Back in the spring, I received a review copy of Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths, and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth (2013) a memoir/biographical study by Ross Eliot. After six months of hectic life, I’m finally getting around to reviewing the book; my apologies to the author for my deleterious behavior.
In 1999, Ross Eliot was working odd jobs and taking community college classes in Portland, Oregon, when a member of the history faculty — Dr. Ellsworth — took an interest in him. In her seventies and living alone, Ellsworth was looking for someone to take up residence in a basement apartment and help out around the house, drive the car, and be a companion at meals as well as on frequent weekend excursions in exchange for room and board. Eliot accepted the challenge, and lived with Dr. Ellsworth, despite her many eccentricities, until a heart attack took her life in 2002.
Part memoir, part character study, Babette echoes such works as Alan Bennett’s essay “The Lady in the Van” (1989) or Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters (2005). Like its predecessors, Babette centers around the complicated, marginal life of an individual with whom the author had personal acquaintance — but whose personal life details elude complete or coherent understanding. All three of these narratives also involve troubling questions of ethical responsibility toward the stories of others, and challenging questions of power imbalances within such author-subject relations.
[mild spoilers after the jump]