Today we welcome Elizabeth Gaskell to Shelf Love as part of the Classics Circuit. Between us, we’ve read all of Gaskell’s most well-known novels, and it was a great pleasure to finally read North and South.
Shortly after the book opens, Margaret Hale’s father, a minister, is having a crisis of faith that causes him to leave the church and move his wife and daughter from their comfortable country home in Hampshire to the industrial town of Milton in the north of England. Margaret gets to know both mill workers and mill owners in her new home, and when the mill workers strike, she finds herself in the middle. She has befriended the daughter of a worker and wants to see their situation improve, but she can’t quite break her ties with factory owner John Thornton.
As the story develops, there are deaths, romantic misunderstandings, an exiled mutineer, long discussions of workers’ rights and the consequences of strikes. Characters have cause to reconsider long-held beliefs about each other and about the world in which they live.
Teresa: I’ve always seen Gaskell as a novelist for social justice, having first read Ruth and Mary Barton, both of which offer close-up looks at the plight of the poor. But what struck me about this novel was that by having a middle-class protagonist, she was able to step back and look at the situation from multiple angles. Margaret is close enough to see what was going on but not so close as to have a personal stake in the labor conflict. I liked that aspect of the book quite a lot, and I thought it presented much more food for thought than a simple story about the suffering poor might do. How did this compare to your previous experiences with Gaskell?
Jenny: I had previously read Cranford and Wives and Daughters. Those novels are lovely — delicate, witty, and keenly observed — but they felt minor to me. I could understand why they aren’t on every undergraduate syllabus, for instance. North and South, however, with its themes of power and dominance (whether over weavers in the mill, sailors in the Navy, or women in the home), education, suffering at every level of society, and the capacity of human contact to effect change, completely blew me out of the water. (Plus, it was so romantic!)
Teresa: Yes, there’s so much going on here, but it doesn’t feel overstuffed, just complex. It did take me a while to warm up to the love story, though. I didn’t dislike John Thornton when he first appeared, but I was worried that the strike would turn him into an autocratic sort of man who wouldn’t be a suitable lover for anyone. He could easily have gone in either direction. The love story did bear some strong resemblances to Pride and Prejudice, but (dare I say it?) Gaskell’s story had slightly more heft. Because the romance is her central focus, Austen explores it with more depth than Gaskell, but Gaskell’s characters have so much further to go to be right for each other. They have to rethink all their loyalties and attitudes, and at the end of the book, they’re transformed.
Jenny: Oh, Teresa, I’m so glad you said that, because I thought exactly the same thing. Thornton isn’t just proud of a “superior understanding,” he believes he has the right to toy with human lives. There’s a long way for him to go to meet Margaret Hale. And Margaret, a gentleman’s daughter, isn’t merely prejudiced against someone’s unpleasant manners, she is prejudiced against an entire class of “tradespeople,” as she puts it. She, too, has a lot to learn, and we along with her.
One thing I just loved about this story was Margaret as the strong protagonist. She was everything I love in a main character and so rarely find in Victorian (fictional) women: level-headed, strong, kind, open and eager to learn, and even possessed of a sense of humor. I was slightly worried that each crisis was going to prove to be Margaret Saves the Day, but it turned out to be more complicated than that, didn’t it?
Teresa: Yes! Margaret is a great character, and I loved that she’s not a paragon. She makes mistakes—and is needlessly hard on herself about them. She wants to be a better person, but she doesn’t quite know how. She feels passionately, but she isn’t driven by her passions. And in the one instance where she does save the day, her action gets wildly misinterpreted.
But my very favorite aspect of the book was the theme of connection. As I was reading, I kept thinking of Howard’s End, particularly its epigraph, “Only connect.” It seems to me that this book is all about connections—not just becoming aware of those who are different but really becoming wrapped up in their lives, seeing them as equals, gathering over a meal, accepting a gift from them. Whenever people do that in this book, barriers fall. It’s a lovely point, and an interesting one coming from an author who was heavily involved in charitable work among the poor in industrial Manchester.
Jenny: I agree. Margaret isn’t highly educated or perfect in any other respect, and she doesn’t know much about industry. She doesn’t know much about the lives of the poor people she wants to help, either, and she blunders in both places. The only thing she does right, time and again, is to put a human face on matters. This isn’t an infidel weaver, it’s Nicholas Higgins. This isn’t a striker, it’s a man with hungry children. This isn’t a despot, it’s a human being whose life you’re about to take. The theme is echoed in Margaret’s brother’s mutiny: the Navy must punish mutiny and establish its authority. But when you know the people involved, it’s a different matter.
And that comes back to the whole issue of power and dominance. North versus south, Helstone versus Milton, masters versus workers, gentlemen versus tradespeople, men versus women. Who has the power, and who should? Can it ever be shared?
Teresa: It seems to me that it’s never entirely clear who has the power. Men, masters, and ships’ captains may be given official power, but those “below” them can and do take that power, whether by banding together and taking it by force or by being strong when the “powerful” one is weak. So, in a sense, the power is shared because the powerful can only rule with the consent of the governed. Perhaps the governed are consenting because they see no other choice, but once they see they have a choice, then the master has to earn the power and the right to retain it.
Jenny: And in the end, Gaskell shows both masters and men beginning to understand the benefits of shared rule. Thornton voluntarily gives up some of his autocracy; Margaret concedes that the busy North has some advantages; love comes to Milton, and to two intelligent, stubborn, tender-hearted people. I thought it was an amazing novel. I found it powerful and touching, as complex and substantial as nearly any 19th-century novel I’ve ever read, and more modern than I had expected, with a vein of humor running through it. I’m so glad the Classics Circuit brought it to our door.
For more on Elizabeth Gaskell, be sure to visit the other stops on the Classics Circuit. Watch the Classics Circuit blog for information on upcoming tours and opportunities to suggest and vote on future featured authors and themes. Upcoming tours will feature Edith Wharton and the Harlem Renaissance. (Sign-ups for the Harlem Renaissance tour close December 30.)