I’ve written a number of posts about the English writer Elizabeth Gaskell but since we are doing her book North and South for book club I thought I would add one more. Let me explain to all of you why it is my favorite book (with the Book Thief being a close second- I know quite the contrast!).
North and South tells the fictional story of Margaret Hale who in the mid-nineteenth century is forcibly moved from her beloved South of England to big industrialized north. There she meets a hard working and seemingly aloof textile factory owner named John Thornton. Having grown up with an aristocratic notion of a ‘gentleman’ Margaret is initially disgusted by the tradesman Thornton and see’s him as a brute. This impression is added to when she meets the Higgins family who work at the factory and are in dire straights.
The men at the factory, led by Higgins, are debating about striking and initially Margaret is sympathetic to their cause but as it becomes more violent she becomes conflicted. She also gets to know Thornton more and their vigorous debates on social issues spark contempt and attraction at the same time. Both are used to being doted on and praised and the challenge of an equally vibrant and thoughtful mind draws them together but the path to love isn’t easy or predictable…
So are you intrigued? I am and I’ve read this book two or three times every year since I first read it in 2006. I was assigned it at a book club and I was the only girl who finished it but I think despite its nearly 400 pages I read it in a couple of days. I was lucky enough to be introduced to it knowing nothing about the story, writer, or having seen the wonderful if slightly different BBC miniseries.
North and South is often compared to Pride and Prejudice with some cause. I am sure Gaskell was a fan of Austen as her works became very trendy in the 1850’s. However, Gaskell is also a contemporary of Dickens (Dickens is supposedly the one who suggested the title North and South when it became serialized in his magazine). The romance and the prejudice of title characters is similar to Pride and Prejudice but it adds the social commentary of a Dickens novel and does not have the comedic wit of an Austen book.
Thornton and Margaret are in my opinion the two most well developed characters in literature. Where Darcy and Lizzie change pretty dramatically (Darcy falls in love with Lizzie in basically a weekend), the leads in North and South develop a love and understanding of each other slowly, bit-by-bit. When I first read the book I didn’t really like either character but I saw them grow and change the way real people might change. Even on a 10th or 11th read-through there are not 2 characters that I want to more desperately fall in love than Margaret and Thornton.
Gaskell also gives all of her heroines a remarkably modern viewpoint and voice. Take away the Victorian language and these characters could be a Bridget Jones or in a Sophie Kinsella novel. What takes Austen half a book and a proposal to vocalize, Gaskell’s heroine says in a first meeting. In her initial discussion with Thornton Margaret passionately defends the rights of the workers and calls him a “master” with a “Darkshire Egos, dependents clinging to him on all sides” . I would say pretty bold even for a modern girl!
But, adding more complexity to the character, soon after this discussion Margaret steps out to defend Thornton from union thuggary. She seems to have innate idea of right and wrong and is confident enough to act upon it. Both Thornton and Margaret are emotionally honest in this way. Him with a bold proposal, her with a rescue. Then the story continues to add layer after layer. (is that obscured enough for you? Tried to not be to spoiler)
I also like North and South because it is not centered around the characters marital hopes. In fact, that is somewhat incidental to the plot. Gaskell, like Dickens, hopes to champion political change but she also invites more of a discussion than he ever allows. There are points in favor of both the “master and man” debates within her novels and one could make a compelling case for Gaskell advocating either side. That is great writing in my book.
Another difference in North and South from Pride and Prejudice is Thorton is a fleshed out character that we see a full journey from. We hear his grief and feel the pressure that weighs him down as owner of the mill and lovesick man. In their first discussion Thornton tells Margaret:
“I value my own independence so highly that I can fancy no degradation greater than that of having another man perpetually directing and advising and lecturing me, or even planning too closely in any way about my actions”
What a man right? He has felt the weight of his father’s indiscretions, mother’s dependence, sister’s carelessness and his communities reliance, and never been confronted by anything he could not master or adapt to until Margaret. That is such an attractive idea for a woman. To be the girl that causes such a man to change and learn!
But he is not alone in change. Margaret changes too, maybe even more so. She learns that there is more gray than her stilted Southern ways have taught her. By being the target of a misunderstanding in the story she comes to realize that all is not always as it seems at first and that the most important part of Thornton’s character is his honest heart. In this sense their mutual understanding is very similar to Darcy and Lizzie.
In the final scene in the novel Margaret declares “I am not good enough” and Thornton says “don’t mock my own feeling of unworthiness”. Is that not also a very modern sense of love? That we should feel we have gotten the better half of the bargain? And even though it is clear to any astute reader that this will be the ending of the story, the journey is so satisfying that I want to cheer every time.
I just love it. Read it!! (and then watch the miniseries. Be smart like me and do it in the right order!)