Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

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!

Bookquotes: Quotes from Books (91)

God surely did not create us, and cause us to live, with the sole end of wishing always to die. I believe, in my heart, we were intended to prize life and enjoy it, so long as we retain it. Existence never was originally meant to be that useless, blank, pale, slow-trailing thing it often becomes to many, and is becoming to me, among the rest.

Charlotte Bronte, Shirley (1849)

Image source: Pexels

Shelf Control #68: The Once and Future King by T.H. White #TBR #Classics

Wednesday the 11th of December–Shelf Control time! Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, simply pick a book from your TBR pile and write a post about it–what its all about, what makes you want to read it, and such. Link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks!

This week my pick is a fantasy classic, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. First published in 1958, the book is a revised collected edition of four of his works written between 1938 and 1958, telling the legends of King Arthur.

The book comprises The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. They cover the youth and education of Arthur, his reign including his son Mordred’s revolt, and the romance between Guinevere and Lancelot. A fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, published much later in 1977, chronicles Arthur’s last night on earth, and addresses profound issues of war and peace. Combining humour and fantasy, White’s version of Arthur’s tale is loosely based on Le Mort d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. But the telling is essentially White’s own interpretation and includes aspects like Arthur’s youth, not covered in the work by Malory. The setting of the book in the 14th century is much later than the period when Arthur would actually have ruled.

Tapestry of King Arthur
circa 1385, via Wikimedia Commons

Born in Bombay in 1906, Terence Hanbury White graduated with a first class degree in English in 1928 from Queen’s College, Cambridge, where he also wrote a thesis on Le Mort d’Arthur. Besides the Arthur books for which White is best known, he wrote a memoir of a year spent in England, England Have my Bones (1936), some science fiction (Earth Stopped (1934) and Gone to Ground (1935)), the children’s fantasy book Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), where a young girl discovers a group of Lilliputians living near her house, and various other works.

The Once and Future King is a book that I’ve heard a lot about, especially how it combines humour and fantasy, and yet one I haven’t gotten down to reading yet. I haven’t actually read much on King Arthur either except The Story of King Arthur and his Knights by Howard Pyle, which was a young person’s or children’s version of the legends (covering pretty much all these parts, but also Merlin’s demise) and Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day which explored Mordred’s tale, and paints a different version of him (not an entirely dark character) than popular versions. So I am looking forward to picking this one up soon, and reading this classic of Arthur and his Knights.

Have you read this book? How did you like it? Any other Arthur tellings/retellings that you’d recommend? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

The info on the book is as always from wikipedia (here) and goodreads (here) and on White, from goodreads (here)