Two stories intersect 150 years apart in this unusual historical memoir.
Completing her doctorate in Victorian literature, Stevens (Bleaker House, 2017, etc.) chose to focus on the work of Elizabeth Gaskell, a close friend of Charlotte Brontë who was tasked with writing her biography. Studying Gaskell with uninhibited obsession, she quickly noticed the parallels between her life and that of her subject. “I had never encountered a writer who could fill a page so entirely with herself….I was caught up in her life almost instantly,” writes Stevens. Just as Gaskell’s book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, was due for publication, she escaped to Rome to avoid any criticism of her work. Ultimately, Gaskell’s book “took two years to write and more pain and worry than you could possibly have anticipated. There were so many people to insult….There were so many people, you said, whom you wanted to libel.” In the process, Gaskell met the love of her life, the notorious critic Charles Eliot Norton. This escape was a trigger for Stevens, who, in 2013, began devouring her letters and imagining what her life must have been like. Meanwhile, Stevens was also dealing with her one true love, Max, who was elusive and reluctant to own up to his feelings. Stevens weaves a text that oscillates between the late 1850s and the mid-2000s, systemically identifying parallels between her and Gaskell’s respective romantic lives and underlining the different roles women played in these two very different societies. Though the result is an interesting and beautifully written contrast, the intention behind the book remains unclear, and readers may feel adrift at certain points.
While the book occasionally lacks direction, readers will find comfort in the fact that Victorian stories are usually entertaining, and Stevens knows how to tell her own with literary punch.