This was a revisit, read in serial with the Victorians group on Goodreads. North and South (1854–55) is Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65)’s fourth novel, and one of her best known ones, also adapted for TV three times, most recently a BBC series in 2004. As the story opens, eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale who has been brought up mostly in London by her aunt Mrs Shaw, is preparing to return home after her cousin’s wedding. Home is Helstone, a small rural parsonage in the South where her parents live and her father serves as vicar. When she returns, she finds the rural idyll she had remembered, at least as far as the place is concerned, but inside her home, things are a little different. Her parents don’t seem to be getting along as they should though they do love each other, and quite soon after settling in, she finds her father is giving up the living because of doubts about the church, and they must relocate to Milton Northern, a dusty, grey, smoky industrial town in the north (based on Manchester), where life is busy, fast, and completely opposite to the peace and calm of Helstone. Here Mr Hale is to tutor pupils in the classics. Among these is a much older pupil, a millowner, John Thornton who had to give up his education to support his family, and now having made a success of his business wishes to start again. Margaret when she arrives has no high opinion of tradespeople, or of Milton in general.

Both these things change as we move along in the story following two sets of threads, one involving Margaret’s personal opinions and relationships, both with Mr Thornton who begins to admire and love her (a thread that moves somewhat similarly to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy’s story in Pride and Prejudice), and the Higginses, a family of workpeople who Margaret befriends, and through whom she begins to get a better idea of life in Milton. Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy both work in factories, and Bessy is suffering a fatal illness as a result of the fluff in the factories which most millowners have not taken precautions to address. Through these relationships and interactions, we move into the social threads of the story which explore working conditions in factories, wages and strikes, but most importantly relations between millowner and workmen who each need and rely on each other, and yet seem to think that their interests are at odds with each other. Margaret plays a role in these threads of the story too, being in a position to hear both sides of the story, the millowners concerns and genuine problems (such as cheaper goods becoming available) that the workmen don’t see, and the workpeople’s plight—from living and working conditions and wages, to lack of a voice at the workplace.

As the novel moves on, Margaret begins to see the merits and demerits of life in industrial Milton and rural Helstone and to realise that neither is entirely better or worse than the other, going from one who was critical of Milton, to one who can defend its ways. Alongside, Mr Thornton and Higgins—millowner and workman—begin to understand each other a little better, Mrs Gaskell making the point that both in personal relationships, or matters of work, understanding the other side and communication are key—these can mitigate even if not resolve many a situation.

Though difference, between north and south, scholar and industrialist, millowner and workman, etc is central in the book, it isn’t the only theme, other threads, of personal relationships, the Hale family’s own difficulties—Margaret’s brother Frederick’s story, the Shaws and Lennoxes’ (Margaret’s cousin has married Captain Lennox) stories and lives are also part of the book, and bring in both anxious and lighter moments.

Margaret is a strong young woman, and in much of the book finds herself having to bear a lot of responsibility and burden which she does very well; but she has to face her own prejudices, overcome them in order to become a better person. Mr Thornton too, a self-made man has his flaws, in the way he sees his workmen particularly, and changes too as things move along. Nicholas Higgins shows that perhaps we end up applying stereotypes when considering workmen. The other characters, Mr and Mrs Hale, and Mrs Thornton might give us a lot to fault them for (the latter only her harshness, perhaps, but that too is understandable), but are well drawn out characters, as are most of the others.

The ending of the book is a touch rushed, and one might feel like there was room for more, but overall, this is a really good read, one I’ve enjoyed each time I’ve read it!

One thought on “Book Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

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