Originally published in 1855. Approximately 183,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.
When Margaret Hale moves with her father from the comfort of the south of England to the industrial north, she is at first repulsed by what she sees; and then when she discovers the conditions under which the workers are forced to live, she is outraged. But this throws her into direct conflict with the powerful young mill-owner, John Thornton. Using personal passions to explore deep social divisions, North and South is a great romance and one of Elizabeth Gaskell's finest works.
Elizabeth Gaskell was apparently not as well known as some of her contemporaries until the 2004 BBC miniseries, which is a typical pretty period piece of the sort that was popular before BBC declared "No more bonnet dramas."
North and South is a skillful synthesis of Dickensian social commentary and Austenian romance. Its protagonist is 19-year-old Margaret Hale, whose father, suffering a crisis of conscience, quits his job as a country parson in idyllic southern England and moves his wife and daughter north to the industrial cotton-mill town of Milton.
Milton is dark and dirty, and full of poor workers right out in the open, coming as a shock to the Hales, who are used to poor people being genteelly out of sight, living in little cottages they can visit with a basket of food. Margaret is a well-educated country girl, and her mother is a typical upper-class housewife. The Hales aren't used to these northerners who speak bluntly, tell you exactly what they think of you, ask personal questions, and talk openly about money.
The large issues of the book concern capitalism and class warfare. Gaskell depicts workers' strikes, the merciless working conditions, and the bustling but harrowing rise of English industry that created enormous wealth and grinding poverty. Her poor aren't caricatures, but hard, not always sympathetic people. Likewise, she shows how oppressive and tyrannical the "masters" can be, but through the POV of Mr. Thornton, a rising mill owner who clawed his own way up from poverty, she gives them a reasonable and moral, if not kind, point of view.
John Thornton, of course, is the love interest, and the main plot thread running through the book, the one that I wasn't as fond of. Margaret is initially not at all enamored of the wealthy industrialist, who, undaunted by either her mannerly disdain or his own mother's cold mercenary disapproval, is struck with love at first sight. It's never explained just what made this prissy southern girl so irresistible to him. He then spends the rest of the novel being in love with her despite resigning himself to not having a chance with her, and Margaret spends the rest of the novel denying that she feels anything but disdain for him, while constantly worrying about what he thinks of her.
Honestly, I could have done without the obligatory happy ending that smacked blatantly of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. And Margaret Hale, while she certainly has a voice and a personality, was a little too simpering at times (though not as bad as Fanny Price). I thought the social issues and the secondary characters were more interesting than the Lovestruck Capitalist and the almost-perfect protagonist.
My favorite character in North and South is Mrs. Thornton, Mr. Thornton's widowed mother. She's a hard, pragmatic woman with an armored heart, and from the moment she meets Margaret she doesn't like her, especially when she realizes that her son is taken with her. She is never rude, only blunt, never cruel, only unbending.
Which brings all her sentiments into conflict when she is called to the bedside of Margaret's dying mother and given by that lady a most unwelcome deathbed request.
'You wish me to be a friend to Miss Hale,' said Mrs. Thornton, in her measured voice, that would not soften with her heart, but came out distinct and clear.
Mrs. Hale, her eyes still fixed on Mrs. Thornton's face, pressed the hand that lay below hers on the coverlet. She could not speak. Mrs. Thornton sighed, 'I will be a true friend, if circumstances require it. Not a tender friend. That I cannot be,'—('to her,' she was on the point of adding, but she relented at the sight of that poor, anxious face.)—'It is not my nature to show affection even where I feel it, nor do I volunteer advice in general. Still, at your request,—if it will be any comfort to you, I will promise you.' Then came a pause. Mrs. Thornton was too conscientious to promise what she did not mean to perform; and to perform any-thing in the way of kindness on behalf of Margaret, more disliked at this moment than ever, was difficult; almost impossible.
'I promise,' said she, with grave severity; which, after all, inspired the dying woman with faith as in something more stable than life itself,—flickering, flitting, wavering life! 'I promise that in any difficulty in which Miss Hale'——
'Call her Margaret!' gasped Mrs. Hale.
'In which she comes to me for help, I will help her with every power I have, as if she were my own daughter. I also promise that if ever I see her doing what I think is wrong'——
'But Margaret never does wrong—not wilfully wrong,' pleaded Mrs. Hale. Mrs. Thornton went on as before; as if she had not heard:
'If ever I see her doing what I believe to be wrong—such wrong not touching me or mine, in which case I might be supposed to have an interested motive—I will tell her of it, faithfully and plainly, as I should wish my own daughter to be told.'
There was a long pause. Mrs. Hale felt that this promise did not include all; and yet it was much. It had reservations in it which she did not understand; but then she was weak, dizzy, and tired. Mrs. Thornton was reviewing all the probable cases in which she had pledged herself to act. She had a fierce pleasure in the idea of telling Margaret unwelcome truths, in the shape of performance of duty. Mrs. Hale began to speak:
'I thank you. I pray God to bless you. I shall never see you again in this world. But my last words are, I thank you for your promise of kindness to my child.'
'Not kindness!' testified Mrs. Thornton, ungraciously truthful to the last. But having eased her conscience by saying these words, she was not sorry that they were not heard. She pressed Mrs. Hale's soft languid hand; and rose up and went her way out of the house without seeing a creature.
Mrs. Thornton is as close as Gaskell comes to a truly Dickensian character. Ironically, Dickens was Gaskell's editor when the novel was initially serialized in his magazine Household Words, and evidently (given the author's foreword) he was not an easy editor to work for. While Dickens found her novel "wearisome," and Gaskell didn't have his satirical edge or knack with words, he could have learned a few things from her about writing women characters who acted like people and not props.
North and South (2004)
According to Wikipedia, there was an earlier 1975 miniseries starring Patrick Stewart, but I was unable to find it. The popular 2004 4-episode BBC miniseries was available on Netflix, though.
I liked the casting, and this was all around quite a good adaptation. Margaret was a little more overtly feisty than in the book, but that amping up was to get across to modern viewers the way she appeared to Victorian readers, a woman who didn't balk at stepping outside of gender expectations. As with the book, I found all the smoldering glances between Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage mostly a distraction, but I'm a cold-hearted unromantic sort.
Have you read North and South?
Have you seen the TV miniseries?
Verdict: Elizabeth Gaskell's writing did not knock me over, but her characters were more three-dimensional than most of her contemporaries and the plot wove together a multitude of themes. I find myself thinking of North and South mostly in terms of how it compares to other novels: not quite as grand as Middlemarch or Bleak House, but more human, while also being more down-to-earth than the romances of Austen or Bronte. A fine book and worth reading if you like British social novels, but if that sort of book isn't your cup of tea, this one won't change your mind.
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