Little reviews on little (and big!) books

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

on January 8, 2014

I love Gaskell’s novels. Ask anyone I know and they’ll tell you I’m a massive fan 🙂 The way she creates and evolves her characters and the environment in which they live is almost masterful, and North and South is no exception with its use of Northern dialect throughout. This was the first book of hers I had the pleasure of reading and it’s a great introduction to her style of writing.

Published in 1854-5, the story is set around a woman called Margaret Hale who has been forced to move from the rural idyllic Helstone to the smoky factory city of Milton (a fictional setting near Manchester) with her family. At first, she is offended by the choking industrial environment she becomes a part of, but soon takes it upon herself to get to know the city and its occupants. The most endearing friendship she makes in the novel is that between herself and Bessy Higgins. Bessy is a factory girl dealing with cotton and as a result has developed a severe lung condition due to breathing in spores from the production of the fabric. The reader can instantly tell that she is inevitably not long for this world, but this doesn’t stop Gaskell creating a real and loving friendship between her and Margaret. Of course, with Bessy and her family being working-class, Margaret was looked down upon by other members of the society, but this does not bother her in the slightest, continuing her acquaintance with Nicholas Higgins, Bessy’s father, after she passes away. Margaret is an extremely headstrong character and her dedication to caring for others (family or not) is admirable. She never lets a bad situation get on top of her for too long, and the reader feels real empathy with her when she loses people she knows.

The industrial environment Gaskell portrays is, I believe, another one of the main characters in the novel. The dense smog which covers the town must have been difficult to bear, but it is indicative of the development of factories in cities during the Victorian period. Here, the mill-owners come into play, the main gentleman being Mr. Thornton. When the reader and Margaret first meet him, he is described as extremely pompous and only interested in trade and profit. To be honest, I thought he was absolutely horrible, but of course that is Gaskell’s skill. He is nothing of the sort, only acting in such a way so as to support his own family after his own father died suddenly. He was removed from school at a young age and forced to become an industry man overnight. Thornton worked his way up from nothing, giving all of his wages to his mother to support the household; he is the ultimate self-made man. However, all of the profit he has come across has turned him cold to the needs and emotions of the working-class men he employs in his factory. That is, until Margaret comes along 🙂

Their love/hate relationship is gripping, coming to a head when the workers of the factories all over the town go on strike. For Margaret, a strike and unions for workers is an unheard-of thing; she underestimates the seriousness of getting involved with men who are willing to do anything to feed their starving families. On a visit to Thornton and his family, Margaret suddenly finds herself in the middle of a violent protest by the men over Thornton’s decision to bring in Irish workers to keep his factory running. She pleads with him,

‘Go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man… Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor creatures who are driven mad… If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man.’

Thornton agrees, but the appearance of their master infuriates the workers. Gaskell describes the savagery of those in the crowd expertly through Margaret’s eyes when she spots a man she knows.

‘Many in the crowd were mere boys; cruel and thoughtless, – cruel because they were thoughtless; some were men, gaunt as wolves, and mad for prey. She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, – with starving children at home – relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread. Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher’s face, forlornly desperate and livid with rage.’

These men will do anything when it comes to feeding their families, including resorting to violence which inevitably happens. When Margaret also steps out to try and reason with the men, she is struck in the face with a stone and falls unconscious. This enrages Thornton, and this is the first sign the reader gets that he is falling for her. Thornton assumes Margaret’s defence of him means she cares for him and this leads to a very unfortunate proposal of marriage which Margaret cruelly refuses. However, over the course of the novel, and Margaret’s eventual realisation that life without Thornton is miserable, she admits to herself that she really does love him. By this time, Thornton has lost almost everything; his factory is going under and he has very little money left, but he is a changed man, listening more to his workers and eating with them in the canteen. Margaret has moved to Harley Street in London with her aunt after the death of her parents. She becomes the heiress to a large fortune when a close friend of her father’s passes away, and so essentially becomes Thornton’s landlord. This leads to the final and most satisfying meeting between the two at the end of the novel. Margaret offers him a business proposition which would fund his mill and he could continue working there, which results in them both acknowledging their feelings for each other – thank goodness! 😛 It was a long time coming!

Elizabeth Gaskell herself witnessed the struggles of the working classes in factory towns, and wished to write of what she saw around her (which will also be discussed in my review of her novel, Mary Barton). Some of the Northern dialect is a little difficult to decipher, and most editions of the novel come with notes at the back to help. There is also a sub-plot involving Margaret’s brother who is being framed for mutiny, but I’ll leave you to read about that for yourself otherwise this review would be massive! Let’s just say, there’s always plenty going on in a Gaskell novel 🙂 To finish, I must suggest the 2004 BBC adaptation of this novel starring Daniela Denby-Ashe, Richard Armitage, and Brendan Coyle (aka Mr Bates from Downton Abbey). Some moments in the story are slightly altered, but it’s really great and heart-warming to watch, especially the remake of the ending where Thornton and Margaret meet again at a train station 🙂 Ultimately, this review might seem a little biased but it’s simply because I love Gaskell’s work! If you get a chance, lose yourself in her novels 🙂


8 responses to “North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. Janette MciInnes says:

    I love Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, my favourite is Wives and Daughters. This book is her unfinished work, despite this the unfinished ending is very satisfactory

  2. turningpagesandtea says:

    I adored Mary Barton. I can’t wait to read this one! 🙂

    • emma says:

      I absolutely loved Mary Barton too 🙂 Have all her other books waiting on my bookshelf and I can’t wait to read them! No idea how she does it but I just can’t put her books down 🙂 Honestly, you’ll love this if you loved Mary Barton!

  3. trudystattle says:

    North and South is my favorite novel. Ever. I also loved W&D. Mary Barton was very good, but not as polished as her later works. Cranford bored me to tears, however! I’m looking forward to reading Ruth and Sylvia’s Lovers. I’m always happy to meet other Gaskell fans! 🙂
    There’s a biography of Gaskell by Jenny Uglow that I’ve read portions of and enjoyed.
    If you like to chat about the characters and themes, you’re welcome to check out my friend’s discussion blog which dwells mostly on all things N&S. 🙂

      • emma says:

        I really hope to read more of her work too 🙂 I have them all on my bookshelf but it’s just finding the time to read them! I hear Sylvia’s Lovers is very good so that may be my next one 🙂

        Thanks for the bio recommendation – will definitely have a look for it. Your friend’s blog sounds really interesting, I’m sure I’ll be giving it a follow if it discusses this brilliant book! Thanks for the link 🙂

      • emma says:

        Oh and please feel free to pass this page on to your friend if you think they would enjoy it 🙂

  4. Brona says:

    I’ve yet to read any Gaskell, but she is on my Classics Club list and I hope to get to her soon.

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