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.




Elizabeth Gaskell: The Moorland Cottage (1850)

Growing up in Yorkshire, the daughter of a deceased clergyman, Maggie Browne is encouraged to devote herself to her brother, Edward, upon whom their widowed mother dotes. Through the example and guidance of her mentor, Mrs Buxton, Maggie learns that self-sacrifice is the key to living a fulfilled life. How much personal happiness will she forgo in the name of duty and devotion to her brother? This novella depicts the struggle of a strong-minded Victorian woman, torn between her dreams and her duty towards her family. Maggie’s love story, Edward’s perfidy and the dramatic conclusion at sea, make The Moorland Cottage a timeless tale.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel The Moorland Cottage is said to be the precursor and the template for George Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss as we can read on the inner sleeve of this very nice Hesperus edition. As a matter of fact this and the blurb sounded so interesting and the book looked so appealing that I bought it and only realized later that this was the very same novel I had seen reviewed on Violet’s blog and sworn to stay away from. It wasn’t a positive review at all. I trust Violet’s taste and felt quite silly that I bought it. I must add that the cover of her edition looked very different. Tacky is the word for it. I have never read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell and this was short enough (140 pages) so I thought I give it a try anyway. Halfway into the book I discovered that Katherine from the Gaskell Blog, who is hosting a group read of The Moorland Cottage, dedicated one of the first posts to a stunning photo tour of the first chapter of the book.

The descriptions are easily one of the best things in this novel. For very personal reasons I also liked the character portraits. The mother does, in some instances, sound so much like my own mother used to be that it felt spooky to read how she reprimanded little Maggie the whole time, trying to crush her joy and preferring the brother over the girl for no particular other apparent reason than that he is a boy.

The Moorland Cottage tells Maggie Browne’s story. She is the daughter of a clergy man who has died a few years ago and leaves little Maggie, her brother Edward and a cold-hearted wife, who has adopted a theatrical, ostentatious way of mourning him. In the little cottage also lives a housemaid, Nancy, an old woman who is very fond of little Maggie and loves her dearly. This is lucky as her own mother only cares for the boy who is an obnoxious, selfish and reckless child. He suppresses and exploits his sister whenever he can.

One day the family is invited to the estate of the Buxton family. The Buxton family consists of the invalid Mrs Buxton, Mr Buxton, their son Frank and the niece Erminia. In the Buxton family Maggie encounters acceptance and love. Mrs Buxton as well as the girl Erminia like her a great deal and in the absence of her mother Maggie shows her true nature. She isn’t only a subdued little girl but very intelligent and truly kind.

After the death of Mrs Buxton the novel fastforwards a few years. Maggie and Frank have fallen in love, Edward has become a lawyer and handles some affairs for Mr Buxton The two lovers want to marry but Frank’s father is opposed to the idea. Chapter 7 is by far the most interesting. It displays all the themes that are recurring in Gaskell’s novels, one of them is the situation of the poor.

I found it particularly interesting because Frank asks Maggie to go away with him, to Australia or Canada.

I would go off to Australia at once. Indeed, Maggie, I think it would be the best thing we could do. My heart aches about the mysterious corruptions and evils of an old state of society such as we have in England.

Frank has lost all faith in the European society. He longs for a clean start in an uncorrupted environment. Where would Frank want to go nowadays, I wondered. To the Moon?

Frank has a huge problem with the way the rich treat the poor and the lovers discuss this at length. Maggie says she would be glad if there really was such a thing as “Transmigration”, something she has read about in an Indian tale. She would like to be transmigrated into a slave owner to see his side of things.

I quite enjoyed the first 8 chapters. I have to agree with Violet, the tone of the novel is mawkish throughout and there is a lot of crying but up to chapter 9 I could forgive it. From then on the novel unfortunately takes a turn. Maggie commits a huge act of self-sacrifice and the story’s plausibility is stretched a lot.

Still I enjoyed it overall because I cannot compare it to any of her other novels yet and because I could see what a truly good Elizabeth Gaskell novel would have to offer. Her descriptions are nuanced and beautiful, the changing of the seasons is rendered masterfully. Depending on the season her descriptions are either light and cheerful or dark and gloomy. Some character descriptions are interesting. Mrs Buxton, despite her insufferable moral teachings, is an interesting character. Why is she ailing and why does she love little Maggie so much?  The awareness of social injustices and the social criticism are themes Elizabeth Gaskell is known for and there is already quite a lot of it in this early novel.

Although the end dampened the overall impression, I will always remember the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside and feel like reading either North and South or Cranford very soon.

Do you have any other suggestions? Did someone else read The Moorland Cottage?