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Communing with Mrs. Gaskell

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
A séance, circa 1900

Before my publisher’s lawyer would sign off on my new book, she had certain requirements. The book is part memoir of my own love affair and part biographical fiction about the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell; the attorney, having checked permissions for quoted material and approved my disclaimer, wanted reassurance from the story’s love interest that he was happy with his portrayal. The love interest in question, a man referred to as Max in the book, is a profoundly private individual who at no point during our relationship asked for details of his personal life to be laid bare in a memoir. Knowing this, I had tried in my writing to tread a careful line between honesty and tact. Intellectual and legal debates about privacy, about what of our shared history was my story, and what was his, were suddenly personal.

The process of agreeing on the final text with Max was lengthy and fraught. Drafts were sent back and forth, minutiae disputed, identifying details changed. Our relationship, which had lasted years, weathered a painful breakup, and morphed into a genuine friendship, had never been more strained. He was living in Boston and I in London; we barked at each other across the Atlantic, negotiating the borders of the grounds of our past.

I think we both believed we were being reasonable, though reason had little to do with it. It was a battle for a prize neither of us could win: the right to be right about what had happened between us. For a while it seemed we would never agree, but eventually the process ended: I received a final email from him, in which he gave me his permission to publish, and I have barely heard from him since.

I have never taken this lightly: it is a gift to allow someone to make public their half of a two-sided story. I have accepted it nonetheless—the book is now out in the world—and in the absence of permission from the book’s other subject, which was not mine to take and was not willingly given. That is because my book invades not only the privacy of my former lover, but also that of the writer Elizabeth Gaskell, widely known as Mrs. Gaskell, who died in 1865, 120 years before I was born.

Gaskell was, in her day, as famous as the Brontës, Thackeray, and Trollope—all contemporaries who have, posthumously, gone on to outshine her. Her novels, among them Mary Barton, North and South, and Cranford, are careful depictions of class and place, often deeply and radically political. Her short stories and novellas are Gothic, playful, slippery, populated by witches and ghosts. That Gaskell is less well-known in the twenty-first century than she was in the nineteenth is perhaps owing to a sense that she was not a particularly interesting person. She lived in Manchester with a minister husband; she had four daughters; she went to church on Sundays. She did not roam the Yorkshire moors and die young, like the Brontës; she did not have a spouse in a Parisian asylum, like Thackeray. So disregarded is Mrs. Gaskell today that my American publisher rejected the British title of my memoir, Mrs. Gaskell & Me, because American readers wouldn’t know who she was; they preferred the broader sweep of The Victorian and the Romantic.

I spent several years researching Gaskell for my PhD. I worked my way through her novels and short fiction, and, finally, her letters. It was in her correspondence that I really came to know her: a gossipy, witty, earnest, busy-minded woman who could be funny and snide and sweet and visionary all in the space of a paragraph. I spent so much time alone with her words in silent reading rooms that she became a kind of friend to me. When I finished my dissertation, I found I was not ready to let her go. I embarked on a new Gaskell project: a book about my own life, but also about hers.

I understood her well enough to know that she despised the idea of being a biographer’s subject. She once described the thought of her letters being preserved rather than burned as “like a living nightmare.” Yet I have read and cherished those letters, whose recipients ignored her requests to destroy them. I have dedicated years of my life to writing about her, producing not a biography but something that feels more intimate: an attempt at imagining her fully, an experiment in literary resurrection. The book is about the three months she spent in Rome in 1857, where she lived among a community of expatriate artists and fell in love with an American man. It places her transatlantic love story alongside my own, but mostly, it is a love letter to her, and she would have abhorred it.

If I could summon her spirit to ask for her forgiveness, or even, at a push, her blessing, I would. This is an impulse that Gaskell herself would have recognized. When Charlotte Brontë died, Gaskell, who had been her friend, was asked by Charlotte’s father to write his daughter’s biography. Gaskell embarked on the project seeking “to tell the truth… so that every line should go to its great purpose of making her known & valued.” It was an unachievable goal: the truth, when it came to Brontë, was disputed from all sides. Even Brontë’s husband condemned the biography, describing it as “a project, which in my eyes is little short of desecration.” But Brontë’s father assured Gaskell that she was on the right course: “Could my daughter speak from the tomb I feel certain she would laud our choice.” Gaining the dead’s permission to write about them was a preoccupation of the Victorian age, and, as my book entered the world, it became mine, too.

Could Gaskell speak from the tomb, I am not certain she would laud my choice. It was this anxiety that led me, while I was in the US for the publication of my book last summer, to a darkened room in the Spiritualist Church of New York, where I sat with others in a circle around a medium and waited to receive a message from the ghost of Mrs. Gaskell.

*

The day after The Life of Charlotte Brontë was published, Gaskell left England for Italy. She hated reading reviews of her work, and had reason to suspect that the reaction to her biography of Brontë would be particularly strong: she had pulled no punches in her depictions of those she considered “villains” of the Brontë story: the master of the school where two of Charlotte’s sisters had become fatally ill, and the married woman with whom Branwell Brontë had had an affair. Rather than stay at home and face her public, she took her two eldest daughters to the house of American sculptor William Wetmore Story in Rome.

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An illustration of Elizabeth Gaskell, circa 1910; click to enlarge

There, Gaskell encountered a community of British and American artists and writers that included the neoclassical sculptors Harriet Hosmer, Emma Stebbins, and John Gibson, and the writers Harriet Beecher Stowe, Grace Greenwood, and Charles Eliot Norton. Norton in particular made an impression upon her: it was Carnival time, and from a balcony overlooking the Corso, Gaskell saw him standing amongst the throng and exclaimed, “Oh look! What a charming face!” He brought her flowers every day that she was in Rome. It was an unconsummated romance that would last until she died: their letters are filled with nostalgia and longing for the time they spent together. With Norton, and among artists and intellectuals who embraced and celebrated her (“Mrs Gaskell and her daughters are ‘all the fashion here’,” observed a fellow British traveler) Gaskell experienced what she would later describe as “the tip-top point of [her] life.”

Gaskell was a lover of ghost stories, and Rome was a city full of ghosts. She told tales of them to the artists who gathered at the Story house, “sitting over a wood-fire and knowing that the Vatican was in sight of the windows behind!” It was a common feature of tourists’ accounts from this period to claim to have heard the roar of Roman crowds at the Colosseum, the sound of legions’ boots on the cobbles of the Appian Way. Sophia Hawthorne, who was in the city with her husband Nathaniel shortly after Gaskell, wrote that “I both feel how it all was, and, strange to say, I am also magnetized with the power that hovers invisibly in this air.” Story described how “the air seems to keep a sort of spiritual scent or trail of these old deeds, and to make them more real here than elsewhere. The Ghosts of History haunt their ancient habitations…. The Past hovers like a subtle aura around the Present.” 

Believing themselves to be surrounded by the spirits of their predecessors in the city, the expatriate artists of mid-nineteenth-century Rome embarked on a very specific project. Not only were they seeking to resurrect the dead in their work—the project of neoclassicists was, after all, to breathe life into the classical form, thereby making it new—but they also sought to resurrect the dead quite literally. Story was a devoted Spiritualist, hosting séances for his friends and discussing his efforts to develop powers as a medium with other devotees, including Harriet Hosmer and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Spiritualism’s central tenet was that the dead were accessible to the living. Mediums claimed they could reach the spirits’ realm and pass messages between them and their surviving loved ones. There are countless Spiritualist texts from the period that read now like grief memoirs: the father who believes his wife is channeling the spirit of their dead son through drawings; the husband who receives messages from his late wife via table-rapping. These narratives are yearning, reaching, and determined. In an age in which steam could power a locomotive, in which electricity could move wires around a magnet to form a motor, in which a telegraph cable could stretch from one side of the Atlantic to the other, was it really so far-fetched to believe that information could travel between the living and the dead?

For the artists around Gaskell in Rome, Spiritualism was not just a way to ease the pain of personal bereavement, but a tool by which they could speak to other artists. Many of them came to Rome in order to follow in the footsteps of the Romantic poets, the Renaissance painters before them, and the Greco-Roman stonemasons before them. They felt the ghosts of former artists all around them in the city, and Spiritualism offered the possibility of conversing with those artists across time. The art critic and Spiritualist James Jackson Jarves claimed in 1855 that precedent for this had been set by Giotto: in 1320, Jarves explained, Giotto had been visited and inspired by the spirit of Dante while painting the frescoes Poverty, Obedience, and Chastity.

In 1864, John Ruskin rejected an offer made by a medium to connect him with his grandparents, preferring instead to speak to the spirit of Veronese. Ruskin had yearned earlier for exactly the conditions a séance could provide, describing in a letter to a friend an imagined meeting with the ghost of Tintoretto, who “would stoop and talk to me there—because I had not understood him.” Of the possibility of interviewing Veronese at a séance, he wrote, “[W]on’t I cross examine him!” In 1853, the Scottish-American Spiritualist Robert Dale Owen published an account of a séance in which he inquired, after communicating with Jefferson and Franklin, “if any other spirit was present; and Shelley, the poet, an old friend of mine, announced his presence and willingness to answer any questions.” Ruskin himself was present at a séance in which Southey dictated a new poem.

The Romantic poets were particularly prone to making appearances to Spiritualists. In 1856, Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge produced their last known work, posthumously and collaboratively, by dictating poetry to a medium named Thomas Lake Harris. Harris, who performed “automatic writing,” a practice in which “the medium writes involuntarily, sometimes in a state of trance, and often [on] matter which he is not thinking about, does not expect, and does not like,” produced a volume of the Romantics’ work called A Lyric of the Golden Age. In Harris’s volume, Byron pours “from out his burning mind / The seething torrents of unresting soul” and Keats stands “beside / The waking figures of his Grecian urn.”

When Elizabeth Gaskell entered the house of William Wetmore Story in Rome, she was entering a world in which the mere fact of someone’s death meant neither the end of their creativity nor the end of their ability to communicate. And while she herself assumed a “half believing, half incredulous” attitude toward Spiritualism, she did nonetheless believe in ghosts. “I SAW a ghost! Yes I did;” she once wrote to a friend, “though in such a matter of fact place as Charlotte St [in London] I should not wonder if you are sceptical.”

I, like the recipient of Gaskell’s letter, am skeptical: I do not believe in ghosts. I don’t even especially like ghost stories. But I find it comforting to know that Gaskell lived in a world of ghosts, in an era when it was widely believed that the dead could speak. It brings her closer to me, despite my own disbelief, to think that she might believe in her own ghost, even if I cannot.

*

In the Spiritualist Church of New York, the assembled group of séance attendees perched on rickety stackable chairs. There was an urn of coffee in the corner of the room and a Led Zeppelin poster on the wall. We had already sat through a Spiritualist service, during which a speaker had declared that “truth is light,” and volunteer healers had cleansed the auras of those who were in any kind of pain. I had watched from the back of the room as the healers waved their hands around the heads of the afflicted. There was a break after this, and then the medium arrived. She was late, flustered, and British, with a strong Yorkshire accent. The lights were lowered, but only slightly, and in the partial darkness, the Fitbit on the medium’s wrist glowed.

After reading many accounts of Victorian séances over the past several years, I had a very clear idea of what this would be like. The medium would be fey, ethereal, other-worldly, the mood somber; there would be candlelight, and inexplicable thuds and disembodied hands reaching out of the darkness. However, things had changed a lot in the past 150 years. The atmosphere at the Spiritualist Church of New York was akin to that of an AA meeting.

I paid my twenty-dollar fee; I sat through the housekeeping messages about future meetings and conference locations; I nodded when the medium said she would try to get a communication to everyone present, but that she couldn’t guarantee anything. Then the messages started to arrive, and she delivered them in the same matter-of-fact manner, weirder and less meaningful than I could ever have anticipated: I’m hearing that you believe in fairies, the medium told a woman to my left; you believe in big fairies, and that’s okay; you need more green in your apartment. To another she said, Your grandmother is here, in a wheelchair; she wants you to buy new shoes. A man was told he was a woman in a former life. An elderly lady’s late husband appeared, proffering red carnations. Somebody was about to be given a good opportunity at work and their great uncle was anxious that they should take it.

Each time the medium started to speak, I wondered whether it would be to me. I braced myself for an encounter. I was nervous, almost as though I really believed I could come face to face with Elizabeth Gaskell in that strange, dingy room. But each time, the message was for someone else. To a nervous young man, the medium said, Do you know anyone whose name begins with H? They are telling me that in your life you are in a library full of colourful books; you are taking each one down from the shelves, looking for a word. Somebody was instructed to take better care of their teeth.

This was a ragtag group of ghosts, and Mrs. Gaskell was not among them. Naturally, she was not among them: she wouldn’t be seen dead here. Minutes passed. I watched the luminous blue square on the medium’s wrist, and waited for the séance to be over. Afterward, I ate mussels at a nearby French restaurant and watched the traffic outside and realized that I was relieved that Mrs. Gaskell had not come.

I could interpret Gaskell’s silence as rage—at me, at my book, at what I have done to her in writing about her life. I could interpret it as evidence of the phoniness of Spiritualism, in the way it gives false hope to the bereaved and an unjustified sense of authority to artists lucky enough to summon their forebears. I take it as both, and I am glad that the medium gave me no words from Gaskell that I’d have had to grapple with.

I will never get Mrs. Gaskell’s blessing, because she cannot give it, and if she could, she probably wouldn’t. The nearest I will ever get to her—to the ghost of her—is the version I have created in the book she probably would not have allowed.

I have plundered her life to be close to her, and she’ll never be close enough to object. Max, on the other hand, the lover who was so important to me, alive and vital, gave his permission, then slipped out of my life. And perhaps this is the most any writer can ask for: the compliance of the absent living, the silence of the present dead.