Saturday, August 21, 2010
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
First published in 1855, North and South encompasses many themes and introduces the reader to a host of truly memorable characters. As so often seems to be the case with me, I suspect some of my enjoyment of the story came from knowing so little about it and having few expectations. In keeping with this I will not give too much of the story away here.
The North and South of the title refers to the north and south of England where culture, lifestyle, occupations and expectations were very different during the nineteenth century and I suspect, remain somewhat different to this day. Our heroine Margaret Hale and her family are forced to move from the relatively genteel setting of a village in the south of England to a smog filled city in the industrialised north.
There is of course a "will they or won't they" love story at the heart of this novel. I was struck while reading North and South that it reads a bit like a Charles Dickens version of Pride and Prejudice. I know you might think me mad for making such a comparison, but to my mind Gaskell out does both Austen and Dickens with North and South because while there are swoons a plenty and romantic intrigue, this is at its core a novel that makes a strong social statement about class struggle. For mine, it really has all one could wish for.
Margaret Hale as a character is direct, adaptable, compassionate and not prone to over analyzing her feelings and motives, which I think certainly helps keeps the pace of the novel swift. We come to know Margaret very much through her actions and conversations. Margaret who grew up in a quiet country village and spent some years living with her wealthy cousin in London is flung into a world of dirt and hardship. She is forced to grow up very quickly. Part of the real enjoyment of the novel comes from following her bumpy journey to understanding and independence.
And then there are the suitors. Firstly we have Mr Lennox who is a young barrister and whose brother, a captain in the military, is married to Margaret's cousin Edith who she grew up with like a sister. The other leading man is Mr Thornton. Mr Thornton is a wealthy factory owner in Milton (the town the Hales move to in the north). Initially Margaret finds Mr Thornton brutish and coarse (aren't they the best kind of leading men!) and doesn't want to have anything whatsoever to do with him. For his part Mr Thornton, while arrested by Miss Hale's striking appearance, believes her to be unendurably uppity:
'A more proud, disagreeable girl I never saw. Even her great beauty is blotted out of one's memory by her scornful ways.' (p.80)
There are a multitude of well drawn characters in this novel. Gaskell's writing does remind me of Dickens in terms of the characters. The story is bursting with a wide variety of characters, that deliberately encompass a full sweep of society. Gaskell's expert use of dialogue brings this large host of characters to life.
The story is interesting. The theme of industrial unrest and the differences and conflicts between business owners and workers eerily resonates with our modern world some 150 since this book was written. I also loved how the relationship between parents and adult children is highlighted and explored. Nearly all of the characters can be clustered into family groupings where the relationship between parents and their children form a central part of the fabric of the story. Very memorable to this end is Mrs Thornton, our hero's stern faced and indomitable mother, whose opinion of Miss Margaret Hale, and anyone haling from the south, is far from welcoming.
North and South is the first of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels I have read, and I look forward to reading more of her work. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these characters who are at times proud, warm, dramatic, funny but most of all very human. All in all a very engaging and enjoyable story.