Book Review: Nell Stevens’ Mrs Gaskell and Me is a meditation on longing and a balm for the soul

I don’t normally read non-fiction or memoir, but something about the premise of Nell Stevens’ second book, Mrs Gaskell and Me (also known as The Victorian and the Romantic) appealed to me when I first started hearing about it on social media a few months back. On the surface, it has a simple premise; it is a literary memoir which chronicles the author’s parallel experiences of writing her PhD on Elizabeth Gaskell’s time in Rome and relationship with the author Charles Eliot Norton, and her own long distance relationship with a man she calls Max. But, the situation in the book, and the way that Stevens has chosen to write it is far from simple, and the fact that she manages to pull together such disparate threads in such a way to have a meaningful connection with her readers is a fait accompli.

Told in alternating sections, this book juxtaposes a fictionalised imagining of what Mrs. Gaskell’s time in Rome was like with a memoir style recounting of Stevens’ own life writing and researching her PhD. In half of the book, Stevens recounts a possible version of Mrs Gaskell’s time in Rome among a colony of artists including poets, artists, sculptors and writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning and Harriet Hosmer. Mrs. Gaskell’s trip to Rome is initially prompted by the release of her authorised biography of her dear friend Charlotte Bronte, but as evidenced by Steven’s inclusion of a letter from Gaskell to her solicitor, the book contains several allegations likely to produce outrage in interested parties.

In Rome, she plans to escape the heat surrounding the release of her book, but instead finds a kind of spiritual home among a colony of creative types, and in particular, she shares a connection with the American writer, Charles Eliot Norton. A man for whom Stevens argues Gaskell harboured strong feelings bordering on love, though the relationship was never a romantic one. Scenes depicting Gaskell’s longing for Norton, and the parts of her self that are awakened by knowing him fit nicely with Stevens’ own relationship with a man she calls Max, whom she met whilst doing her MFA in Boston. Max, also a writer, is staying in Paris to work on getting his own writing in the world, and invites Stevens to come and stay with him. She goes, intending to sever their connection, having decided after several attempts to profess her feelings for him that it is better for both of them if she does not see him again and gets over her feelings. Max has other plans, and has changed his mind about not wanting a relationship.

These two scenarios juxtapose nicely, as on the one hand, Gaskell’s relationship with Norton seems to be one of pure friendship and a deep understanding, and it leads to a period of great creativity and excitement in Gaskell’s life, echoes of which can be seen in her work. On the other hand, Stevens’ relationship with Max threatens, at several points, to derail progress on her PhD, and while she does occasionally draw inspiration from her conversations with him, the biggest value Max seems to add to the experience is in allowing Nell to miss him, and to understand the longing that Gaskell may have felt. Reading between the lines, it seems clear to the reader that Max’s feelings for Nell change when she begins to become more successful than him, and while she is saddened by the distance between them, the reader knows from an early point that she is better off on her own.

Like Stevens’ earlier book, Bleaker House, certain chapters experiment with different styles, and the sections from the point of view of Gaskell and her compatriots often employ use of the second person. Descriptions of Stevens’ involvement in a series of bizarre medical trials and PhD studies in order to earn money to visit Max provide comic relief, as well as illustrating the lengths that she is willing to go to for love; lengths that are not often reciprocated. It is Nell’s relationship with her subject, Mrs. Gaskell, and not with Max, that serves her best in her personal growth, and far from being strange, this is the comforting, interesting aspect of the book.

While Bleaker House was a book for other writers, Mrs Gaskell and Me has a wider appeal, and will captivate the hearts of any book lover and anyone who has ever experienced unrequited love.  Quite simply, carrying this book around with me this week was like having a constant companion, and I did not want its pages to end. I went straight on to Bleaker House and I feel like I have found a new author to watch.

 

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mrs Gaskell and Me by Nell Stevens is published by Picador and is available in bookstores now.

Emily Paull

Writer of short fiction and historical fiction. Usually reading when she should be writing. Haunter of libraries and bookstores.