Mrs Gaskell and Me by Nell Stevens (2018)

I’m not sure where I came across a review of Nell Stevens’ charming book but I’m so glad I did. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a book as much and as unreservedly as this one.

Mrs Gaskell and Me – Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart is a unique genre blend between memoir and fictionalised biography. The memoir tells us of Nell Stevens’ struggle to write her PhD on Elizabeth Gaskell and her tumultuous love story with a guy called Max. The fictionalised parts are Nell’s attempt to imagine a possible love story between Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell and Eduard Norton. Gaskell and Norton met in Rome. Gaskell’s Charlotte Brontë biography was just being published and she had fled Manchester to avoid the complications the publication might bring. She assumed, and later found out she’d been correct, that many people would disagree with her and even threaten to sue her for libel.

The book moves back and forth between chapters based on Nell’s life and chapters based on Elizabeth Gaskells’. Sometimes when books alternate like this, one has favourite sections but, in this case, I liked them both a great deal. I enjoyed reading about Gaskell’s time in  Rome, the people she met, the conversations she had. I know Nell Stevens took a lot of liberties but since I’m not that familiar with Gaskell’s life, I didn’t mind. From what I know, I’d say what Stevens imagined might not have happened like this, but it sounded plausible. She didn’t invent an affair but the story of two soulmates. Under other circumstances, at another time, they might have become lovers. Norton also fascinates Gaskell because he is American. America is her dreamscape, so to speak. A place that she imagines often and hopes to see some day. Meeting a soul mate is something that can have a deep impact; in Gaskell’s case, the impact was deepened further because they met abroad. Rome transformed and inspired her. Rome as a special place for writers and artists at the time, is the central theme of Nell’s PhD.

Having worked on a PhD myself, I recognized so many of the struggles. Finding a theme, keeping motivated. It’s so well described. Add to that, in Nell’s case, a complex love story. Max, like Gaskell’s Eduard Norton, is from the US. They met in Boston and while Nell knew immediately, she wanted to be with Max, he initially hesitates. The ups and downs of their story complicate the work on her thesis even more.

I loved this book for many reasons. I enjoy books about writers and literature. I enjoy memoir and the combination of the two works very well. I could relate to the way Nell Stevens tried to get inside of Gaskell’s head. She wrote those parts in the second person, as if she was addressing her. I remember battling with a paper on Voltaire’s Zadig. It was laborious and frustrating. Like Nell, I was very fond of my subject and while our professor told us to refrain from using biographical material for the interpretation of texts – especially of that era – reading about Voltaire’s life, discovering a kindred spirit, helped me. After a while, I felt I really knew him. At some point, I started a conversation with him in my head and funny enough that gave me an entry point to the analysis of Zadig.

Academic writing, love, the meeting of kindred spirits, and the importance of travel, are but some of the main themes.

Whether you’re a fan of Gaskell and like books about writers, or whether you enjoy memoir, there’s a huge chance, you might enjoy this book. It’s engaging, quirky, interesting, and at times very moving. Mrs Gaskell and Me, is Nell Steven’s second book. Her first, Bleaker House, about how she tried to write a novel, is also a memoir. I’m certain, I’ll read that too eventually.