I was casting around for a spot of diversion after a string of excellent but particularly dark novels when Nell Stevens’ Mrs Gaskell and Me arrived. I’d been eyeing it up for a little while, wondering if I’d enjoy it and now seemed the perfect time to find out. Stevens’ account of her doctoral research into Mrs Gaskell’s correspondence with a young man she met in Rome together with her own love story turned out to be very appealing, although perhaps not as light hearted as I’d expected.
Stevens had been struggling for a little while, trying to get a grip on her thesis, watching her fellow post-grad students, all displaying the classic signs of the PhD candidate – obsession with one’s subject, inability to talk about anyone’s else’s subject, a tendency to prickliness – but finding nothing of their passion in her own research. She’s constantly distracted by fantasies about Max, the friend she met on a creative writing course in Boston, with whom she’s fallen in apparently unrequited love. When he invites her to Paris, where he’s trying to write, she goes armed with a declaration that this can’t go on, that she adores him but can no longer see him platonically. After an awkward supper, things take a surprising turn back at Max’s apartment. Not long after, the focus of Stevens’ research becomes clear to her. Anticipating opprobrium on the publication of her biography of her dear friend Charlotte Brontë, Mrs Gaskell took herself off to Rome where she immersed herself in the English-speaking artistic community, meeting the likes of Elizabeth and Robert Barrett Browning and making the acquaintance of Charles Eliot Newton with whom she formed a deep connection. It’s this that Stevens decides to research, based on their correspondence.
Unlike Mrs Gaskell, who informed her publisher that she wanted to libel those she felt had let Brontë down, Stevens makes no bones about her book being a ‘work of imagination’, weaving imagined episodes in Rome through her own story and addressing some sections directly to Mrs Gaskell herself. I may well not have picked this book up without the Gaskell hook but I found myself rushing through these sections eager to get on and find out what was happening between Stevens and Max. There’s plenty of heartbreak here, despite the light tone, but there’s also a good deal of humour to enjoy particularly if you’ve had anything to do with academic life. I see from her biographical notes that Stevens teaches creative writing and I suspect she’s much more comfortable with that than in a literature department. I raced through her book, rooting for her all the way. Happy endings often make for dull fiction but give me a real life one any day. I hope Stevens has found hers.