Book: North and South

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Genre: Classic Fiction
Length: 452 pgs

Summary: Margaret Hale, a English southerner who migrates to Milton, a northern industrial town, is shocked by the working and living conditions of the cotton mill workers who provide the wealth of the young man her father tutors, Mr Thornton. Her determination to help the mill workers puts her at odds with the charismatic Mr Thornton, who dismisses her concerns as the ignorance of highly-bred woman who cannot understand the political and economic reasons why things are the way they are.

Excerpts:
pg 17 – If the look on [Margaret’s] face was, in general, too dignified and reserved for one so young, now, talking to her father, it was bright as the morning,–full of dimples, and glances that spoke of childish gladness, and boundless hope in the future.

pg 62 – Mr Thornton was in the habits of authority himself, but [Margaret] seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once. He had been getting impatient at the loss of his time on a market-day, the moment before she appeared, yet now he calmly took a set at her bidding.

pg 322 – Oh, how unhappy this last year has been! I have passed out of childhood into old age. I have no youth–no womanhood; the hopes of womanhood have closed for me–for I shall never marry; and I anticipate cares and sorrows just as if I were an old woman, and with the same fearful spirit. I am weary of this continual call upon me for strength.

pg 336 – [Margaret] sat quite still, after the first momentary glance of grieved surprise, that made her eyes look like some child’s who has met with an unexpected rebuff; they slowly dilated into mournful, reproachful sadness; and then they fell, and she bent over her work, and did not speak again. But [Mr Thornton] could not help looking at her, and he saw a sigh tremble over her body, as if she quivered in some unwonted chill. …He gave sharp answers; he was uneasy and cross, unable to discern between jest and earnest; anxious only for a look, a word of hers, before which to prostrate himself in penitent humility. …She could not care for him, he thought, or else the passionate fervor of his wish would have forced her to raise those eyes, but if for an instant, to read the late repentance in his.

Why should you read this book?
I never thought it possible, but this book supplanted Pride and Prejudice as my favorite romance, reasons being that it brings outside philosophical, political, and economic pressures into the romance. The romance is not just that there are misunderstandings and ruined reputations, but that there are actual lives at stake; entire towns that could fall if the mill workers refuse to work; people could be killed in riots; there is communal strife and an inability to communicate between the social classes.

This is an ambitious work that I am head over heels in love with because the prose is poetic, the themes are strong, and the characters sympathetic. Gaskell gives the secondary and tertiary characters all the love, compassion, and motive that is usually reserved for main characters alone. I could go into a detailed analysis of the writing tricks Gaskell uses to appeal to her audience (the sympathetic Victorian woman), such as describing the illnesses of those around Margaret, the way Margaret’s eyes sometimes exhibit a childlike wonder or surprised pain (see pg 336 excerpt above), and the way Margaret shoulders the problems of those around her for that is her role as the daughter in the family (really, this is a brilliant piece of Victorian literature), but I won’t.

I will tell you that if you like reading classics (my childhood was defined by classics, and I desperately miss the feeling of losing myself in that world), you must read this book. If your writing tends toward the classical style, this is a great example to take note of. There are moments when Margaret almost reminds me of Jane Eyre in her contemplations of her role as a female in the world, which makes sense because Mrs Gaskell was actually a sort of social friend of Charlotte Bronte’s. In fact, Mrs Gaskell wrote the first biography of Charlotte, and helped create the rather mythological story behind the woman who wrote such great works as Jane Eyre and Villette.

P.S. The BBC made a two-part miniseries of this book in 2007, and it is excellent. Things have been changed, obviously, to fit the book into a four-hour showing, but it is a great adaptation and the reason why I read the book in the first place.