But when she writes of Mrs Gaskell that “she ached for [Norton], the way I ache for Max” this is without interest because Max reads like something between a figment and a plot device. Not believing in the Max-ache makes it hard to swallow the Norton-ache. Ditto the “tightening” of Mrs Gaskell’s stomach as she contemplates returning to the bed she shares with Mr Gaskell. You believe nothing, and care less.
Still, if it weren’t for Stevens, I might not have gone back to bed with Uglow, and for that I am grumpily grateful.
Nell Stevens’s extraordinary, delightful and very moving new book offers an imagined insight into Mrs Gaskell’s world and the world of her friends, as well as tracing the tragicomic story of how Stevens herself struggled to combine academic work with maintaining a complicated relationship with a man who lived hundreds of miles away... This could have been massively grating; it’s a testimony to the charm and skill of Stevens’s writing, as well as what feels like genuine intimacy between her and her subject, that it never is... The Gaskell parts of Mrs Gaskell and Me don’t pretend to be a straightforward biography, nor do the parts about Stevens’s own life pretend to be straightforward memoir... The facts may not all be real, but the feelings, the dynamics and above all the sense of yearning for intensity, connection and potential experience that suffuses both narratives definitely are... In this funny, heartfelt book, she manages to say a lot.
Readers of Bleaker House, Stevens’s 2017 dashing debut, will recognise the tone and the ingenuity of this, and imagine they recognise the heroine too, at a different stage of her young adult life... But I found the dramatic events, such as a tornado in Austin, a seance, a medical emergency and an unconventional honeymoon in India, considerably less arresting than Stevens’s claustrophic scenes in bedsits and restaurants, seminars and readings. She has an analytical eye and a wonderful taste for absurdity.
Whether by accident or design (it’s hard to tell), Stevens gives us a sometimes vivid chronicle of solipsism and of the existential anxieties and ennui of a certain kind of contemporary search: for the subject of a book and along the way the subject for a life... What starts briskly as a memoir of modern romance limps exhaustedly over the finishing line. And how does Mrs Gaskell fit in? Awkwardly is the answer. Mrs Gaskell was a member of the Rome circle that is the subject of Stevens’s thesis... Both of them write books and both were in love, she with Max and Mrs G with Charles Eliot Norton, the American writer whom she met and befriended in Rome... There is no evidence at all that Gaskell and Norton were anything more than close friends, but it would be easier to consign this to artistic licence were it not for the growing conviction that Mrs Gaskell, or some character resembling her, has simply been stencilled in to give an unremarkable story some intellectual heft.