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.




22 thoughts on “Mrs Gaskell and Me by Nell Stevens (2018)

  1. I have this book on my TBR list (but not on my TBR pile unfortunately. Hmm … maybe I’ll buy an e-version) because a blogger reviewed it, but I can’t recollect who either. I recently read another book a bit like this. Hearing Maud, in which the author, Jessica White, alternated between her life as a deaf person and that of Maud Praed (daughter of Aussie author Rosa Praed.). It worked well. I really like Gaskell so want to read this.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I will have a look. This was such a lovely book. It made me want to read more of Elizabeth Gaskell. Even a biography. I’m sure experts will find things to fault but the purpose of her writing about Gaskell is specific. She wanted to get as close as possible. I hope you’ll like it. I’d love to hear what you think.

  2. I like the sounds of this but the ‘taking liberties’ thing concerns me as when I read stuff about real people, I then feel driven to go and pick up a non fiction book or two and try to sort out the real from the made-up.

  3. Wonderful review, Caroline! This looks like a fascinating book! For some reason this makes me think about A.S.Byatt’s ‘Possession’. Glad you liked Nell Stevens’ book. I’ll add this to my TBR. Her first book also looks fascinating from what you have said. Hope you enjoy reading it.

    • Thank you, Vishy. I think you’d enjoy it. I have still nit read Possession but I’ve seen the movie and thought of it while reading this. There’s a similarity in terms of topic. The writing is very different though. I’d love to know what you think of it.

      • Very interesting to know that, Caroline. Will add Nell Stevens’ book to my TBR. Nice to know that you have seen the film adaptation of Possession. How was it? Did you like it? Hope you get to read the book sometime and like it. It is one of my favourite books.

        • I had no idea you liked it so much. I loved the movie. Might actually rewatch it. And finally read the book. I’ve read her before and think her writing is beautiful.

          • Glad you loved the movie, Caroline! I loved the book – it is such a beautiful book! I was intimidated by it for years, but finally got to read it and fell in love with it. Hope you enjoy reading the book whenever you get to it. Happy reading! Will look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  4. I think I’m in a similar place to Guy when it comes to fictionalised biographies as it can be difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction. Nevertheless, this does sound very good, and I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it so much. We need books like this in our lives every now and again, stories we can love unreservedly for their pleasure, especially when the news bulletins seem so depressing.

    • I couldn’t agree more. It’s quite depressing at the moment. I think it’s easy to differentiate in this case. Most of it is made up. It’s just very lovely. Christa Wolf wrote a book about a meeting between Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderode that never too place but it’s a marvelous book. She just imagined what would happen if they met – this has a similar approach. That’s different from other fictionalizations.

  5. This does sound lovely! I’m a Gaskell fan but I don’t know too much of her life, only an outline, so I think I would still enjoy this without getting caught up in what’s real and what’s imagined. Its a really different approach for the author to take.

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