BLOG POST: Nell Stevens
In 2013, Nell Stevens struggled to write her Ph.D. thesis about Elizabeth Gaskell while navigating the rocky landscape of a long-distance love affair.In 1857, following the publication of her controversial Life of Charlotte Brontë, Mrs Gaskell escaped to Rome where she met the love of her life, the American author and social reformer, Charles Eliot Norton.
Two women, two love stories, two centuries apart.But the real love affair at the heart of Mrs Gaskell & Me concerns Nell Stevens, the book's narrator/author, and her subject, Elizabeth Gaskell.
It was, admits Stevens, "a slow burn".Having read Mary Barton as a bookish teenager "on a Victorian novel kick", Stevens revisited Gaskell's work as a postgraduate student.However, it wasn't until she discovered Gaskell's letters that the spark was ignited.
"At that moment I suddenly had this sense of the real person.It really was love at first sight.She's so alive in her letters and so vibrant.I was completely besotted.Her warmth; the absolute joy in small pleasures.She gets tipsy at dinner and gets excited about a kitten.She's a real person."
The book's re-imagining of the relationship between Gaskell and Norton is based on the letters they wrote to each other right up until the end of Gaskell's life.Whether or not theirs was truly a romance, or rather a deep friendship, is open to interpretation.Certainly there is no suggestion of a sexual relationship.So, did she really love him?
"The letters are extraordinary; beautiful, nostalgic, longing letters of the kind you write to someone with whom you fell in love in Rome.I do understand people resisting that reading and saying they were just great friends.That's valid too.But that's what I feel when I read those letters."
Then there are the "Nell" chapters; a "pretty accurate" account, says Stevens, of a seemingly turbulent period in the author's own life in the not too distant past.Names, scenes and personalities have been changed, according to the disclaimer at the beginning of the book.Before publishing, Stevens gave the book to her ex-partner, the "Max" character in Mrs Gaskell & Me, for his approval.
"The biggest change I made was to protect the identity of 'Max' (not his real name).Of course he had a hard time with the project.At no point in our relationship did he say, 'So, write it all down and publish it for anyone to read.'How awful, what a nightmare!He's been immensely generous; I feel it was a gift to have him allow me to do it."
Given the book's blending of fact and fiction, categorising Mrs Gaskell & Me as either novel or memoir is problematic.
"I grapple with this question.I was really keen to avoid giving anyone the impression it was biography.It was something much more personal and an experiment in how our own lives affect the way in which we think about other people.So what is it?I always end up with, 'It's a sort of memoir', which is unsatisfactory, but it's the best I've got."
Nell Stevens will be in conversation with Deborah Grace at Didsbury Arts Festival on Tuesday 25 June, 7.30 pm, Didsbury Baptist Church - more information here