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From The Idyllic Counties To The Factory Towns

I finished reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell as part of my Reading England Project. It also ties in brilliantly with my Women’s Classic Literature Event. I have always been a huge Gaskell fan and some of my best blogging buddies (Cleo and Stefanie. I am especially looking at two of you now!) have often told me that this is perhaps on of Gaskell’s best works! Naturally, I was excited to be able to finally read this work!

The novel opens with Margaret Hale preparing for a change in her life – she was brought up with her cousin Edith in her Aunt Shaw’s house in England; but Edith is now getting married and Margaret is going back to her own home at Helstone, where her father is the local pastor. She loves the village and has great plans to settle down there and support her parents in their daily routines and get a chance to be the daughter of the family. However her plans are overthrown when soon after her return, her father tells her that he is planning to resign from his post in Church of England due to his lack of beliefs in the institution and the Hales must move to Milton, an industrial town in Darkshire, north England, where he will work as a private tutor. Margaret does not like this transition, and her initial impression of Milton is unfavorable. Her understanding of mill owners is spurious and she believes them to be tradesman, without culture and intellect, incapable of being gentlemen. Her first impressions are further strengthen, when her father’s first pupil John Thornton, owner of the  Marlborough Mills, speaks straightforwardly on how the mill owners have risen and how their work is real, versus the intellectual pursuits of a “gentleman”.  John Thornton, despite believing Margaret Hale to be haughty, soon falls in love with her and proposes, which she declines. However the ensuing 18 months, bring many changes in Margaret’s life forcing her to not only revise her first opinion of mill owners, but also start caring deeply for John Thornton. But there are tumultuous events in Margaret’s life including the well –being of her exiled brother, Fredrick, who was part of a naval mutiny and now residing in Spain as well the health of her mother which will force to make many life choices which would push John Thornton’s love for her at the very edge.

Before I get into a more detailed review of the book, let me end the curiosity and speculation and say – I LOVED the book! Simply loved it!

Now for the more detailed analysis – Strong characterization has always been Mrs. Gaskell’s strength and in North and South, she not only plays to it, but comes out triumphantly! Margaret Hale is a living, breathing girl, with opinions about matters she understands little, petty jealousies and pride. She is also very loyal, generous, and capable of doing her duty, no matter what the sacrifice. She learns from her mistakes and is humble in her acceptance; and when her very world is torn apart, she stands like a rock, despite her own heartbreak to provide strength to those who love her! In short, she is not just a heroine, but she is a human heroine. John Thornton is everything a 19th century gentleman would have been, especially around Manchester. A self made man, who will not stand for anything that comes in the path of his success, but is also kind and loyal, who will do good, even when he knows there will be no rewards for his goodness. The supporting characters are wonderful as well – Mrs. Thornton as the proud mother to John Thornton, who never bowed or lost her self respect even in the worst of times; Mr and Mrs. Hale, two good people, who were perhaps not the best couple, despite their love for each other. I loved the loyal and sometime draconian servant, Dixon and Mr. Bell, Margaret’s God Father.  Finally, my heart went out to Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Betsy, kind and good even when they have nothing, absolutely nothing to be kind with! While the novel has a similar backdrop as that of Mary Barton, this book looks more closely at the owner and employers of the mills and brings home the fact; they not all of them are black villain, a subject, and the author had already touched upon in Mary Barton. She acknowledges that while there was much that needed to be done for the workers, the mill owners were also facing challenges, especially from the booming cotton business from Southern United States. She tries to showcase the struggle and effort these mill owners themselves went through, to reach their current position and these were all self-made man, who worked their lives through to build what they have built. Like all Gaskell’s novels, religion is a strong pillar in the construct of the story, and while, it is used as a means of building fortitude and courage, it is also openly questioned for its absoluteness, several times. This streak of rebellion against the establishment runs through the plot and while very much crouched in the conventions of Victorian England, it is very much there and one cannot ignore it – Mr. Hale’s break with the church, Fredrick’s mutiny, albeit against tyranny, but nevertheless against authority, the strike of the workers, and of course Margaret’s rebellion against anyone trying to tell her about social proprieties, which she feels impinges on what is personal to her. There is a smidgen feeling of Pride and Prejudice in the romance between Margaret and John, but it is smidgen and their story stands independently on its own!

Overall it’s an absolutely marvelous read. Mrs. Gaskell remains as brilliant as ever!

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oh, serendipity! I’m rereading North & South at the moments, I’m at the start of the second volume and I love it just as much as I ever did and you express why perfectly, I’m not sure if this or Wives & Daughters is my favourite, but they’re both pretty high on my all time favourites list,

    November 22, 2015
    • Jane …this is Serendipity! I loved North and South! Thank you for your words! I have to read Wives and Daughters soon!

      November 22, 2015
  2. You give me far too much credit because I have never read this book! I intend to one of these days 🙂 I am glad, however, that you enjoyed it so much!

    November 24, 2015
    • Hahhhaaaa…I was thinking in general how you cheered me on on this Women’s Classic Project! 🙂 Read it Stefanie…me thinks you may like it!

      November 24, 2015
      • ian darling #

        I’m very pro- Gaskell too. I admire the range of her sympathies and her humane intelligence. North and South is on the TBR list so I hope your review will prod me. In context I suppose the novel is an example of the “condition of England” fiction of the middle 19th century (Dicken’s Hard Times, Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley and George Eliot’s Felix Holt the Radical as well as Gaskell’s Mary Barton are notable others). I wonder how North And South compares?

        November 24, 2015
      • ian darling #

        I like Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels too. She always seems one of the most humane and balanced of novelists. I have read Mary Barton but not, alas, N and S so I will have to put that right soon. It is probably regarded as one of the best of the ” Conditionof England” novels of the mid 19th century – fiction that attempted to respond to the economic and social changes of the time. Dicken’s Hard Times, Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley and George Eliot’s Felix Holt as well as Mary Barton itself are other examples.

        November 24, 2015
      • She is very humane and she could really understand the plights of those whose conditions were wretched and what caused them to act the way they did. I agree with you that it is right up there with Hard Times!

        December 3, 2015
  3. I just read this for the first time last year, and ohhhhhhhh, how I loved it! Perhaps later this year, I might even re-read it for this event, we shall see. I heartily agree with your thoughts on the characterization — so strong and well-rounded and realistic.

    January 26, 2016
    • Glad you enjoyed it! All Gaskel books are very much worth re-reading and with each re-read we find some wonderful nuances. Have fun! I think I will also read a couple of her other works as part of this event!

      January 26, 2016

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