Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens

 

panmacmillan.com

 

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.

  • Amazon.com

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.

New books about Austen, Woolf and the Brontës

 

2017: A Year of Literary Nonfiction Celebrating British Women Writers

Hat tip to nonfiction scribblers assiduously churning out new literary biographies and criticism about these iconic female authors each and every year. Convinced surely there could be no new angle, I’m always pleasantly surprised when out pops a new one. Wherever this New Idea Generator is located, long may it churn.

Possible candidate: New Idea Generator

Common sense dictates at some future point original topics will be exhausted, until and unless something radically new is found in someone’s trunk or attic. Surely there’s a saturation point? But who am I to say. Keep ’em coming as long as possible. With the 200 year anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth last year, and 200th of not just Austen’s death but also the publication of her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey this year, it’s a veritable bumper crop of delicious nonfiction titles. All the better.

I’ve long dreamed of the existence of an undiscovered Austen manuscript. Ditto the Brontës. Pry up those floorboards in the Haworth parsonage! There just may be something squirreled away.

New titles stretch out as far as early 2018, I’ve found via a few searches on Amazon. No doubt more are lurking past that. Certainly enough new stuff to keep devotees busy for quite some time.

I bought this one a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently reading and enjoying it very much:

Austen, Brontë and Woolf, oh my!

A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
Aurum Press
1 June 2017

And here are some of the others I’ve found whilst rooting around:

General works on female writers of the period

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon
Virago
19 Oct 2017

 

Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature by Shelley DeWees
Harper Perennial
12 Jan 2017

Virginia Woolf

Walking Virginia Woolf’s London by Lisbeth Larrson
Palgrave Macmillan
10 Aug. 2017

 

 

Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Woodring, Forrester and Gladding
Columbia University Press
January 2018 – paperback release

An explosion of Austen!

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
Icon Books Ltd
1 Jun. 2017

 

 

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography
by Lucy Worsley
Hodder & Stoughton
18 May 2017

 

The Genius of Jane Austen by Paula Byrne
William Collins
18 May 2017

Four Austen tiles I’ll be reviewing

Biteback Publishing
25 May 2017
(Currently Reading)

 

Jane Austen: Writer in the World by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
16 June 2017

 

 

Jane Austen: Illustrated Quotations
Bodleian Library
3 July 2017

 

 

Jane Austen: The Chawton Letters by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
29 September 2017

 

And the Brontës

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
Chatto & Windus
12 Jan 2017

 

 

The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher
WW Norton
5 Aug 2017

 

This is the point at which I make you particularly envious: at the end of this month my favorite Scottish host and I will be taking a journey south of the border to England, where we’ll visit various sites related to these three beloved writers. Five, actually, if you count the other two Brontë sisters Anne and Emily. Mea culpa.

When I have the full list of places we plan to visit (the Scot has that, but he’s in the other room and I cannot be bothered) I’ll post that here. Once I’ve returned, of course I’ll have photos along with excessive, likely rather purple verbiage to share.

Between now and then, I plan to finish as many of the review titles as possible. At the very least, I need to brush up on basic biographical facts about each of the ladies. I posted a few times about the Brontës last year: here, here, here and here. For Woolf, I posted most recently about her shorter fiction. Here’s a post about Woolf and the Brontës, a double-header. As for Austen, aside from some very insubstantial posts, I read Rachel Brownstein’s Why Read Jane Austen? back in 2012, enjoying it immensely.

I’m looking forward to hanging out with these literary ladies this summer, back to Victorian and early 20th century writing. It’s been too long.