Mrs Gaskell and Me is a book of many parts, each neatly interspersed in collage format, with tendrils flowing into each another. It’s a book about Nell Stevens’ love for Elizabeth Gaskell, but also about her love for Max, the man she met whilst studying in Boston and had a transatlantic relationship with for some of the book. It’s about Rome, where Mrs Gaskell fled to in 1857 on the eve of publication of The Life of Charlotte Bronte, and home, where, in 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her PhD about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s about studying and analysing, and not entirely knowing if you want to. It’s about love that is sometimes requited, and at others not, and a love that never can be requited, but that’s enough. There are even three endings, in a choose your own adventure style. It flows easily, and doesn’t feel bitty, despite there being many, well, bits.
Stevens is a good writer, as you’d expect someone studying a PhD in literature to be, and this is an easy read. She combines essays to Mrs Gaskell, letters to her lover, musings on life as a thirty-something in London and literary criticism in an accessible and digestible format.
I’m just not entirely sure what the point of the book is. Is it a place for Stevens to house the notes on Gaskell that never quite made it into her PhD? Is it a form of therapy after her relationship breaks up? Is it, whisper, just all a bit of self-indulgent writing?
Bleaker House, Stevens’ first book, about a young woman trying, and failing, to write a novel, was also a bit naval gazing. But it was a good read. Maybe Stevens is just good at writing about herself. And if you’re good at something, why stop?
Mrs Gaskell and Me will be published by Picador in June 2018.