Oct 14, 2010

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell’s famous novel tells the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman who has spent most of her life in the comfort and beauty of a Hampshire village. But Margaret’s life takes a complete turn when, for reasons that have to do with his faith, her father gives up his livelihood as a churchman and moves the family to the industrial northern town of Milton (a fictional place heavily based on Manchester). The change is quite a shock to Margaret, as well as to her mother, Mrs Hale. Early in the novel, Margaret expresses her dislike of all “shoppy people”; and in Milton-Northern, even the most prosperous inhabitants are people who made their fortune by way of trade and are therefore tainted in her eyes. Frequent contact with them, especially with her father’s friend Mr Thornton, cannot but lead Margaret to see their humanity. But as Gaskell so wisely shows us, overcoming the gulf of class, prejudice and miscommunication is no easy task.

As I effusively told you in my return post the other day, North and South made a complete Gaskell convert out of me. What I loved the most about it was something that might perhaps sound trivial, but which really stood out to me: the fact that more than anything else, this is a coming-of-age story; a story in which our heroine comes a long, long way. And I would perhaps argue that despite North and South being a love story on the surface, this side of it is in fact secondary to the maturity, humanity, and increased capacity to sympathise with others that Margaret acquires. Possibility this comparison will make sense to no one but myself, but in this regard North and South quite reminded me of Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

A lot happens to the Hales in the time period North and South covers, and if there might be a touch of the melodramatic about some of the novel’s scenes, I for one absolutely didn’t mind. One of the reasons for this is of course the fact that dramatic or not, this is an absolutely excellent story. As for what happens at the end (cue in my awkward attempts to discuss the ending without giving it away), as I was saying, for me it’s secondary to everything Margaret goes through over the year the novel covers – and even more importantly, it’s secondary to how these events change her.

Victorian novels are frequently criticised for almost invariably wrapping up the lives of their female protagonists with either a marriage or a death, which is a fair enough point (remind me to tell you, however, what Mary Elizabeth Braddon makes of this particular convention when I discuss Aurora Floyd). North and South doesn’t rewrite these rules, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a lot more to Margaret’s story than becoming a wife if you read between the lines. More than a romance, this is a story in which a young woman’s psychological and emotional growth and her dealings with some of the main social issues of her time take the centre stage. (And lest it sound like I’m completely dismissing the love story, let me clarify that I also loved it.)

I find Elizabeth Gaskell particularly good at that mix of conventionality and subtle defiance I so love about the Victorians. She has the ability to follow the norms while simultaneously acknowledging possibilities of identity other than those that fit the mould of mid-Victorian society. There’s a lot she doesn’t acknowledge, of course, but I also think there’s a lot about North and South that will appeal to a modern reader’s sensibility.

I haven’t even started to discuss the social side of North and South, which is of course not in any way secondary to Margaret’s story. Margaret gets caught up between the poor workers of Milton-Northern and the rich manufacturers who, to put it in Marxist terms, own the means of production. She learns to conciliate her knowledge of the grievances these two groups of people have against each other with her personal knowledge of members of both, which forces her to see them as fully human. Gaskell’s not too subtle point is of course that everyone would gain by doing the same. As the following passage tell us, it’s only when Margaret begins to get to know the people of Milton and to see them as human beings that the town ceases to seem so unwelcome to her:
Margaret went home, wondering at her new friends, and smiling at the man’s insight into what had been passing in her mind. From that day Milton became a brighter place to her. It was not the long, bleak sunny days of spring, nor yet was it that time was reconciling her to the town of her habitation. It was that in it she had found a human interest.
Which brings me to my other favourite thing: I loved North and South because it’s a deeply sympathetic book. It’s a book more concerned with people than with class strife – and I disagree with the view that it’s naïve and sentimental of Gaskell to approach the topic of social injustice from such a personal angle. Of course that putting an end to social inequality has to involve (then and now) structural changes in society rather than mere patchwork solutions. But to me, encouraging people to get to know each other, to see the humanity of those they perceive as their adversaries, can’t ever be unhelpful. Possibly I’m somewhat naïve and sentimental myself, but if so, I’ll take comfort in the fact that I’m in very good company.

Gaskell clearly goes out of her way to emphasise dialogue, empathy and understanding as alternatives to aggressive conflicts; to demonstrate that standing up for what you believe in and defying authority when necessary doesn’t have to exclude knowing when to sit down and listen. In the introduction to my edition of North and South, Patty Stoneman ties this in with gender and says:
…the novel works hard not only to bring the opposed sides into dialogue, but also to expose the way in which aggression has been build into our concept of masculinity, so that both Thornton, the master, and Higgins, the worker, have ‘tenderness in [their] heart’ towards children and weaker comrades, neither of them is initially willing to break the code of masculine toughness which forbids them to reveal this ‘weakness’. Margaret’s great achievement in the novel (and thus Gaskell’s) is to show that concern for suffering does not undermine strength.
Which I think is an absolutely brilliant point.

Favourite passages:
The evening, without employment, passed in a room high up in an hotel, was long and heavy. Mr. Hale went out to his bookseller's, and to call on a friend or two. Every one they saw, either in the house or out in the streets, appeared hurrying to some appointment, expected by, or expecting somebody. They alone seemed strange and friendless, and desolate. Yet within a mile, Margaret knew of house after house, where she for her own sake, and her mother for her aunt Shaw's, would be welcomed, if they came in gladness, or even in peace of mind. If they came sorrowing, and wanting sympathy in a complicated trouble like the present, then they would be felt as a shadow in all these houses of intimate acquaintances, not friends. London life is too whirling and full to admit of even an hour of that deep silence of feeling which the friends of Job showed, when 'they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him; for they saw that his grief was very great.'

‘Mr. Thornton!’ said Margaret, a little surprised. ‘I thought——‘
‘Well, little one, what did you think?’ asked Frederick, as she did not finish her sentence.
‘Oh, only,’ said she, reddening and looking straight at him, ‘I fancied you meant some one of a different class, not a gentleman; somebody come on an errand.’
‘He looked like some one of that kind,’ said Frederick, carelessly. ‘I took him for a shopman, and he turns out a manufacturer.’
Margaret was silent. She remembered how at first, before she knew his character, she had spoken and thought of him just as Frederick was doing. It was but a natural impression that was made upon him, and yet she was a little annoyed by it. She was unwilling to speak; she wanted to make Frederick understand what kind of person Mr. Thornton was—but she was tongue-tied.

‘A working man can hardly be made to feel and know how much his employer may have laboured in his study at plans for the benefit of his workpeople. A complete plan emerges like a piece of machinery, apparently fitted for every emergency. But the hands accept it as they do machinery, without understanding the intense mental labour and forethought required to bring it to such perfection. But I would take an idea, the working out of which would necessitate personal intercourse; it might not go well at first, but at every hitch interest would be felt by an increasing number of men, and at last its success in working come to be desired by all, as all had borne a part in the formation of the plan; and even then I am sure that it would lose its vitality, cease to be living, as soon as it was no longer carried on by that sort of common interest which invariably makes people find means and ways of seeing each other, and becoming acquainted with each others’ characters and persons, and even tricks of temper and modes of speech. We should understand each other better, and I’ll venture to say we should like each other more.’
Other opinions:
A Writer’s Blog, Good Books and Good Wine, The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader, The Bluestocking Society, The Book Whisperer, Rebecca Reads, Shelf Love, 5-Squared, Library Queue

(As always, let me know if I missed yours and I’ll be happy to add it.)


  1. I didn't get a chance to say so on your "I'm back" post, but I did want to say that I'm so happy to see you blogging again (not that your stand-ins weren't great) and that I'm so happy to hear that your transition to library school has gone so wonderfully!

    I haven't read any Gaskell, but she's an author near the very top of my list of writers to try. This sounds like a fantastic novel to start with!

  2. "Margaret’s great achievement in the novel (and thus Gaskell’s) is to show that concern for suffering does not undermine strength." That is an excellent point.

    As I said on twitter, I was hoping to post my thoughts before yours because now that you have said it all so well, what is left for me to say about it?

    I am a sentimental girl and loved the love story, but what I love about North and South is that it combines the love story with a story of personal growth and social concerns. There are prejudices of almost everyone to overcome, and like you said some might criticise this more personal angle but for me it made the story, really.

  3. This does sound fantastic and I do agree with you that actually getting to know people can help end social injustice and many other things.

  4. What a great review. If I wasn't about to start reading Dr Zhivago then I'd be buying this novel to read. Maybe over Christmas I shall.

  5. I agree with this wonderful post in all respects. Margaret Hale is a great protagonist; she learns so much and finds new depths to herself through the book. Gaskell's approach to the social issues involved in this novel is an approach I like -- sympathetic, personal, even-handed. But I loved the love story, too ;)

  6. Okay. So Jason read this back in 2008 and reviewed it on 5-Squared, but all he talked about was industrial stuff, so I got the impression this book was dreary and industrial-based. I had written it off completely. Then the other day I was reading on Rosy Thornton's website that she actually wrote her first novel because of this book!! That made me rethink, and I asked Jason of all the Gaskell he's read, which he thought I would like best. He told me this one. I'm still trying ot change my initial impression of it (especially since that impression has lingered for two years now) but I'm hopeful for reading this book now!

  7. Firstly, I must tell you how absolutely delighted I am to have you posting again. I missed you so much!!! My Tumblr fix just isn't enough. :)

    Secondly, this is the second glowing review of this book I have seen in two days! I suppose I better get my hands on a copy, because it sounds fascinating!

    Oh, I'm so happy you're back! *warm and fuzzies*

  8. I really enjoyed reading this last year and I loved the BBC film version too. I made myself read it though before I watched it! http://libraryqueue.blogspot.com/2009/10/north-and-south.html

  9. love coming-of-age stories. thanks for sharing

  10. I positively adored your review! And the book sounds so wonderful--seriously, I can just tell there would be so much I'd love about it. *sigh* But someone really just needs to give me a massive infusion of "no-need-to-fear-Victorian-writing" juice straight in the veins. Every once in a while I get myself all psyched up and ready to give something a try (ummm, yeah, that would be after reading one of your reviews :P)...but then then confidence inevitably wanes again.

  11. I just reread North & South myself and have also finally read Wives & Daughters and Cranford (which I loved the most of all three) this year, so it's nice to see that Elizabeth Gaskell is getting some attention online! There was even a blog tour for her in late September, for her 200th birthday thing. She's quickly becoming one of my favourite authors too.

    I first heard of North and South as a book that was assigned for history classes about the industrial revolution! Needless to say, that did not endear me to it or to wanting to take the class (unfortunately). I only read it once everyone started raving online about the miniseries a few years later. I find the dialect a bit challenging and the story is somewhat bleaker than anything Austen, but it's also very comforting. I read it while going through a difficult time (my husband's surgery and recovery) so it felt like I was going through everything with Margaret (as she has stressful family circumstances too), which was nice. And now my husband watched the miniseries with me and he was fascinated with the strike!

  12. Now you need to run down to the library, not walk, run, and borrow the BBC mini-series. It is different from the book in a few ways, but it is oh so good!

  13. Hi Ana! I'm not sure I've heard of this book and its author, but I thank you for reviewing it.

    [...] encouraging people to get to know each other, to see the humanity of those they perceive as their adversaries, can’t ever be unhelpful. So true.

  14. I'm so happy to see you blogging again and especially happy to see that you liked this as much as I did. It's such a wonderful book, and I totally agree with you about humanity of all the characters in the book. North and South seems to be all about connections--just getting people to look and talk with each other, to come to an understanding and then figure out a way to move forward. Sure, it may seem naive, but when so much contemporary discourse seems to involve yelling at each other and refusing to listen, I think that a Gaskell-esque naivete would be a positive step

  15. "that mix of conventionality and subtle defiance I so love about the Victorians" ... I LOVE that line. This sounds like a wonderful, multi-layered novel.

  16. I've read a few of Gaskell's short stories (The Old Nurse's Story is the favorite - perfect for the season), but have yet to read her novels. She is at the top of my authors to read in 2011 list. Wonderful review... it's so good to have you back!

  17. I keep meaning to pick up some Gaskell. And I also think it's interesting that we seem to be entering a time period when people are receptive to the kinds of qualities you mention here—social critique, humanity of the class struggle. I remember when those were the elements that made Victorian lit HOPELESSLY outdated. Either that, or the majority still finds them hopelessly outdated, and I have just been lucky enough to stumble on the small enclave of people who like them. :-)

  18. Elizabeth Gaskell! I know how much you love her work based on your previous post. :) I haven't read anything by her yet, but I think I do have one of her books in my pile. I need to go through them, hehe.

  19. Have you seen the miniseries with Richard Armitage? You MUST!

  20. I've never been particularly drawn to Gaskill but I did enjoy your review. Hmm, perhaps I'll try one of her shorter works one of these days and see how I get on.

  21. I've never read any Gaskell but now I might. It must have been great to read this book with all your background knowledge as well!

  22. Oh I love this book, I do, I do. I second the insistence of watching the mini-series with Richard Armitage - but yeah. When I read the book, I was a lot more focused on the social/class aspect of the story which really captured more of my interest.

  23. I also noticed the balance Gaskell reaches between norm and defiance when I read her novella Cousin Phillis for the recent Blog Tour to celebrate Gaskell’s 200th anniversary. Have you read that one?

    N&S is a favorite also because of Higgins - his scenes with Thornton were a highlight. Like you said, the love story is great, but there are other layers that make the book a classic. I imagine you’ve already seen the BBC adaptations? I think the scene in the series where Thornton looks at Margaret’s bracelets while she’s serving tea is a wink at people who also read the book. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the book as well.

    PS: Welcome back!

  24. I love that passage about Frederick and Mr. Thornton! It's always neat to me when a character who has changed a lot runs into someone from before they changed - it's an excellent way of bringing gradual change into sudden sharp relief. Hearts.

    (Did you watch the BBC miniseries yet?)

  25. I've been resistant to reading Gaskell, since it seems a bit like jumping on a bandwagon, but you've convinced me, mostly because Northanger Abbey is my sentimental Austen favorite (probably because I'm an 18th-centuryist at heart--I love the parodic way the heroine reacts to what could be gothic horrors). And I love what you say about being naive and sentimental.

  26. I do have this book somewhere in my collection. Sigh - will have to pull it out now, as you have told me what fabulous stuff I am missing!

  27. I read this straight after I saw the TV adaptation and although there were a lot of changes, I was quite impressed with the book. I remember being surprised at how much social commentary was in the book as although it was present in the TV series the main focus was the love story. I think I read Cranford afterwards but I'm certainly going to read more of Gaskell! A very thoughtful review Nymeth!

  28. The only Gaskill that I have ever read has been Wives and Daughters. I would be interested to hear what you think about that one, as I did end up having strong feelings for it. I have heard a lot about this particular book as well, and do have a copy of it as well. It does sound like Gaskill manages a lot in her story, and that she also manages it successfully, which is inspiring. I loved your review and am going to have to make the time for this novel. It sounds like it is well worth it!

  29. I haven't read North and South - I don't think I've read any Gaskell. Great review. I'll keep North and South in mind for when I'm in a mood for something classic.

  30. Hope this comment doesn't show up twice, I got a "bad server" message the first time.

    I've never read this one, or any by Gaskell, but have heard so many good things that I really must get to it at some point. I do seem to have a problem in telling it and the American Civil War books of the same title apart though :)

  31. Lovely review of North & South!
    I've mentioned this post on my blog.

  32. Wonderful review. I've not read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell; thanks to you, I now know what I've been missing. Will have to change that, and quickly!

    Thank you. It is sooo good to have you back!

  33. Sounds like a really great book Ana! Thanks for the review.

  34. Steph, thank you so much for the warm welcome! I look forward to hearing what you think of Gaskell when you get to her - and yes, I think this would be a great intro.

    Iris, I'm sure your post is going to be excellent! And you're absolutely right; it's the combination of all those different things that makes this such a fantastic story.

    Kathy: Yep: it's just much harder to ignore things when that personal angle is involved.

    Joan Hunter Dunn: I suspect this would be a fantastic winter-y read, so over Christmas sounds like a great time!

    Melanie: lol, I did love it as well :P

    Amanda: You should definitely read this! There's a lot in the novel about industrialisation, but always from a personal/human angle.

    Heather: Aww, you're too sweet :D And yes, do get your hands on a copy! Two reviews in two days is clearly a sign ;)

    Tricia: I need to watch that adaptation! And thank you for your link :)

    Tamara Hart Heiner: You're welcome!

    Debi: I need to come up with some sort of masterplan to get rid of your Victorianphobia once and for all ;)

    Carolyn: It's so interesting how both you and Amanda said that! As much as the consequences of the industrial revolution play a huge role, it's really the human angle that makes it so remarkable - and of course, the best thing of all is that you can't easily separate the two. Also, clearly I need to watch the mini-series as soon as possible!

    Marg: *puts on running shoes and sprints out the door* ;)

    Alice, I'm sure you'd enjoy this a lot!

    Teresa: "...when so much contemporary discourse seems to involve yelling at each other and refusing to listen, I think that a Gaskell-esque naivete would be a positive step." Yes, exactly!

    Stephanie: I really thought it was!

    JoAnn: I read her Gothic stories around this time last year and The Old Nurse's Tale was one of my favourites! I think you'll enjoy her novels a lot. Also, thank you so much :D

  35. Long-time lurker here . . . so glad your blog is back! September was a bleak month without it! :)

    I loved North and South so much that I stole a copy from a hostel in Manchester because I was desperate to find out how it ended. It was a nice hostel and I am an evil person . . . damn you, Elizabeth Gaskell, luring me down the paths of sin! :P I think Manchester is definitely the best place to read North and South though, it enhanced my enjoyment of both the book and the city! And I really liked Margaret and Mr. Thornton as characters; they seemed stronger and less insipid than the main characters in Wives and Daughters. (Molly always reminded me a bit too much of Fanny Price. Maybe that's just me, though.) Great review as always!

  36. oh Nymeth, how I've missed your thoughts on great books! This is such a beautiful write up I want to go and reread the novel. I really enjoyed it because it was such a personal story and I think you explain so well why it is a satisfying novel.

    Welcome back!

  37. Emily: Sometimes I do get the feeling that the majority still DOES find them outdated, but I've also been lucky to find quite a few like-minded people :) Personally I find that pointing out all the ways in which the Victorians were wrong is much too easy, and therefore uninteresting. That doesn't mean we shouldn't discuss the backwards aspects of Victorian lit, of course, but focusing on the continuity between then and now is a) much more stimulating and b) a way to avoid the smugness and sense of moral superiority people sometimes slip into when focusing on all the things that are wrong with any given time period.

    Melody: I saw on Twitter that you got N&S - I can't wait to hear what you think!

    Heidekind: Not yet, but soon, I promise!

    litlove: I hope you do get on with her! The very first thing of hers I ever read was a collection of her Gothic novellas and short stories, and I found them an excellent introduction to her writing.

    Joanna: I don't feel I have that much of it, to be honest :P But it was fun to read it in the place where it's set :D

    Clover: My library has the mini-series on DVD, so I'll be getting my hands on it soon :D

    Alexandra: Thank you! I haven't read Cousin Phillis yet, but I hope to get to it sometime. I haven't seen the BBC adaptation yet, but after you all urging me to I'm going to have to do it soon :P

    Jenny: Not yet, but I will! Thank you for telling me how excellent it was and encouraging me to read the book sooner rather than later, btw :D

    Jeanne: The similarities between the two might very well only exist in my head, but nevertheless I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!

    Vivienne: I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

    Sakura: I'm planning on reading Cranford soon myself. It sounds very different from this, which only makes me more curious!

    Zibilee: I'll get to Wives & Daughters at some point, as all of her books are currently on my reading list :P And yes, do make time for N&S! I don't think you'll regret it.

    Belle: Do! I think you'd really enjoy it.

    Fence: Sorry about that! Blogger insisting on being annoying lately :\ Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts on this whenever you get to it!

    elizabethgaskell: Thank you for the mention and the kind words!

    ds: Aw, thank you so much! I have no doubt that you'd love Gaskell, and I would absolutely love to read one of your thoughtful posts on her work :)

    Amy: It really was :)

    Horace Triplalong: Aw, thank you! Was that the Hatters Hostel by any chance? That was where I stayed during my first week here, when I was still apartment hunting, and where the majority of my copy was read. You're not an evil person; I can understand the need to find out how it ended :P

    Rebecca: Thank you so much! I completely agree; the fact that it was so personal was what made it so good. I was honestly surprised to read in the introduction that Gaskell has been criticised on exactly those grounds.

  38. So it's really not about the US's Civil War? *slaps head* Heeelllloooo ignorance!

  39. I couldn't agree more! There is so much happening in this novel; it's complex and multidimensional, but manages to remain neatly woven (something that I find lacking in Dickens, though he and Mrs. Gaskell were so close as writers).

    Hope library school is treating you well! The tumbles are lovely :)

  40. Oh, this is one of my FAVOURITE books!! So the fact that it's turned you into a Gaskell convert is very exciting. :)

  41. Great review, North and South is by far my favourite Gaskell novel, if not my favourite novel! I'm actually writing an extended essay for my IB diploma on How secondary female characters in N&S reveal MArgarets proto-feminist attitude!! Thanks again :)


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