "I will conform my life to any imaginable rule that puts us together."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The Romance of the Swan's Nest is a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One verse reads,

"Little Ellie in her smile
Chooses — " I will have a lover
Riding on a steed of steeds:
He shall love me without guile,
And to him I will discover
The swan's nest among the reeds."

The poem, the inspiration for the book title, is of hope. The history and the book make it clear that the  poem is written well before Elizabeth Barrett meets Robert Browning. The descriptions of the outdoors,  the desire for love, and the hope of the eggs in the nest perhaps stem from Elizabeth Barrett's dreams of beyond her confinement in her room as an invalid and perhaps of a time before her illness. "Do you know the swan's nest, the one she describes in the poem? Of course, it was there every spring, at Hope End. We all went to set it, but it was her particular haunt, hers and my father's."

The author's note states the goal - "to tell the story of their romance without contradicting the known record." It also speaks to the challenges of the research. "The Barrett-Browning archive includes thousands of letters, drawings, diaries, manuscripts, and objects." However, the Brownings' only heir himself died without a will or an heir. As such, the estate including the archive was sold at auctions. Some items were sold and sold again. As a result, the archive exists but is scattered, and some of it seems lost forever.

Between 1845 and 1846, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning exchanged almost 600 hundred letters. The letters themselves have been published as books. The first letters is the beginning of this story. "I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett ... so into me it has gone, and part of me it has become, this great living poetry of yours ... I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart - and I love you too." What a beginning to a love story.

That being said I struggled with this narrative of their romance. The book has a multitude of characters and goes into the stories of some of these. Towards the beginning, it is challenging to determine which ones to pay attention to for their relevance to the main story. Sometimes, it is questionable as to why the detail is included.

The side characters become the vehicle for moving the story forward. History demonstrates how much of this romance was contained in letters. As such, there is limited interaction between the main characters themselves. The context becomes necessary. However, it also creates a distance from the main story. It feels at times as if the reader must wade through the surrounding to get to the heart of story. I find myself putting the book down often with no inclination to pick it up. I pick it up to see if it will get me closer only to put it down again. That paradigm does shift later in the book, but, by that time, the connection with the book and characters is lost in the path getting there.

A fascinating history but a challenging one to tell in this medium. Sadly, I find myself not the reader for this telling.

About the Book

(from publisher website)
An engrossing novel about the unlikely love affair between two great 19th-century poets: Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning

On a bleak January day in 1845, a poet who had been confined to her room for four years by recurrent illness received a letter from a writer she secretly idolized but had never seen. “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” Robert Browning wrote, “and I love you too.”

Elizabeth Barrett was ecstatic. She was famous for her poetry but too frail for the kind of travel that Browning used to fuel his unsuccessful, innovative poems, which were full of spellbinding villains. The two began a passionate correspondence, but Elizabeth kept delaying a visit. What would happen when he saw her in person? Could she trust his emphatic promises? And would she survive if she secretly turned over the rights to all the money she earned to a man who promised he could take her to the bright, healing sun of Italy?

McNeal brilliantly dramatizes the perils of falling in love in the Victorian world, where family duty was the most important value of all, married women could not own property, and the fight for freedom and equality was funded by sugar crushed and boiled in the West Indies. Lyrically written, as rich as a Brontë novel, The Swan's Nest will immerse readers in the radical hope of two people who believed love in practice could be as enduring and faithful as love in poetry.

About the Author

(from publisher website)
Laura McNeal is the author of Dark Water, a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature in 2010, the historical novel, The Practice House, The Incident on the Bridge, and four critically-acclaimed novels co-written with her husband Tom, all of them published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. She holds an MA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and was awarded a 2022 research residency at Baylor University.

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