Tag: BBC

North and South Final Discussion Questions

north and south2You guys all know North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is my favorite book and recently some of my twitter/blogger friends have been hosting a read-along and discussion group.  I posted my answers to the first sets of questions here. Now here are the final set of questions and my answers.  If you’ve read the book I would love your comments and thoughts.

Check out Suey’s Books answers here

1.  There’s much talk about all the deaths in this book. What are your feelings on that? Do you think they were necessary? Or too much?

I think it was just a part of Victorian living especially in a big city like Milton.  Maybe this sounds cold but I was actually glad to see Mr and Mrs Hale go because I never cared much for either of their characters.  I feel they are the weakest as far as character development in the novel.

I always felt like Gaskell missed the boat with Mr Hale. He starts out the novel doing this bold thing of uprooting his family and leaving his profession but then the rest of the story he is a complete pansy, dominated by his wife and others.  Mrs Hale is a character we didn’t learn much about it and is kind of a big nag so no love loss for me.They are both necessary characters to get the story moving in different directions and once served their purpose glad to see them go.

In our discussion on twitter someone mentioned perhaps Mr Hale wasn’t being bold but running away from the situation.  That is a very interesting point I had never pondered before (and I’ve read the book at least 10 times so you never stop learning about a book!).  What do you think? Is he a credible character? The rest of Gaskell’s characters are so strong I’m willing to give her a pass on 2.

Anyway, the only death that does affect me is Bessie because she is so sweet and innocent.  It is the classic Victorian type of death to frail figures such as Beth in Little Women. The nice one’s always get taken first. 😉

Aside from being important in moving the plot along, the deaths do force Margaret to do her final growing up.  She doesn’t have anyone to lean on which is key to her complete change and strength.
2. Was there anything that happened during this last part that you found surprising or unexpected? Or was everything very predictable?

I guess Leonards getting thrown by Frederick onto the train and dying is a tense surprising scene but the rest is somewhat predictable but in a very engrossing way.  It’s hard to say because it’s been so long since I read it for the first time in 2006.

3. What are your feelings on the about face Margaret and Mr. Thornton have with regard to their financial status?

It’s completely devastating for Thornton. In our day we tend to villainize anyone with money- the 1% you might say. Think of a movie like The Social Network where Zuckerberg is the bad guy and really only because he is the head of Facebook and uber-rich.

Gaskell is so great at tying Thornton’s wealth to his self-worth in an admirable way.  His father devastated his world by being foolish with money, so Thornton’s goal is to do something good for himself, family and those around him by being a good steward of his factory and money.

This tie between financial success and his character can be seen in this quote:

“Architect of his own fortunes, he attributed this to no special merit or qualities of his own, but to the power, which he believed that commerce gave to every brave, honest, and persevering man, to raise himself to a level from which he might see and read the great game of worldly success”

The change in fate was almost like God saying he was a failure not just his business.

When he loses the factory it is as if the world is saying to him he is no better than his father. It’s just devastating.

Margaret getting money is more of a convenience for the story and less influential on her character.

4. Do you think Margaret is justified in being so anguished over the lie that she told? Does it mostly have to do with her feelings for Mr. Thornton? Or something else?
I do because it is such a humbling moment for her.  She is a character that prides herself on her good instincts and doing the right thing.  That’s why she jumped in front of the mob. The idea she would lie and more importantly anyone would think she had sullied her name with a secret romance is too much.

The fact it is Mr Thornton, who she is beginning to have feelings for, makes it even worse. But we all have more shame when our sins are made public than when they are confessed to God alone.  That’s just human nature.
5. At what moment exactly do you think her feelings for Mr. Thornton completely changed?

I think when Mrs Thornton comes to talk to her after the incident and she asks herself

“Why do I care what he thinks, beyond the mere loss of his good opinion as regards my telling the truth or not? I cannot tell…”  That’s the beginning of the realization of how much the loss of his good opinion hurts her.

6. Discuss the character of Nicholas Higgins. What do you think about the relationship he has with Mr. Thornton? Did he change Mr. Thornton? Did Mr. Thornton change him?
He’s a lovely character.  I think he is a man who is a great follower but not a great leader.  In that sense him and Thornton balance each other out very well.  When he waits at the door and pleads for a job it is such a humble moment.  He is trying to do the right thing but he is not a Messiah character.  He makes mistakes but pleads anyway. It’s such a well written scene.  Thornton just can’t turn someone so sincere away.

7. How does Mr. Thornton’s views on the master/worker relationship change? Or. . .did it change? Did your view on this issue change as you experienced this book?
I think Thornton realizes how much he needs the good workers.  When Higgins does the extra work to get the job done it is such a lovely moment. Before the strike he probably saw his men as somewhat replaceable and now he knows better.

I’ve never been a big fan of unions but Gaskell does such a good job not showing her hand. We don’t know if she likes the unions or thinks they are thugs.  A lesser writer would have gone one way or the other, so as a result of her skill I am also left unsure.  They certainly do much good and are needed but they can also be bullies and misrepresent the needs of the workers.

8. Do you have a favorite quote from this book? If so, share and let us know why it’s your favorite.
“He shrank from hearing Margaret’s very name mentioned; he, while he blamed her–while he was jealous of her–while he renounced her–he loved her sorely, in spite of himself.”

(It doesn’t get much better than that my friends…)

9. The ending! Are you happy with how things turned out? (Try not to compare with the movie here… that’s for a later question!)

I love the ending.  I think it is a sweet moment.  Shouldn’t you feel like you are getting the better partner when you marry? I love when they say “I am not worthy”. I think that is beautiful and not over-the-top like a more tawdry novel might do (but gives us a little more romantic dialogue than Austen ever does).

10. What aspect of this book would you like to address that we haven’t yet talked about? Is there something we’ve skipped over in our discussions that makes you want to say… “Yeah, but what about….?”  And if you’ve got nothing there, answer this: Did you like the book? Why or why not?

It is my favorite book.  It improves on me every time I read it because of how much I love the characters.  A great book allows its characters to grow over time and is rich enough to show that growth in a wide range of characters not just the central hero.

Gaskell is a master at allowing Margaret to change from a pampered princess who scorns men of business as not gentlemanly enough to a humble, sweet landlord. That’s pretty amazing. Thornton also grows from a man who has been idolized to a wounded but proud creature. It’s so lovely.

Smaller characters show wonderful growth like Mrs Thornton and Higgins. It’s a book I never tire of reading because I like the people so much. I like being in their world.

I love how it tackles issues beyond a romantic drama that we still face today but it doesn’t beat you over the head with them.  It presents certain perspectives and lets you as a reader decide what you think.

I also love how Gaskell writes women in all of her novels including North and South.  They are independent, confident, thinkers with strong character arcs.  If you think about the women in most Dickens novels they are weak, frail creatures, so it is a huge accomplishment what Gaskell does.  If you changed the language and clothes her characters feel very modern in behavior and choices.

I really do think it is the best novel I have ever read and when I’m frustrated with preachy modern stories with predictable characters I pull it out and read it again.  It just always makes me happy.

BONUS MOVIE THOUGHTS:

The miniseries is excellent.  I still think it would make a great feature film and I’m shocked nobody in Hollywood has taken it up as a project.  For the record I think Michael Fassbender would be the perfect Thornton.

The movie has gorgeous cinematography and the recreation of the cotton mill using an actual museum in England is amazing.

cotton-snowflakes-north-and-south-factoryThe script adaptation by the amazing Sandy Welch is wonderful.  She manages to not only include everything from the novel but give a few scenes a modern sensibility which is quite lovely and in keeping with the spirit of Gaskell’s prose.

The score is also lovely by Martin Phipps- drawing you in and creating tension and passion when needed.

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But the real strength of the miniseries is the casting.  Of course Richard Armitage is so good as Thornton.  He captures the pride and all those British stares we expect in such a movie.  He also is vulnerable and towards the end quite devastating. A lesser actor may have played him very one note but he completely captures the nuances of Gaskell’s writing .

cotton-snowflakes-north-and-south

That said, I don’t think Daniela Denby-Ashe gets quite the credit she deserves as Margaret.  She is quite up to the task for sparring with Armitage. There is an elegance and innocence to her performance that endears her to the viewer right away.

The rest of the cast is wonderful including Brendan Coyle as Higgins who would later be famous in Downton Abbey as Mr Bates.  Sinead Cusack is also so great as Mrs Thornton.

 

The Endingnorth-and-south-ending1

A lot of people in the discussion group were upset with the ending in the book.  Here’s what I would say to them.

I like the ending in the movie.  It is a suspension of belief, a fairytale and extremely romantic. The man looks across the train station and see’s the girl and he has loosed the knot in his cravat all casual style. He comes towards her and they talk, declare their love and kiss. I love it!

But does it really make sense to the rest of the story?  Think about it.  The pair were almost kept apart because of a mistaken scene in a train station between Margaret and another man.  Would either of them really have kissed in public like that?  No way.  While it is very romantic as fairytales can be I actually prefer the ending in the book.

They have had passionate discussions throughout the book and how appropriate for it all to come down to the two of them talking and finally understanding one another.  I love how they both feel unworthy of the other’s love and good opinion.  That is perfect for a book based on two people who start out the story feeling superior to each other in every way.

I probably won’t convince anyone but I love both endings. 🙂

North and South Study Questions 1 and 2

I love Gaskell and North and South is probably my favorite book

Readers of this blog will know that North and South is my favorite book.  I read it every year when I get discouraged by the lame modern novels I find.  I love it for a lot of reasons.  Mostly Gaskell is so great at creating characters that are layered and change subtly over the course of the story until you feel so attached to them.

She also is so great at writing women.  Whether it is Margaret in North and South, Molly in Wives and Daughters or all the women in Cranford she creates independent modern women who would be comfortable in any current setting.  I love how forceful they are with their opinions and make their own life choices.

north and south2North and South is her masterpiece creating two characters Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale who are almost off-putting at first both stuck in their worlds.  Then life throws them together and they change until you want them to be happy so badly.

She also throws in very interesting social commentary and is more subtle than her contemporaries  Dickens and Elliot.  For example, the union men in North and South are painted as thugs and brutes but also starving and unheard.  I’ve read North and South over 10 times and I have no idea what Gaskell’s actual position on unions really was.  That’s a sign of a great writer.

So I bring up North and South now because a few of my blogging friends  are doing a book club read of it and I am woefully late in posting my answers to the questions.  To find her answers and the other bloggers check out her blog for links

http://sueysbooks.blogspot.com/2014/12/north-and-south-read-along-january-2015.html#uds-search-results

So here are my answers to the first 2 set of discussion questions.  A few of them I took out because I didn’t have anything to say on them.  If you have read North and South would love to hear your answers.

northandsouth

  1. Have you seen the BBC mini-series? Is the book anything like you expected it to be?

Yes, in fact I read the book before I saw the miniseries. I love it and I think it is one of the most stylish BBC series with beautiful production design and cinematography. I like all the casting.

However, I think the book is quite different. The book is less whimsical than the movie. Like the ending would never have happened in the era of the book. I like both.

  1. Why do you think Margaret refused Henry? He seems like such a nice chap.

Margaret has a very heightened idea of a gentleman and the kind of person who is worthy of her. Henry is definitely not up to snuff with the Heleston Margaret.

north and south 3

  1. What are your first impressions of Mr. Thornton?

I actually feel both Margaret and Thornton start off the book kind of unlikable. Margaret seems like a snob and Thornton a bullish boss. That’s what makes the journey so great.

  1. Why is Margaret so indifferent to Mr. Thornton, but she can make friends with the Higgins? They are both northern people and have different customs.

It’s kind of similar to Emma in Emma spending time with Harriet or the Bates. It is more of a condescending and serving the Higgins where Thornton needs none of that service.

  1. What differences are you seeing so far between the north and the south?

I don’t know if we ever get a real view of Heleston and the South because Margaret see’s it as an idyllic home which is easy to do when you aren’t living there. She see’s it through rose colored glasses like someone might do to a special vacation home.

Milton in contrast is immediately very realistic and gritty, grimy and even cold.

 north and south 2

  1. Do you think Mr. Hale was justified in leaving the church and his position?

Mr Hale is the one part of the book that is a problem for me. Leaving the church was a such a bold choice and I never feel like he is the type of personality to do something like that. You have to accept it in order to get the story going but he is such a weak human being the rest of the book it is hard to buy.

  1. What are your feelings on Frederick’s situation?

I don’t know enough about the navy and such things at that time but I buy it. I think it works to give Margaret something she has to hide from the world. It humbles her and makes her realize she can be lower than Thornton.

  1. What are your thoughts on the master and worker relationship

I think it is a necessary part of life. There are going to be leaders and followers. It actually usually runs pretty well. Where you get into problems is people who are bad at following and bad at leading. That’s where conflict comes in to play. Margaret is not a good follower and Higgens isn’t really a good leader. He is better at supporting people he loves. What Margaret fails to see is that by being a good yet stern boss Thornton is respecting his workers. He learns to do even more but how often do we, like Margaret assume leaders are all bad merely because they are leading.

  1. Have your feelings changed towards Mr. Thornton during this section of the book?

Thonton taking lessons from Mr Hale I think helps endear him to the reader pretty quickly. There’s a humility there. His back and forths with Margaret help create building tension and an intriguing character. You learn a lot about him through their debates.

north and south

  1. Have your feelings towards Margaret changed?

Margaret is a very independent woman. She almost reminds me of Belle from Beauty and the Beast . She is bold with her opinion and forward about making friends and getting involved with local issues. All this makes her very likable. She is never dishonest with anyone even when her feelings and impressions are wrong they are her feelings. No attempt to lie to anyone. Another likable traits.

  1. What do you think about the riot and how Margaret and Mr. Thornton reacted?

It’s a superbly written scene. Gaskell builds tension perfectly and throughout the book she does a good job not really saying whether the union is the enemy or to be admired. I honestly don’t know what is going to happen each time I read it because it’s hard to know whether the mob likes Margaret or not. When she gets struck it is quite shocking but her actions make sense because we the readers are feeling the same way Margaret is about the mob. Thornton seems to be the only one who knows what is going to happen and there is a desperation in all of his actions.

  1. Did Bess’s or Mrs. Hale’s deaths effect you in any way

Bess’s death affected me because she is such a lovely sympathetic character. Mrs Hale I never really bonded with so I was kind of glad to see her go.

  1. Were you surprised to learn that it wasn’t common for women to attend funerals? What are your feelings on that tidbit?

That was interesting. Kind of silly really. They should be able to all mourn and pay their respect. Different culture I suppose.

Higgins and Thornton
Higgins and Thornton
  1. Now that we’ve met Frederick, do you like him? Are you sympathetic to his predicament?

Yes, I think he is a likable figure. He made mistakes but they seem understandable given the chaos of war. You don’t get to know him very well but what we do he seems sweet and sincere.

  1. What are your feelings on Mr. Thornton’s proposal?

It’s devastating. Gaskell does such a great job building these characters bit-by-bit until you want them to be happy. Thornton gives such a noble proposal. Unlike say Darcy he hasn’t really done anything worthy of Margaret’s disdain. She has yet to let go of the notions she picked up living with her cousins. In her defense she has had a lot to take in during a short period of time. She’s moved to a foreign local, father disgraced leaving the church, lost her Mother, dealt with Frederick and worked with the unions and Higgens. It’s a lot where Thornton has had to deal with just the union. So I give her a bit of a pass.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell
  1. If you were in Mr. Thornton’s place, having seen the person you love with a stranger late at night, then finding out that person was questioned by the police and lied, would you do the same thing Mr. Thornton did? Would you protect that person even though you think they have done questionable things?

It’s hard to say. I’m not a very good liar so I would probably let it slip even if I didn’t want too. I think he knows there is more to the story or at least hopes there is. We always hope we would do the honorable thing but who knows.

  1. Do you think Margaret’s feelings towards Mr. Thornton have changed? Why?

Definitely. Margaret starts to notice Thornton more after the proposal and the Frederick lie is huge in getting her to see things in a new way. Gaskell is so great at her subtle character development.

Downton Abbey

So everyone who follows me on facebook knows of my obsession with Downton Abbey.  I know it is totally trendy but what can I say, I love it!  Its actually been a great release for me with recent stresses.  What better escape is there than to an Edwardian estate?

For you 3 people who don’t watch it, it is a BBC television series set in a British manor house called Downton Abbey from 1912 onward (the first episode starts with the sinking of the titanic).  According to the website there are 33 developed characters within the series because we get to know the Lord and Ladies upstairs and the hard working servants downstairs.

What is so refreshing about this show is that wealth and status does not define goodness with the various character profiles.  There are the villainous and noble of both classes. In fact, it is amazing how well rounded every character is. In these economic times I find it is an easy out to make the rich guy the villain.  For instance, in the much touted Social Network Mark Zuckerburg is immediately under suspicion because he is rich.

It is also historically accurate including such nuances as having Lady Grantham be an American heiress, which at the time was very common.  With land prices reducing in value pre wwI British nobility relied on American women to save their fortunes and estates.  There is also a great sense of waiting in the gentry vs work and business in the servants quarters.All the details in sets and costumes are superb.

So, two seasons have come and gone (stupid BBC and their short seasons! Now we have to wait a year.  What’s a girl to do!).  To read an update on the various characters go to http://enchantedserenityperiodfilms.blogspot.com/2010/09/meet-characters-of-downton-abbey.html.  They are all wonderfully acted especially the Dowager Countess played by the amazing Maggie Smith.

I think what makes the series work so well is the tension and humor on so many levels.  The house in many ways is a kind of min-world experiencing all the problems and victories of class struggle, relationship drama, sibling rivalry, health issues, forbidden love, spite etc.

You also have the fascinating role the outside world plays on the mini-world of Downton.  With the waning importance of the upper class and the greater options to working class families for education and employment reliance on the Grand House was not the same as it once was.  With the advent of World War 1 (Did you know that 30,000 people died in one battle of that war.  Wow!) and the death of so many young men ‘service’ as a profession was even diminished further.

Also, the war brought the mixing of classes with servant and Lord battling together for the same cause. In fact, in one scene in Downton the servant William saves Matthew Crawley in the worst battle of the war.  Still performing his duty to the end.

You have characters like Carson, the buttler, who resists change almost as much as Lord Grantham and others like Lady Sybil who yearns for it.  Then you have other great stories like Anna and Bates the servants romance that ends on quite the cliffhanger for season 2.

The Dowager is my favorite character.  She is actually quite modern and has all the great lines in the show.  Here are some good one’s.

Here’s some other funny one’s http://video.pbs.org/video/2196625085/

I was talking with my friend the other day about the chaos in Syria.  We both agreed sometimes it feels like there are too many challenges and sadness in the world.  It can feel like there is nothing you can do to help in the world.  Its kind of comforting to escape to a world that feels in control.

Downton Abbey also satisfies all emotions.  It is romantic, sad, funny and everything else.  The only bad thing about it is I have to wait a year to see it again.  Thank goodness I have season 2 on amazon video on demand (season 1 is available via netflix season 1).  It has been such a gift to me this month.  Seriously I needed an escape to Edwardian England.  Thank you BBC and Julian Fellows and all the actors and everybody involved.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Also, it has been hilarious to watch Downton while reading the tweets of the comic Patton Oswalt @pattonoswalt  .  They were so funny and more so because he’s a die hard fan.  I have found that television is much more enjoyable if you can follow a twitter handle while you watch (I love watching the debates while looking at twitter).  Even the music in Downton is great!

Enjoy and now we just have to look forward to Great Expectations coming soon!

Wives and Daughters

Wives and DaughtersWives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  (My first Goodreads review posted in my blog.  I didn’t know you could do that but hope to do it many more times in the future.  If you are on goodreads and we aren’t friends please add me!)

Whenever I get bored with reading I go back and reread either Gaskell or Austen (with an occasional Elliott or Bronte thrown in the mix). They are my version of comfort food in book form. Wives and Daughters is a splendid book with humor, warmth, intrigue and of course romance. I probably read it and North and South 4-5 times a year if not more so.

The key to it is Molly Gibson. While North and South is my favorite Gaskell, Molly Gibson is my favorite character. She may be my favorite character in all of literature. Gaskell knew how to write women. I feel like she gets inside my head with her characters better than any other author.

Despite the prim and proper age which she lived she managed to always write women that are complex, dynamic and bold. Molly is a perfect example. She is one part intellect and one part frustratingly naive. She is thoughtful towards all but also slightly petty. Her heart is easily attached but she is by no means a push-over. She is insanely likable because we all can relate to some part of her personality.

All of Gaskell’s women are free with their opinion and feel remarkably modern. Molly and Margaret (North and South) are not waiting around to be useful or make an impact on society, as you see in the Austen books (I realize they were written in a different era but still).

The attribute I relate the most to in Molly is her deep and abiding love for others. She genuinely loves the Hamley’s and even finds a way to love the manipulative yet sympathetic Cynthia. Hyacinth is the only Gaskell character I can think of which borders on caricature, but even then you do see some perspective as to why she feels she must act in such a silly way.

Wives and Daughters is practically perfect- if only Gaskell had finished the last chapter before her death…Nevertheless, it will make you laugh, cry, smile and question your own behavior. It tells a love story in the best possible way- a meeting of the minds, of 2 kindred spirits that finally realize they are meant to be together. Who doesn’t love that? 🙂

(Molly actually reminds me a lot of my sister (minus the negative characteristics listed above!) who is so thoughtful, kind, inquisitive and forgiving.)

PS- I love how the main critique of this book is that it is long. Duh. You think you could tell that by looking at it.

Now the question is what do I read next?…I always ask that after reading Gaskell? Nothing else quite compares in my eyes. Christmas Carol will probably be next up!

The BBC Miniseries is excellent with wonderful performances. Michael Gambon is always superb in everything he is in and he gives a heart wrenchingly nuanced performance as Squire Hamley (a role that could be very cliched).  Justine Waddell is very good as Molly Gibson.

The series also does a good job creating a pitch-perfect ending.  I recommend reading the book first, develop your own ending and see how it compares with the series.  It is currently a stream on Netflix.  I wonder when Hollywood is going to get with it and create a regular movie version of Gaskell?  They’ve done Austen to death. You think they’d be jumping at the chance to do Gaskell?

Sherlock

As I’ve been recuperating I’ve naturally watched a little more television then usual.  One of the recent treats I’ve enjoyed is the new take on Sherlock Holmes from Masterpiece Mystery (used to be Masterpiece Theater, now it is divided into categories like Masterpiece Mystery and Masterpiece Classics).  Anyway, the new series Sherlock takes the classic team of Holmes and  Watson and puts it in a modern setting.  Normally I am a purist when it comes to the classics but something about this series works.  They capture the feel and tone of the old stories in spite of the changes. The acting is good, the cinematography great and the crimes are tricky enough for Holmes without being over-the-top. Nobody in the cast is recognizable but they all do a good job in recreating their characters (the man who plays Holmes is particularly good because he is a jerk but yet you still like him.) I’m not the only one enjoying this new series.  Check out the reviews.

In contrast, I hated the 2009 version of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson.  What made the difference in the two interpretations?  Why do I accept a modern interpretation more than one set in the Victorian era?  It’s a tough question but  it comes down to tone, faithfulness to Conan Doyle’s characters, cinematography and the cases presented.  In the movie Holmes and Watson are thrust into a case involving a cult with alien abductions, explosions, and grave robbers.

Plus, they turn Holmes into a playboy when he’s supposed to be socially awkward- a genius (something the new series totally gets).  Holmes is not an action hero and the movie turns him into a boxing, explosion jumping, shooting enemies, chasing bad-guys type character .  (like a Victorian Jack Bauer). For it to be a true depiction, Holmes should win based on sheer brain power not on his manly good looks or his ability to jump between buildings.  They also give Holmes a pointless girlfriend (Rachel McAdams who is actually only in about 10 minutes of the movie). It was a waste of talent and a disappointing addition to the oft told mystery franchise (It’s even been done by Disney in the Great Mouse Detective- a moderately successful animated film.  Mostly enjoyable because of the voice of Vincent Price as the evil Ratigan).

It’s interesting how a classic story can be interpreted in new and surprising ways.  Sometimes it works- other times, not so much.  If any of you get a chance, check out the new series Sherlock on Masterpiece Mystery.  Also the old PBS series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett is traditional but very good- a Wagner family favorite. (also available on Netflix streaming)

What are some unique interpretations of classic stories you like?  Some that didn’t work for you? I just realized this is my 200th post.  Pretty good?

Why I love Elizabeth Gaskell

180px-elizabeth_gaskell_-_project_gutenberg_etext_19222

For all of you who do not know, Elizabeth Gaskell was a novelist in the 1850’s at the same time as Charles Dickens.  In fact, the two were friends and critiqued each other’s work on occasion.  I have now read four out of her six novels and I have LOVED all but one (Ruth I liked but did not love).  North and South may very well be my favorite book.  (I know- all you Austen-attics can scream in shock!).  To me it is as close to perfect as a novel can be- perfect characterization, settings, conflict, romance, social consciousness etc.  Wives and Daughters is also great, but Gaskell died before finishing it so the ending is a bit abrupt.  Recently  I  finished Cranford, which is more a series of short stories rather than a novel of a town called Cranford, and I LOVED it!  I laughed and laughed throughout the entire thing.  It is wonderful.  Let me say a few more things I love about Gaskell’s writing:

1. Her characters are the most fully realized voices I have read.  Each person Gaskell invents are complex, confusing, imperfect and human all at the same time.  He or she changes bit-by-bit like real human beings and by the end of the story I feel as if I have come to know a new friend intimately.   Some of my favorite characters are:

Molly Gibson (Wives and Daughters)- I can’t think of a higher compliment than someone telling me I am like Molly.  I know I keep saying this but she is perfectly well-rounded.  She is smart but not too bookish, kind but no pushover, spunky without being obnoxious, good but not pious, shy but not too shy.  She is willing to do brave things throughout the book but she does not seek after such tasks.  She loves but does so quietly out of true friendship. She loves her father but is still willing to speak her mind to him on occasion.  She’s just great! I don’t think I have ever wanted a character to fall in love as much as I wanted it for Molly.

John Thorton (North and South)- As much as I love Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, John Thorton is an even better man.  He is lower class-wise than Darcy but he holds himself up as high in the beginning of the story.  He is what Darcy might be had he been a self-made man.  Thorton’s father lost his fortune in speculating and the resulting poverty caused Thorton to pursue business with a passion.  That said, he never becomes a Scrouge-like character- consumed with greed.  Perhaps it is the presence of his mother that keeps a softness to him, but it is also the presence of literature and philosophy that convince Thorton he has more to learn- keeps him humble. I don’t want to give too much away but it isn’t until Margaret judges his lifestyle as inferior that Thorton’s pride becomes a stumbling block.  He believes that his factory, his life, is a benefit to the world and is shocked to find Margaret in disagreement.  This eats at him and causes him to slowly change.  (Again, Gaskell gives us a complicated and layered character).

Miss Matty (Cranford)- An old spinster who bases all her life choices on the opinions of her sister- or that’s at least what Gaskell wants you to think at first.  Again, without giving too much away, Matty looks  at the need around her and then subtly encourages her more headstrong sister to do the right thing.  With the exception of a man she might have married early in life, Matty seems to know what she wants in life and then finds a way to get it without ruffling any feathers.  This is shown when she has financial problems and through the support of her town she finds a way out of it without hurting anyone. (All of the women in Cranford are like this- Miss Matty was just my favorite).

2. The next thing I love about Elizabeth Gaskell is how contemporary her novels feel.  You might think I am crazy to say this given their length; however, the themes and characters are very modern.  For instance, the women in Cranford are almost entirely self-sufficient.  The narrator actually says in the opening of the book that the gentlemen in Cranford “seem to disappear.”

“What could they do if they were there?  The surgeon has his rounds and sleeps at Cranford;  but every man cannot be a surgeon…for kindness to the poor, and real tender offices to each other whenever they are in distress- the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. ‘A man’ as one of them observed to me once ‘is so in the way in the house”.

Now tell me, does that not seem like the words of a contemporary novelist? It’s not just her bold, dynamic women that I love but the mixture of tradition with a willingness to change that her characters embrace- is that not also very modern?  Even traditional Miss Deborah in Cranford changes in her views about death and certain traditions.

There is an independent voice to all of Gaskell’s characters. which I also find very modern.  I never feel like they are touting a party-line or saying something to be politically correct.  For instance, Margaret in North and South intervenes at a key moment not because she believes in a particular philosophy but because it is her innate human response. Someone like George Eliot (who I admire greatly) would have given tons of weighty reasons for why her characters act- instead of just letting them be human. Each Gaskell  character is unique and wonderful- and that individuality is very modern.

The women in all her books are independent thinkers, which you don’t see in a lot of other novels of the day. In Ruth, Gaskell even gives her readers a woman who has an illegitimate child that she keeps.  This must have been shocking for readers of the 1850’s, but doesn’t it seem like something that could have been written today?

Dickens, on the other hand, definitely has characters that are meant to symbolize or bring to light particular philosophies, practices or beliefs of his time. Plus, the women in Dickens are uniformly silly (With perhaps the exception of Estella in Great Expectations).  Most of this works in Dickens, but I prefer the organic feel of Gaskell’s characters.   I honestly think you could publish North and South or Wives and Daughters as  new books today (with perhaps a slightly different setting) and they would be equally applicable to our modern sensibilities.

3. I love the language of Gaskell.  I love that she can pull imagery from a flower, a piece of cotton, a butterfly.  There are scenes in her books where all you have to know is the character’s cravat is untied and you know everything.  I have never been to England but the way Gaskell describes the scenery makes me want to visit.  Whether it is the industrial South, the lush North, or the small isolated town of Cranford, Gaskell’s descriptions are just beautiful.  I love them!

4. Gaskell has some of the best pacing I have ever read.  Like Austen, she builds tension slowly with each scene until I am about ready to burst.  Then she gives us the climax or moment of crisis finishing off with a subtle yet triumphant ending.   That’s why Wives and Daughters kills me- I want to read the ending! As much as I try to fill in the blanks I know it is nothing to how great Gaskell would have ended it.

Given her great settings and characters, I buy what happens in Gaskell’s plots.  It just makes sense, and it always has me enraptured.  I don’t think I have ever wanted to know how a book would end more than while reading North and South.  I really did not know if it was going to be a tragedy or a romance- it is a perfectly executed  plot. In all of her books I just can’t wait to know what is going to happen and how it will all turn out.

I could go on and on.  Gaskell’s books are fantastic.  They make me want to write and to read more.  I find them funny, romantic, sad, tragic, gossipy, and immensely satisfying.  I know they are long books (with the exception of Cranford) but it is worth the effort.  Enjoy the length.  Enjoy every word of delight, every wonderfully layered character, and every perfectly executed scene.  I know that literature is very subjective, but if I could recommend any book to a friend it would be one of Gaskell’s.  I consider all of you to be my friends so there it is- read her books!

I will close by saying that the BBC miniseries’ based on North and South, Wives and Daughters and Cranford, are all superb.  Great, great, great, great.  They are long but I enjoyed every moment.  North and South is probably my favorite (Richard Armitage as Mr. Thorton- totally gorgeous).  It’s not only acted well but filmed in an interesting contemporary style which is in fitting with Gaskell.  Cranford is wonderful also with Dame Judy Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton (who steels every scene she’s in- the scene with the cat is the best!) and Michael Gambon.  I can’t praise it highly enough.  Wives and Daughters managed to do the impossible by finding a Molly Gibson that I like.  Michael Gambon is wonderful in that as well.  All of the miniseries’ are great.  I just wish she had written more books for them to make into more miniseries’! If any of you want to borrow I have all 3 on DVD.

By the way- the next comment I get on the blog will be my 100th!  I wonder who will get the honor?! Thanks for making the blog a great part of my life.