Review: North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell

 I watched the BBC version of this a few years ago with a friend and really enjoyed it – it didn’t hurt that it had Richard Armitage as the leading man.  So since then it was vaguely on my To Read list and when I found a nice copy in Edinburgh a few months ago, my inner Book Buying monster kicked in.  I may need some therapy about the latter … I’m trying to cut down … a recently instituted Book Buying ban has had limited success.  I didn’t begrudge buying this book though – I loved it.  In many ways, Elizabeth Gaskell was writing with as sharp an eye for social justice as her contemporary and editor Charles Dickens but she manages to stir in her agenda with lighter touch somehow.  There is still a distinct didactic quality to a lot of her writing but somehow I ended it without feeling as ‘preached-at’ as I tend to at the end of one of Dickens’ rants.

Apparently, Gaskell had wanted to do the same thing as she did with Mary Barton, and name it after the heroine, naming her novel Margaret Hale but Dickens made her change it to North and South and to be fair to him, I think that that was a good decision.  This book has a far broader impact than the simple journey of one young girl and I found it really interesting to read a novel set in the Victorian era with such a clear collision between two opposing cultures.  I myself am a Northern girl, even though I was born in Australia and a solid chunk of my family are Northern Irish … anyway, I uprooted for work last year and I’ve now been Down South for a little while.  There are lots of reasons why being here makes sense but, just like Margaret, there are times when I do feel very much a stranger in a strange land.

I have become steadily more Northern over the past ten years since I acquired my step-family though, who have never stirred out of the North West.  My response to the recent announcement that Kim Kardashian had called her baby North West was that it was entirely understandable, the North is amazing but that I didn’t understand why she didn’t just call her Lancashire.  My housemates sighed in despair.  The North and South of Britain are not so very far apart when we compare them to other countries – eg. America.  Yet still, when we come together, the divide is very noticeable.  I have lots of friends who come from South of Birmingham and I forgive them this foible but for myself, I always breathe slightly easier once the car is safely on to the M6 and I can feel like I’m breathing clear air again.


Margaret … naive.

Margaret Hale however sees things a little differently.  She starts off as the poor relation returning to her respectable parents after having been educated with her pretty but dim cousin Edith.  Margaret has been giddy about returning to picturesque, story book Helstone but alack, alas and Alaska, she is barely back there when her father confesses that due to his conscience, he can no longer continue as a vicar and must leave forthwith.  I loathe the word ‘forthwith’ … it’s only ever used in unpleasant contexts – there is no way of using that word and sounding friendly which by my book means that it should not be used.  Anyway, Margaret, who has snootily dismissed neighbours who made carriages for a living as being too ‘shoppy’ is forced to move with her parents to Milton (aka Manchester), industrial capital of the North!

I did not immediately warm to Margaret.  I understood that she was supposed to be a saintly Victorian heroine … so more emphasis on long-sufferingness and general virtuousity.  To be honest though, Margaret in the beginning seemed more sanctimonious than anything else.  I understood that Margaret had been very proud of her father in his incarnation as a vicar and that it was hard for her to accept that he was a fallible human being who might have doubts.  I did think though that Gaskell was laying it on a bit thick about how badly her father handled things, having him ask Margaret to break the news to his wife because he was too cowardly to do so.  I understand that in the Victorian era, the Angel in the House was celebrated, I do understand that.  But simply smiling sweetly while other people take you for granted does not lead to a happy and well-adjusted self.

Charlotte Bronte, Gaskellian heroine

I did find Margaret interesting as a character however, after all Elizabeth Gaskell is the woman who wrote The Life of Charlotte Bronte, which ruined the reputation of Charlotte’s father by setting him up to be the villain – Gaskell seems to have written Charlotte to be the same as her other heroines, regardless of the fact that Charlotte was not fictional.  I suppose that Gaskell was simply writing the characteristics she considered most admirable onto her friend, the purpose of The Life was to posthumously rescue Charlotte’s spattered reputation.  All the same …

Anyway, back to Margaret.  Her attitudes set my teeth on edge at the beginning of the novel.  She arrives in Milton pre-disposed to think badly of it, the people there do not conduct their lives in a Margaret-approved manner.  It always irritates me when people think that it is more respectable to live in idleness than it is to work for a living.  With notable exceptions, fictional heroes who are ‘without profession’ seem to be a bit of an anaemic lot.  I sort of understood that Margaret was morally opposed to capitalism and didn’t like the profit driven blah-blah-blah but what it actually came down to was snobbishness.  She does learn lessons and her character develops but she started off sounding like a stuck-up madam who thought that she knew best …  To be fair, in the North, they call a spade a spade – it was one of the better places for Margaret to learn her lesson …

Margaret meets Cotton.

I feel that I have been unnecessarily harsh to Margaret though … she isn’t all bad.  She genuinely does have high standards for herself.  She does try to do the right thing.  She loves her parents and wants to be close to them and to support them whether or not she agrees with their behaviour.  She is also rather guileless and to be  fair, she does mature – she is only nineteen at the start of the story and who amongst us was not a bit of a fool aged nineteen?  Margaret is a fish out of water when she comes to Milton and does not understand Northern Ways and she is genuinely moved by social injustice and factory conditions.  So actually, she’s All Right Really.

Mr Hale, Margaret’s father, finds employment as a private tutor to various factory owners who are keen to improve themselves, in particular one John Thornton who owns Marborough Mills and who has Pulled Himself Up By His Bootstraps.  He lives with his Northern mother and his airhead sister and lives sensibly, expanding his cotton business.  Coming from poverty themselves, his mother responds to the Hales with a defensive pride and his sister tries to chummy up to Margaret, seeing her as a fine lady – but John, poor rough-round-the-edges John, he doesn’t stand a chance.  He looks at Margaret and he is lost.

Margaret swishes about in her Indian shawls and tries to dispense good amongst the populace but the populace are not so pathetically grateful as she has been used to expect.  John watches her with a bemused eye, refusing to own to himself what is happening, fascinated despite himself.  Margaret is offended by Thornton’s profit-driven attitudes and what she sees as his coarse manners and in her turn, she offends him with her high-handedness.  Cue much misunderstanding (remind us of anyone?  Another certain pair of lovers who are this year celebrating 200 years together?).  Still, Margaret gambols along and gets used to Milton, eventually able to ingratiate herself with the Higgins family and gets into the habit of visiting their ailing daughter Bessie.  Gradually, Margaret comes to see the value of the thinking Higgins family and starts to take a further interest in Milton’s people.

Manchester City Hall – Cottonopolis

I may be a Northern girl and a history geek, but I feel that at this point I should point out something about Victorian Manchester (aka Milton). It was going through something Amazing – cotton. I studied this period for GCSE history and whilst it wasn’t my favourite period of history, Manchester was a very exciting place to be, it was Cottonopolis. Elizabeth Gaskell herself lived there so She Knew Of What She Spoke. The city hall is a cathedral to cotton, which built the city to what it is today.  Victorian Manchester was the birthplace of The Guardian, it was where people campaigned against the corn laws, against slavery and for workers’ rights.  When one of the Higginses suggests moving to the South for an easier life, a wised-up Margaret desperately pleads with him not to do it because he will find the mode of life too stultified and mind-numbing.  It was one of the earliest places where working-class people were able to engage politically.  I particularly enjoyed the part where Mr Higgins the agnostic, Margaret the Anglican and Mr Hale the Dissenter all sat down to pray together and Gaskell, the Methodist preacher’s wife, notes that it did none of them any harm.

Elizabeth Gaskell tended to write ‘issue-driven’ novels, she wrote as a minister’s wife who wanted to improve people’s standards of living, which is no mean mission.  She sought to explain the consequences of a strike for the workers to a public who would only understand their personal inconveniences.  The fact is that factory conditions were horrible, they did need improving … but then on the other hand, Gaskell also creates John Thornton as a factory owner.  Through Margaret’s influence, Thornton comes to hear the suggestions of his workers which improves his management.  He even begins to provide food for his workers’ mid-day meals; this is clearly the voice of Gaskell breaking through about what represents Good Boss Behaviour.  In many ways, the love story is incidental to Gaskell’s main message about factory conditions … but yet … it is quite a love story.

Darcy & Elizabeth – the Southern Margaret & Thornton

The parallels between Margaret and Thornton and Elizabeth and Darcy are many.  Darcy and Thornton are both prickly and awkward, Elizabeth and Margaret are both disposed to think poorly of Darcy and Thornton.  The first proposals are both just disastrous.  Margaret springs to Thornton’s defence during the strike, showing more depth of feeling than she was ready to share or was even truly aware of. Having been caught by her already, John goes to propose to her, feeling honour-bound to protect her reputation. He is a bluntly spoken man. He speaks honestly. He speaks passionately. He doesn’t speak tidily. Margaret is embarrassed by him, used to superficial emotion.  The BBC version really captured it, when Thornton bursts out that he is not proposing to her out of moral obligation but because he loves her.  I am a Northern girl.  His inward crushing disappointment and quiet confession to his mother that she was the only person who cared for him made me feel far more sympathetic than Darcy’s smouldering and passive-aggressive note ever did.

Communication …

As with Pride and Prejudice, misunderstandings are rife in North and South… normally, these make me cringe and when I cringe, it’s a whole body experience.  Nevertheless, for this book, I think that it was the misunderstandings that made me warm to Margaret.  She comes to realise Thornton’s worth too late, and then squirms in agony, unable to explain herself.  On his side, I really liked that he continued to love Margaret even after she had rejected him.  There are far too many boys in the world who turn sulky and unpleasant when they are refused.  Margaret believes at first that Thornton is proposing to her to save her reputation but the reader can see that he passionately loves her and is devastated by her refusal.

When I first read Pride and Prejudice, I was too young to really understand it – I was ten.  Now as a woman in her twenties, I feel like I could sympathise a lot more with what the two of them were going through now.  Sometimes you wish, wish, wish that things could have gone differently but misunderstandings – they build up like solid walls between two people and they can seem impossible to break down.  It was nice to read about two people who managed it.  The final two pages made me very happy.

As a personal disclaimer – I moved from the North to the South myself and in many ways, my experience has mirrored Margaret’s, just going in the opposite direction.  I moved from a beautiful part of Lancashire to the concrete wasteland of Thurrock … it’s been a culture shock.  Still, after a year teaching the children of Essex and more Child Protection incidents than you can shake a stick at, I have found it fulfilling and often exhilarating working in a place that is so challenging.  Like Margaret, and behind her Elizabeth Gaskell, there is a certain satisfaction in working somewhere where you know that there is much to be done but that your contribution is worthwhile.  Saying that the North is deprived and the South is not is too simple – there is a split in our society though and that split remains unhealed to this day.

North and South is too long in many ways – too many details about the trivial, apparently Dickens the editor was furious with it although he himself was never exactly succinct.  It was serialised in twenty-two parts, but yet the resolution still seemed rushed – so it was basically like an American TV series which ran out of time to really resolve all loose ends.  If it had not been for John Thornton, this book would have been rather forgettable and Morally Improving, but I’ll be very honest – if it were a choice between Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton, I would pick Mr Thornton every time.  I really loved the part when he and Mr Hale had a heart-felt conversation where they achieved understanding, Gaskell notes that they would never repeat this experience but it is true that when you have one conversation like that to someone, you never lose that feeling for them – it’s friendship on a spiritual level.  Basically, Thornton was awesome in every single possible way.  Conclusion: Read this one, it’s the only book that has him in it.

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North and South by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
Published by Harper & Bros. on 1855
Pages: 428

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