North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
North and South is the first Elizabeth Gaskell work I have had the pleasure of reading. Initially I watched the mini-series (swoon, Richard Armitage) but recently decided that I wanted to see how close the series ran to the book.
My very first impression of N&S after finishing it was: wow, there was A LOT of sobbing, crying, wailing and grief in that novel.
Margaret is our protagonist whose family has lived for years in the south of England. Her father, Mr. Hale, is a pastor of a small parish who has a theological disagreement with the church’s faith and decides to quit being a pastor and move to a northern city to become a tutor.
Mrs. Hale, his wife, is basically a weak woman who has somewhat regretted marrying Mr. Hale, having made a marriage of love instead of means. She compares her poor circumstances to that of her sister who married (but doesn’t love) a rich man. It’s a catch-22: marry well and be provided for with all the luxuries one wants, or marry for love but find the strain of finances to weigh down on the marriage.
At any rate, the Hales have been married for years and have two children, Margaret and Frederick. Frederick has been exiled for being part of a mutiny while in the navy; it’s a complicated side plot that doesn’t really evolve into much.
Margaret lives in London with her cousin for a while, but once her cousin marries, she returns home to Helstone, the tiny idyllic country parish. Her father astounds the family with the news of the intended move.
As on par with the culture during that time, Margaret and Mrs. Hale are obviously expected to do what Mr. Hale desires, so they find themselves rooted up and placed in a much smaller and dismal home in an industrial town called Milton.
Moving from the country life to an industrial city is a shock to the entire family, especially the women. They find themselves appalled by the poverty, dirt and despair around them. Gaskell does an excellent job describing the lives of the factory workers.
The novel is very clearly a study on the juxtaposition of northern and southern England. In the south men farm the fields, in the north they work in factories; which group lives a fuller existence is the question Gaskell explores. As well, the reader learns much about the industrial revolution, the introduction of heavy machinery that required operators. The working conditions of the factory workers are also heavily discussed.
Of course the essence of the novel is the relationship between Margaret and the owner of a factory, John Thornton. Thornton is well educated even for being a trades person, a position frowned upon in high English society. Margaret becomes exposed to common workers and learns how to relate with those people who society would typically consider of lesser value.
Thornton and Margaret do not initially get along well due to the fact that she is an idealistic woman who is ignorant about how to run a business successfully. Thornton is a man of the world who is struggling to keep his mill afloat with the competing prices flooding the cotton market. As the two clash multiple times, there is always a thread of romantic tension underneath the surface.
I found that Thornton’s character was easy to sympathise with; Margaret, on the other hand, was often insufferably boring to me. Did Gaskell intentionally craft a figure that was smug and self-satisfied? She is often described as having a haughty look about her and somehow that is supposed to make her more attractive, while it just made me want to slap her across the face.
As far as period pieces go, this is a novel well worth reading. However, be prepared for long soliloquies from Bates, a strong willed factory and union man, who has a northern dialect that is challenging to read.
Complaints I have read about this book were mainly about its length. I did find that the plot was fairly slow until the last few chapters of the novel. Gaskell also often uses characters to preach her beliefs and morals, which is fine, but be prepared for long talks about unions, rights of each individual and moral responsibility.
All things considered, I found this book fairly easy to read. One thing I found irritating about Jane Austen’s works was that the dialogue was often implied and quite non-existent. North and South, however, has plenty of healthy dialogue between all the characters.
At the beginning of this review I mentioned that there was plenty of crying and histrionics/sadness in this novel. It’s true. I won’t say who died or suffered, but Margaret spends a lot of time in sadness, feeling dazed, being generally unresponsive, etc. I found it hard to have empathy for her because she lacked OOMPH to do what she wanted.
I recommend reading this book if you enjoy classics, but I even MORE SO recommend watching the mini-series if you are a hopeless romantic like me who swoons watching Pride and Prejudice. I also generally found most of the characters more tolerable in the series than in the book. As well, watch the series before you read the book: it brings the book together in a more comprehensive manner.
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