Saturday 16 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 135. "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell

Page count: 544 pages
Audio book length: 18hrs 18 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Young Margaret Hale's life is turned on its head when her father, a parson from the South of England, renounces his position because he experiences a crisis of faith. He moves his anxious wife and dutiful daughter to the factory town of Milton Northern, where he's going to work as a tutor. The town, a bustling result of the Industrial Revolution, is full of cotton mills, soot and smoke, a stark contrast to the pastoral idyll of the Southern English countryside. With the loss of Mr. Hale's living, the family is in severely reduced financial circumstances, (not helped by the fact that they keep sending money to Margaret's brother who is wanted for mutiny in England, and as a result living in exile in Spain) and can't really afford more than a modest lifestyle. Margaret bravely adapts fairly quickly, but her mother never feels happy or comfortable in Milton and her health gradually deteriorates.

In Milton, the main social interaction the Hales have is with Mr. John Thornton, a mill owner who leases from Mr. Hale's best friend, Mr. Bell (Margaret's godfather). Thornton's father drove his family into debt and further caused scandal when he committed suicide. Thornton had to quit school, and take a position as a shop clerk to support his sister and widowed mother. Putting aside most of what he earned, he slowly and quietly worked to repay all his father's debts and became a respected and formidable man in Milton. His mother is a proud and arrogant woman who loves her son fiercely, constantly worried some fortune-hunting young miss will get her claws into him.

Mr. Hale tutors Mr. Thornton, and they develop a close friendship. Margaret initially has difficulties relating to him, however. Thornton thinks Margaret is very beautiful, but aloof, distant and too caught up in her sheltered and genteel way of thinking, while she thinks Thornton is cold, arrogant, coarse and too hard on his workers. Before Margaret moved with her parents to Milton, she lived with her wealthy aunt in London for ten years, until her cousin Edith married an army captain and moved to Corfu. In the north, she has very few friends. Mrs. Thornton is dismissive of the Hales, and Miss Hale is spoiled, self-centred, vain and not in any way interested in the prim and serious Miss Hale. The only friends Margaret makes are of a lower class than her, Mr. Higgins and his consumptive daughter Bessie, and they become more of a charity project for her than confidantes and support to her.

I was surprised at how useless both of Margaret's parents are. Her father upends his family's entire life because of a point of principle, but once they arrive in Milton and it turns out that their new life is going to be difficult and not at all what he'd planned, he withdraws into his studies and teaching, leaving poor Margaret to deal with the complicated practicalities of managing the household with their meagre finances, the inability to secure extra help in the house, her mother's depression and deteriorating health and the worry about Frederick. She sees the deep love between her parents, and because of that, she won't accept a marriage proposal from a man she doesn't love. Shortly after leaving her aunt's house in London, she rejects the proposal of Mr. Lennox, her cousin Edith's brother-in-law, as she cannot see him as anything but a friend. So when Mr. Thornton is persuaded by his mother and sister that Margaret must be infatuated with him, he proposes, and is vehemently rejected. By the time Margaret is ready to reconsider his advances, a number of coincidences and complications has made Thornton believe that she loves another and is lost to him.

I discovered the BBC adaptation of North and South, with the darkly handsome Richard Armitage (currently most famous as the broodingest exiled dwarf king evah in The Hobbit) and the lovely Daniela Denby-Ashe a few years ago, but it's taken me until now to actually read the novel. I got the audio book narrated by the excellent Juliet Stevenson, who varies between crisp arch tones for the southern characters and wonderful northern accents. I was surprised at how nuanced the book is, for a Victorian novel, both Margaret and Thornton's feelings are very clearly depicted. I really hadn't expected so much insight into the emotions of both main characters. Gaskell's novel is typical of the time, showing a lot of social responsibility, with the social developments after the Industrial Revolution, the clashes between the factory owners and the workers, the hardship of a strike and so forth, but it doesn't feel like it's sermonising and lecturing the reader. I will absolutely be reading more Gaskell in future.


  1. I remember this one from college - I think it was for an English class related to the Industrial Revolution because we also read Dickens' Hard Times. I also read Gaskell's Mary Barton at one point, but preferred this one. I have recently been thinking I should revisit Gaskell, and have been thinking about reading Wives and Daughters. I probably am going to wait till next year, but if you wanted to do a read along type of thing so we could discuss it afterwards, I would be game.

    1. I would love to read Wives and Daughters with you sometime next year. None of my friends have the energy to tackle classical literature at the moment, so it would be great to have someone to discuss it with. We could have our own mini bookclub!

  2. North and South is one of my favorite novels, and Gaskell is a marvelous writer. I'm glad you got around to reading it--the BBC adaptation is wonderful and quite true to the book, but Gaskell really mines a deep well of feeling.

    Wives & Daughters is also fabulous, but be forewarned that it is unfinished. Gaskell died before writing the last chapter or two.