North and South

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.)

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20 Responses to North and South

  1. Jenny says:

    Great review, y’all! I have to say I am loving the Classics Circuit, and am even considering giving North and South another try. (We had a disastrous encounter lo these many years ago & I swore Elizabeth Gaskell off forever…)

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny: If you do give North and South another try, I hope it turns out better for you. I’ll put in a plug for Ruth as well. It was my first Gaskell, and I loved it.

  2. Eva says:

    Um, y’all have made me desperately wish that I had the same impression of North & South!!! lol Maybe I’ll reread it in a few years, but while I love the adaptation (and think it’s better than the P&P adaptation), I didn’t think this book had the humanity of an Austen novel. I mean, I was TOLD that the characters changed, but I didn’t SEE it. Anyway, I’m glad you both enjoyed it so much! :)

    • Teresa says:

      Eva: I’m not sure if I liked this more than my favorites Austens, but I did find it to be more ambitious. Austen focuses so closely on the individual hearts and minds of her characters, and she does that incredibly well. I don’t think Gaskell pursues relationships with such depth, but she adds a whole social justice dimension, which appeals to me in a different way.

      • Eva says:

        I understand the appeal of the social justice dimension! I think I preferred Ruth over N&S for that dimension, but there’s a heavy handedness to Gaskell’s tackling of social issues that just rubs me the wrong way. I appreciate what she’s trying to do, but I can’t fall in love with it (the way I loved Cranford). I hesitate to say it’s necessarily more ambitious than bringing individual characters to life though. But then, Austen and I have been bosom buddies for over half my life, so I doubt I see clearly about her. ;)

  3. Steph says:

    Fantastic review! I haven’t read any Gaskell, but she’s an author who’s on the list of writers I’d like to read. One thing I had been struggling with was discovering which one to try first, and I think you two have convinced me that North & South it shall be! I’ll be interested to see how I think it compares to P&P (which is not only my favorite Austen novel, but one of my favorite books of all time!)! You’ve certainly raised the stakes… ;)

    • Teresa says:

      Steph: As I said to Eva, I’m not sure I liked this more than P&P, but the love story follows a strikingly similar course. She just uses that story to make a whole different point.

  4. Aarti says:

    I liked this book, but I liked the movie adaptation better, I admit. And now I’m watching Cranford on Masterpiece as well. I like the Wives & Daughters adaptation, too. Clearly, I like Gaskell better on-screen than on paper! YIKES.

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti: I haven’t seen the adaptation of this, but it’s in my Netlfix queue. Actually, the only Gaskell adaptation I’ve seen is Cranford, which I enjoyed

  5. Kathleen says:

    I’ve yet to read any of Gaskell’s work! I’ve been reading a fair amount about her in the blogosphere lately so have added her to my list to explore in 2010. So many books, so little time!

  6. JaneGS says:

    Absolutely fabulous review–I love the back-and-forth style, and the fact that you went into themes and not just plot. I really liked your relating N&S to Howards End:

    >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.

    I do think at its heart, this is what Gaskell and N&S is all about.

    I’m a big N&S fan, and I’m so glad you both enjoyed it.

    • Teresa says:

      JaneGS: Thanks! To me, the themes were what made this interesting, especially the theme of connection. Gaskell makes some really important points here, and she does it so well.

  7. rebeccareid says:

    I completely understand what you are saying about the parallels to P&P. Like you say in response to the comments above, I don’t think it’s necessarily BETTER than P&P but just that the development of the romance is great. I love your word “heft.” I love P&P because it’s light but this book I really enjoyed because it had those realistic qualities.

    I wouldn’t say Gaskell is a favorite author of mine — I think I’d rather return to Wilkie Collins — but I’m grateful I gave her a chance too!

    Thanks for joining the CIRCUIT!

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca: I think all the 19th century writers are my favorites. I couldn’t choose between them. If I want social consciousness raising, I go for Gaskell. If I want intimate analysis of relationships, I go for Austen. Wilkie Collins for thrills and suspence. For tragedy, it’s Hardy. And then there’s Trollope, the Brontes, Eliot…I couldn’t choose between them.

  8. Dorothy W. says:

    This book makes an interesting comparison with Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, which also deals with industrialization and justice. The introduction to my edition dealt with the comparison directly and concluded that generally Bronte is a more politically conservative writer, which strikes me as accurate. It’s been a while since I read North and South, but I’m pretty sure it’s the better book.

    • Teresa says:

      Dorothy: I saw your post on Shirley today, and I actually have a copy although I haven’t read it. Maybe I’ll move it up on my reading list, so I can make a clearer comparison.

  9. Teresa says:

    Eva: By ambitious I only mean larger in scope, not more skillful or accomplished. I think in N&S, Gaskell is just painting on a larger canvas that Austen generally does.

    I’ve been pondering whether I prefer Ruth over N&S and can’t quite make up my mind. Ruth was my first Gaskell (and I read it before I ever read any Austen), and it goes so much deeper into this one woman’s story. I loved it for taking the reader so deeply into this one woman’s plight, even if Gaskell tended to hammer into her main points a bit too hard at times. N&S avoids much of the hammering by showing how complex the issues are, but it doesn’t have quite the intimacy of Ruth–or of a typical Austen novel.

    JaneGS did a great series of posts on the parallels between N&S and P&P. I just discovered them yesterday, and she has some interesting thoughts on what Gaskell might have been up to in drawing those parallels.

  10. Mrs.B. says:

    I haven’t read this yet but the BBC Adaptation of North and South is one of my favourite films. It’s my comfort movie when I’m sick or home alone. It really never fails. I really should read the book one day!

  11. Kristen M. says:

    I’m glad to have recently received a copy of N&S and can’t wait to get to it next year! This has been a great discussion and I think it will help me appreciate the book more.

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