Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
It started with a misreading of some nineteenth-century handwriting. In 2013 Nell Stevens began a PhD at King’s College, London. Captivated by the energy and wit of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work, she knew she wanted to feature Gaskell in some way, but her subject matter was still nebulous when she presented it at the first doctoral seminar. She’d come across a letter in which Gaskell described dreaming of America – which she never visited – and finding that it looked like home. Stevens loved this idea of being homesick for a place one had never been. Except, as a professor informed her during the Q&A, the letter actually said America looked like Rome. And thus her topic morphed into the community of English-speaking expatriates who descended on Rome in the middle of the nineteenth century.
If the mere thought of reading about someone else’s thesis is enough to make your eyes glaze over – trust me, I know: my husband’s currently in the throes of writing up his PhD in Biology – never fear; Stevens has a light touch, and flits between Gaskell’s story and her own in alternating chapters. One strand covers the last decade of Gaskell’s life, from the time she started writing her biography of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 until her sudden death at her new home in Hampshire in 1865. The narration in these chapters is, as one would expect, in the past tense, but what makes it so lively and unusual is that Stevens almost always speaks of Gaskell as “you.” The intimacy of that address ensures that her life story is anything but dry.
The other chapters are set between 2013 and 2017 and narrated in the present tense, which makes Stevens’s dilemmas and decisions feel immediate and pressing. For much of the first two years her PhD takes a backseat to her love life. She’s obsessed with Max, a friend and unrequited crush from her Boston University days who is now living in Paris, trying to make it as a writer. On her first trip to see him in Paris, they hook up. Rather than sating her desire, though, this only inflames it; from now on she’s desperately scraping together money for Eurostar tickets as often as possible. And when Max moves back to Boston, she finds every excuse she can – conferences, research fellowships, whatever – to fly to America to see him. That is, until he breaks things off, plunging her into despair.
If there was any consolation to be had, it was that Gaskell went through this, too. True, she was married to a Unitarian minister and had beloved daughters, but she was still a red-blooded woman, and the missives that passed between her and Charles Eliot Norton, one of the expats she met in Rome, are undeniably love letters. Although their relationship was destined to be unconsummated – like Max, he returned to Boston; some years later word came of his marriage – its passion came through on the page for Stevens 150 years later. She describes the difficulty she had in thinking of her beloved Mrs Gaskell as a sexual being:
How to explain desire? In particular, how to explain desire in Mrs Gaskell, a person I have always imagined, unquestioningly, as somehow asexual? She seems, in my vision of her, mumsy, soothing. … Because Mrs Gaskell never wrote about her desire directly, I have to search for it in places it might not be. I read between the lines, and when I see nothing there, I crowbar them further apart and look again.
Stevens’s first book, Bleaker House (2017), was a memoir about trying but failing to write her debut novel in a remote Falkland Islands outpost. It also intersperses passages from her novel in progress and her early short stories. I found it an odd, disorienting read. Although Mrs Gaskell & Me just as gleefully transgresses the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction – there’s a terrific late passage when Stevens is in hospital with a gynaecological crisis and Mrs Gaskell appears to her and gives her advice – it worked much better for me.
It undoubtedly helps that I’m very familiar with the Victorians in general, have visited Gaskell’s Manchester home so could picture it in my head, used to work at King’s College, London (and participated in random paid medical studies like Stevens does), and am similarly conflicted about having children. Stevens has unwittingly brought together a bunch of elements that were custom-made to appeal to me, so it’s no surprise I loved the result.
Potential readers needn’t share the author’s knowledge of or obsession with Mrs Gaskell, though. This is a whimsical, sentimental, wry book that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been fixated on an idea or put too much stock in a relationship that failed to thrive. (On adjacent topics and also recommended: How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis and The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead.)
Rebecca Foster has an MA in Victorian Literature from Leeds but, surprisingly, has only read four books by Elizabeth Gaskell. An American transplant to England, she is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Nell Stevens, Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart (Picador, 2018). 978-1509868186, 256 pp., hardback.
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