I’ve heard of North and South from a friend. She generously gave me a copy of the book and I, like a classic-hungry reader, read it immediately. Strangely enough, I seem to have a “direction” theme as I had recently finished South of the Border, West of the Sun. All I need now is a book with “East” on its title (East of Eden?).
Prior to hearing about North and South, I was generally unfamiliar with Elizabeth Gaskell and quite shocked to discover she was a contemporary of Brönte and Dickens. Gaskell’s novel though reminiscent of Austen in the unraveling of the characters’ feelings is far from the pre-Victorian society of England; it in it the harder realities of the Victorian Society—a theme Dickens spoke of thoroughly in his novels.
Almost Austen, but Different
In the tradition of Austen titles, Gaskell’s North and South clues in the reader on the disparity between our main characters (Margaret Hale and John Thorton) and the towns they represent. To an Austen reader Margaret and John are like the ever-famous Austen couple Elizabeth Benedict and Fitzwilliam Darcy multiplied in two in their pride and prejudice. I find that Margaret and John were proud characters and prejudiced of each other to the point that their love story becomes a collection of mistakes and misunderstandings that can only be explained by the great disparity between North and South. However, to the reader, the prejudices of Margaret and John allow us to enjoy an interesting exchange of wit, revealing a very opinionated woman and an intelligent tradesman. These traits make this novel more relatable to today’s society.
In a Changing World
Gaskell’s novel is a reflection of a changing era. Take Margaret, a woman raised in the South where things were traditional—women don’t shake men’s hand or work in factories. Ironically, her so called conservatism (unfamiliarity with the Northern Ways) is a misfit to the south. Her haughtiness and strong personality weren’t deemed well by the South she so loved. As beautiful as she was, she wasn’t much accomplished compared to women of her time. John Thorton exists in irony as well. He was a proud tradesman/manufacturer and yet he insists on learning the ways of the gentleman—an idea that doesn’t fit well to the North he is so proud of. Gaskell’s character reflect a society that seeks compromise between what used to be and with what is; a characteristic of any society going through the changes dictated by time.
In portraying the changing times, Gaskell dabbles into issues that are quite familiar to today’s world. We open to an issue of doubt in faith as Mr. Hale tries to strip himself away from Helstone to a town so different from his vicarage. Gaskell doesn’t push her luck in this area. She threads ever so lightly through the issue. The author however pursues two topics closely: Poverty and Capitalism, two ideas I believe to be two sides of the same coin. The Victorian era was a prosperous era, as well as a time of child labor and poor houses. The novel talks of strikes, of labor unions, and the unhealthy factory environment. But Gaskell gives us a balanced perspective between Capitalist/Tradesman/Manufacturer and Laborer. The dialogues she highlights in her manufacturers, to the present employee or business owner, are familiar plights.
Unraveling Human Emotion
The novel is far from sanitized (though maybe compared to modern novels it still seems too innocent) – we are essentially not free from the realities of difficult relationships and the consequences of capitalism. It doesn’t spare us from death. Margaret Hale’s strength and John Thorton’s love are best seen in the midst of death and difficulty. Saying more would spoil the story. However, Gaskell treats this not as a romantic would. She deals with it with a healthy dose of reality and allows her characters to unravel naturally in the given situation. As a little note on the relationship between our protagonists, let me say that Gaskell successfully portrays the struggle of human emotion well. She allows us to see our characters in a wretched state of discovering their love, being in love and trying to rid themselves of that love.
North and South offers its readers multiple layers and I highly recommended it to Austen and Dickens readers. I am glad to have been introduced to Gaskell, for I would have never discovered this gem of a book.
Have you read North and South? Did you notice this story is very close to the life story of Gaskell? Have you read any other Gaskell Novels?
note: a repost from sister site 20morethings