May and Amy

In the last decade of her life, a friend of May Gaskell described his conversations with her as “leading me back and back through manor-garden gates and servant- held doors opened upon the gilt and gaiety of the British Empire’s last throes of vastness and greatness.” May and Amy: A True Story of Family, Forbidden Love, and the Secret Lives of May Gaskell, Her daughter Amy, and Sir Edward Burne- Jones, by May Gaskell’s great-granddaughter, Josceline Dimbleby, embodies this experience for modern readers.

As Dimbleby tells May Gaskell’s story, it becomes clear that two enduring loves sustained May throughout her long life. One was the love of a mother for her mysterious daughter Amy, her eldest child. The second was May’s intense platonic love affair with the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Edward Burne-Jones. May carefully preserved and re-read Burne-Jones’s letters for the rest of her life. These threads converge in a portrait of Amy that Burne-Jones painted for May, a picture that inspired Josceline Dimbleby’s quest.

This biographical portrait of May Gaskell gives the reader an excellent balance between the personal joys and sorrows of May Gaskell’s life and historical events that impacted her. While there is ample “gilt and gaiety”, for example in the pomp of Edward VII’s coronation and in travels to exotic locales from Argentina to the Orient, May and her family felt the devastation of war during the Boer War in South Africa and World War I. Josceline Dimbleby has provided a unique window into a past time as experienced by a remarkable English woman, May Gaskell.