Saturday, May 21, 2016

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Genre: classic novel
Pages: 450 (paperback)

Synopsis: When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction.


I had this novel in my library for six months before I tried reading it, had to put it aside--due to my having so many other public library and school books to read, my own poor books are often neglected--and eventually started it again a week or so ago.  I had heard a lot about Elizabeth Gaskell being the next best thing to Jane Austen, whom I adore, and also knew that she wrote a famous biography of Charlotte Brontë, so I've been eager to read one of her books for a long time.

While I now actually think her writing differs from that of both Austen and Charlotte in several important ways (as much as I can judge from having read just one book, I mean!), I did end up really enjoying North and South and do recommend it to the Austen lover who finds themselves wishing our dear Jane had lived long enough to write many more books.  The romance between Margaret and John Thornton is a bit like that between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in that they initially seem to take an instant and powerful dislike to each other, but it becomes clear much earlier than in Pride and Prejudice that Mr. Thornton is actually in love with Margaret.  Also like Pride and Prejudice, one of the central conflicts that prevents Margaret and Mr. Thornton understanding each other hinges on a misunderstanding.

All of the characters are excellently drawn and, contrary to several other reviewers on Goodreads who complained that she does nothing, I actually thought Margaret was a pretty strong heroine.  She is only nineteen years old, but has to weather a lot of family crises and stands up for social justice in a community where she is a complete newcomer in ways that few middle-class English girls at this time would.  I found Margaret really likable and admired her strength throughout most of the novel.

I was surprised to find that, unlike most of Austen's novels, North and South features quite a lot of tragedy.  It is not a Gothic novel by any means, but Margaret encounters sorrow after sorrow after her father--ugh, his character got on my nerves at times, he is so weak!-- decides that he can no longer be an Anglican priest in good conscience and uproots his family to the northern town of Milton, a fictional place which is essentially modeled after the very industrial town of Manchester.  I was surprised and interested to read the religious debates and Dissenting (Nonconformist) elements that arose in this novel, because religious doubts and questioning has not really been a major theme or even a plot point in other Victorian novels I have read.

There is also a strong theme of social justice and questions about whether employers are inherently exploitative of their employees in this mill town where many working-class people suffer from overwork, being underpaid, and of course industrial diseases like the ones then called brown lung and black lung.  Mr. Thornton is a firm capitalist, and has risen through hard work from being a shop boy to a mill owner.  Margaret, a priest's daughter from the south of England (whose economy relied more on agriculture than industrial factories), disapproves of his coldness towards his working-class employees at the mill, some of whom she befriends.  Her new friends, a tubercular girl called Bessy and her father Nicholas, speak in this local dialect that is annoying to read, but it is worth it because they are characters who add a lot to the novel.  There is a strike at Mr. Thornton's mill which turns really violent--mobs and windows being broken!--and Margaret gets swept up in this class conflict despite being an outsider and having more than enough of her own troubles to deal with in her own family.  Without giving anything away, Gaskell seems to be proposing, at the very least, that employers and workers should negotiate on equal ground so that the needs of both economic productivity and the people who tend to benefit least from it (the workers) can be served.

I look forward to reading more of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, not least a Penguin collection of her Gothic Tales which I really want to read!  She writes beautifully, and with more attention to themes of social justice and the lives of working-class people than Austen or the Brontë sisters, who tend to write about comfortably middle-class or gentry people.  I highly recommend this book to those who are interested in learning more about the lives of people in Victorian England more broadly and, of course, to anyone who likes romances set in this period.  It is really an excellent novel, and well-deserving of its status as a classic!


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