Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens


Not currently employed outside freelancing – not outside the home, I mean – how I spend my time is at my own discretion. A rabid reader, it’s not a stretch guessing what I’ve been doing with my free time these past seven or eight weeks.

You betcha!

Cups of coffee and toast crumbs litter my desk, books stacked on and around me acting as a fortress. It’s an apt comparison. Books have always served me well keeping harsh realities of the world at bay. They represent both passion and comfort. Between used bookshops and the wonders of the internet I’m doing a laudable job building my collection.

I’ve read some astonishingly good books lately, at least one not so great. Two of the astonishingly good have been on my TBR for years, surfacing because the Edinburgh-based book group I joined chose them. Funnily enough, I didn’t make it to discussion for either book I did manage to finish. I only made it for the one I didn’t. I read the unfinished book at least a decade ago. A classic of contemporary Scottish literature, I will finish this go ’round and write about it. I showed up for that discussion without worry the ending could be spoiled and to introduce myself to like-minded readers. I also wanted to hear native opinions about an Edinburgh-set novel so wildly popular it was later adapted to film.

Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart made it into my Scottish home library thanks to an itchy Amazon One-Click finger. I can never order just one book. How lonely for it to ship alone, who could bear the thought of an orphaned book. And the title of its companion … how could I resist? Then the description:

In 1857, after two years of writing The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell fled England for Rome on the eve of publication. The project had become so fraught with criticism, with different truths and different lies, that Mrs Gaskell couldn’t stand it any more. She threw her book out into the world and disappeared to Italy with her two eldest daughters. In Rome she found excitement, inspiration, and love: a group of artists and writers who would become lifelong friends, and a man – Charles Norton – who would become the love of Mrs Gaskell’s life, though they would never be together.

In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her Ph.D. – about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century – and falling drastically in love with a man who lives in another city. As Nell chases her heart around the world, and as Mrs Gaskell forms the greatest connection of her life, these two women, though centuries apart, are drawn together.

Mrs Gaskell and Me is about unrequited love and the romance of friendship, it is about forming a way of life outside the conventions of your time, and it offers Nell the opportunity – even as her own relationship falls apart – to give Mrs Gaskell the ending she deserved.


Charles Eliot Norton

I knew little of Gaskell’s beloved Charles Eliot Norton but his name rang a small bell.

An American author, art critic and professor of art, he enjoyed friendships with a number of writers of his day including: John Ruskin, Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf), John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard) and, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell.

Rudyard Kipling, from his autobiography:

We visited at Boston [my father’s] old friend, Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard, whose daughters I had known at The Grange in my boyhood and since. They were Brahmins of the Boston Brahmins, living delightfully, but Norton himself, full of forebodings as to the future of his land’s soul, felt the established earth sliding under him, as horses feel coming earth-tremors. … Norton spoke of Emerson and Wendell Holmes and Longfellow and the Alcotts and other influences of the past as we returned to his library, and he browsed aloud among his books; for he was a scholar among scholars.

Norton’s place in Gaskell’s heart was a delightful surprise, admittedly voyeuristic. Digging into his life, small wonder she found kinship in a way she couldn’t with her husband. Meeting the great thinker on a trip to Rome, what better setting to spark romance. A feeling he reciprocated made obvious through barely restrained, coded correspondence, it’s safe to assume it was never consummated considering the time and upstanding reputations of both. And when he eventually married, realizing a relationship could never be, Gaskell’s heart was crushed.

I’ve been thinking of writing just this sort of book, weaving a life’s worth of reading literature in with my experiences. I’m not old and decrepit – though the snaps, crackles and pops emanating from my leg joints suggest otherwise – but I do have enough life experience to look back with benefit of well-earned wisdom. Stevens seems a bit young to have already begun looking back, but then she’s chosen a brief window. Mine would involve looking back further along than halfway, a bigger task.

A memoir of several years of her life juxtaposed with a period of Gaskell’s sharing a

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

similar theme, it hits the ground running. I loved the first third or so, empathizing as she struggled heroically with her doctoral thesis (NOTE: I don’t have a Ph.D. but based on my Masters experience I have an inkling) and recalling the heartbreak of failed love, something we all know too well.

The material concerning Stevens’ life – as far as the love story – began running thin the further I got into the book, not quite successfully stretching to match Gaskell’s. It became repetitive; I began to drift off. I identified with Stevens mostly in the beginning, when the love was unrequited. I can’t help thinking if she’d maneuvered that period forward a bit, starting earlier in the relationship, she’d have made it to the end with more effective balance. Her struggles with scholarship provide plentiful material but it’s the romantic element binding her to Gaskell. It never felt quite matched to me.

Now that I’ve finished the book, formed my opinion and gotten through one draft of my own review, I’m at this moment revising. Safe to read the thoughts of others without them bleeding into mine, I see I’m distinctly in the minority – not uncommon at all. Reviews in big name periodicals are overwhelmingly positive, though Amazon’s readers are more mixed. A couple mention factual errors, disconcerting considering Nell Stevens is a scholar. While I haven’t gotten to the bottom of that, I’m investigating.

Enough about the book irked me I can’t give it a firm recommendation. Yes, the premise is intriguing, and yes I’m delighted to see Elizabeth Gaskell’s name brought into the 21st century, but conceits such as slipping into second person in the Gaskell sections made me grit my teeth.

Then, keep in mind I’m a hard ass reviewer. Your experiences may vary. I do recommend caution against plopping down the hardback price, though.

If you have read or do read it, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Reading Dark Quartet: The Story of the Brontes by Lynne Reid Banks


It seems this novelization has lots more hard information than I’d given it credit for. At the very least, it’s giving me lots of bits about the Brontës I’d forgotten about.

For instance:

Branwell’s temper tantrums – I give Patrick much credit for dealing with his son’s often explosive behavior. When things didn’t go his way, the boy could be quite a little monster. The girls learned to tip-toe around him when he was in one of his moods, and their Aunt Branwell, after whom the kid was named, made no secret of her advice: send the boy to boarding school!

“Backward I look upon my life,
And see one waste of storm and strife,
One wrack of sorrows, hopes, and pain,
Vanishing to arise again!
That life has moved through evening, where
Continual shadows veiled my sphere;
From youth’s horizon upward rolled
To life’s meridian, dark and cold.”
Patrick Branwell Brontë


Incidentally, later in life Branwell would go on to become a painter, producing such works as this:



And this:

Caitlin Jenner's less attractive ancestor

Caitlin Jenner’s less attractive ancestor

The horrors of Cowan Bridge School, that hellish and brutal establishment of learning whose draconian ideas of discipline and abnegation indisputably hastened the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth Bronte. The institution’s neglect and inhumanly harsh forms of discipline were criminal. The deaths of these girls, as well as many others, are on their hands.




These were wonderful, kind and intelligent young girls! That their lives were cut short at the hands of the beasts at Cowan Bridge is abominable. Even if the school did undergo drastic change following dozens of deaths from typhus, due in large part to malnutrition and absolutely freezing conditions, still these children gave their lives for nothing. The girls were mocked, starved and forced to undergo privations totally innappropriate for their age – perhaps any age.

No wonder the guilt lay so heavily on Patrick Brontë’s shoulders.

From Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte:

[Charlotte] used to speak of her two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died at Cowan Bridge. I used to believe them to have been wonders of talent and kindness. She told me, early one morning, that she had just been dreaming; she had been told that she was wanted in the drawing-room, and it was Maria and Elizabeth. I was eager for her to go on, and when she said there was no more, I said, ‘but go on! Make it out! I know you can!’. She said she would not; she wished she had not dreamed, for it did not go on nicely, they were changed; they had forgotten what they used to care for. They were very fashionably dressed, and began criticising the room…


The Brontë children’s delightful, endlessly creative writings and miniature books –  no surprise these children were clever. From a young age they began writing plays and stories, invented imaginary lands and wrote and assembled these little books:




The insular life of the children – they were each other’s favorite playmates and companions, not mixing so well in society. Aunt Branwell noted, upon leaving a party  to which the whole family had been invited, how the children were mute during the event but immediately laughing and gamboling about the instant the door closed behind them.

Yip, been there.


Patrick Brontë could be very weird ass – he had a great deal of trouble relating to children, spending much of his time completely isolated from his own brood. He was also in the habit of keeping a loaded pistol in his room at night, for safety, discharging it out his bedroom window every morning.

Shooting a pistol out his window. Every morning. With small children in the house.


Patrick Bronte's pistol and nightcap

Patrick Bronte’s pistol and nightcap

The children read widely, their books completely uncensored – Lord Byron was a particular favorite of Charlotte’s, who reportedly blushed to read some of his more salacious passages. I’m beginning to see hints as to how these children went on to produce such sexually charged works.

And Charlotte may have been a very saucy thing, indeed. From a letter by the author:

“If you knew my thoughts; the dreams that absorb me; and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up … you would pity and I daresay despise me.”

I honestly don’t doubt it. But no, not pity or despise. Rather, find compelling and more than a bit interesting.


There’s so much to be known about the Brontë family, and reading this novel is re-opening my interest. It’s a little surprising how much I’m growing to enjoy Banks’ book, and the ripple effects it’s having on my desire to learn more.

Here’s a YouTube video I’m also watching, another source of information about this fascinating family:

Getting more and more anxious to move on to Claire Harmon’s biography of Charlotte all the time. Revisiting the Brontës has been beyond a delight. The thing is, a person could spend a lifetime reading everything written by and about the family.

Such is the joy and curse of the reading life.

But mostly the joy.


Yorkshire Dales - Brontë Country

Yorkshire Dales – Brontë Country