Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens – A novel of two women

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“Two women, two love stories, two centuries apart”. This is a book which sets out to do a lot. There is a large amount of autobiography here which is interesting, but it is sold on the sections concerning the Victorian author, Elizabeth Gaskell. Stevens attempts to run the story of her own life and studies with a fictional story concerning an author about which much is known. There are a few books which attempt to blend a famous author’s life or best known work with the story of the modern writer’s attempts to learn about them, but this is not the best of them. It is a valiant attempt to put some of the story of this lesser known author in a new context, and as such should be applauded, as Gaskell’s works include some excellent novels of individual women’s situation in the fast changing world of the Industrial Revolution. As such it may well inspire some to sample more of Gaskell’s work beyond the popular “Cranford”, which would be an excellent achievement.

The book opens with a picture of Elizabeth Gaskell in 1855, as she responds to the sermons that her Unitarian Minister husband preaches, of which she is not a huge fan. Stevens addresses Gaskell as “You” throughout the sections, which is an interesting technique to simultaneously draw her to the reader’s attention, and to approach the writer via her feelings and actions. This section goes on to relate how Gaskell had begun and developed her flourishing career as a writer, which led her to fame and meeting many interesting people, including Charlotte Bronte. When she discovers that Charlotte has died, she embarks on a biography of the writer which she anticipates will cause trouble; she wrote to her publisher “Do you mind the law of libel?” Partly to escape the publicity, she journeys to Rome, where she meets the younger but fascinating Charles Eliot Norton. She falls in love, with him, with Rome, with her escape from Manchester, and many of the sections in the book deals with her feelings on her return and resumption of life. There is a strange section featuring the Barrett Brownings. The Gaskell narrative is interspersed with Stevens’ own story of an international romance, which features her internet links with the man, and her struggles with her Phd studies. There are some varied pictures of a writing group in Paris and a health crisis, which overlaps with Gaskell in a different way.

I found much to interest me in this book, having a particular involvement with Gaskell studies, but I found the changes of focus less than engaging. There are almost two excellent books here, but I found the format a little disappointing. I found the fictional construction of Gaskell’s feelings fascinating, and generally fitting in with her existing writing in many letters. This is a good book, championing as it does Gaskell in a timely way. I did enjoy this book, found it engaging and readable, and would recommend it as a good introduction to Gaskell written in a unique way.

I particularly enjoyed this book because I have just finished a project with Elizabeth Gaskell house in Manchester. This book was being launched there a few days after my most recent visit. It certainly sheds an interesting light on Gaskell.

Meanwhile we are entering high Harvest Festival season hereabouts. Suppers, barn dances and other delights. Just a little sorting out of pie options to go…

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