Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Published: 1996; Penguin Classics – originally 1885
Date Started: January 29, 2013 Date Finished: February 15, 2013
Worthy of Note: I first watched the BBC miniseries adaptaion of North and South after much prompting from Netflix, insisting that if I was interested in Pride and Prejudice, I absolutely had to check out North and South. That was a good enough recommendation for me – y’all know how much I love my Pride and Prejudice – and I watched the entirety of it in one afternoon. Starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe, I can say now that it is a brilliant adaptation of the book.
My pride also insists that I make a few excuses for what looks like some abysmal reading habits of late. My last readux was for Under Heaven at the end of November, which seems a very long time ago. I did reread The Hobbit after that, in anticipation of going to see the film, and I figured that the last thing the internet needed was another review of The Hobbit (the book anyway. I did force my opinion of the film on all of you). I also was reading Night Watch by Terry Pratchett after Christmas, but after much – I am sorry to say – labouring with it throughout January, I finally had to put it away in favour of North and South.
I wish I could tell you how lonely I am. How cold and harsh it is here. Everywhere there is conflict and unkindness. I think God has forsaken this place. I believe I have seen hell and it is white, snow white.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the initial similarities between North and South and Pride and Prejudice, as even Netflix was aware. Yes, our heroine Margaret Hale and our dear Mr. John Thornton make fairly bad first impressions of each other, due in no small part to their own Pride and Prejudice. But from there, the story is painted with a much darker stroke, with death and financial ruin putting as much pressure on the characters as love.
Margaret, who was raised in London by her aunt, finally returns home to her parents in sunny, idyllic Helstone only to find out that her father has resigned from his post in the church and intends to move Margaret and her mother to the industrial northern town of Milton. Mr. Hale takes up a position as a tutor, a modest living, and one of his students is Mr. Thornton, who has made his wealth in the cotton industry as master of Marlborough Mills. Unlike P&P’s Mr. Darcy, who came from wealth, Mr. Thornton is a self-made man in his own right who rose from absolute ruin in childhood to draper’s assistant to master with no small amount of hardness and discipline.
With the rise of unrest among the mill workers throughout Milton, the town becomes a poor and violent place for a time, men rioting and families going hungry during the strike. But even when times are good in Milton, Margaret constantly longs for her life in the south, especially when her mother’s health begins to deteriorate in the cold and dismal weather.
As a heroine, Margaret is flawed but sympathetic, especially as the writing of her feelings is so precise and relatable. When she feels she has done wrong, she worries about how she might right it. And while others are quick to think of her as haughty – many of the characters take a turn to call Margaret a princess, sometimes as a compliment, sometimes not – Margaret thinks a lot on what it means to do right, morally, religiously, socially, and economically. She may be young and a bit naive at the beginning, but Margaret rises to many terrible occasions with grace and wisdom.
The novel was originally titled Margaret Hale, but it was Charles Dickens himself who insisted that Elizabeth Gaskell change it to North and South, to represent the many opposing forces in the story. It is not just Margaret and Mr. Thornton at odds with each other, but also the workers and the masters, the religious and the hopeless, and on more than one occasion, life and death. For a book pitched as a love story, Gaskell has fit in a lot of commentary on the social, economical, and religious changes that fell upon England during the Industrial Revolution, which all at some point or other fall on the shoulders of Margaret and Mr. Thornton.
He could not forget the touch of her arms around his neck, impatiently felt as it had been at the time; but now the recollection of her clinging defence of him, seemed to thrill him through and through,—to melt away every resolution, all power of self-control, as if it were wax before a fire.
The writing itself I found remarkable as well, not just as a book written in 1885, but as a book in general. Gaskell’s words are both frank and eloquent, and she treats the feelings of all her characters with equal sympathy, even if those feelings are wrong or if they might harm another.
Though North and South undoubtedly stands on the frame of Pride and Prejudice, the story it builds is quite different. It is dark and harsh, and makes no effort to romanticize the social and economic difficulties of its setting and its characters. There is much to be lost before Margaret and Mr. Thornton meet again, and it is through their individual pains, their individual growth, that they are finally able to come together with much different opinions of each other. And on top of all the issues, it really is a romantic novel.