Goodreads: North and South
‘How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’
When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.
In her introduction, Patricia Ingham examines geographical, economic and class differences, and male and female roles in North and South. This edition also includes a list for further reading, notes and a glossary.
North and South is essentially two stories woven fully together: that of protagonist Margaret Hale as she navigates moving, losing family members, and falling in love and that of the conflict between the northern (manufacturing) parts of England and the southern (agricultural) parts. Readers might prefer one theme over the other, depending on how engaging they find Margaret as a character and how enthralling they find debates over the value of manufacturing and workers’ rights, but overall the book shows how Margaret—and the reader—must reconcile differences between things that seem fundamentally different or opposed.
Personally, I found the book intriguing, but it’s difficult to say I entirely liked it. Margaret, though routinely praised by other characters for her poise, grace, virtue, etc. is still a flawed character. She’s a bit classist and a bit judgmental (and indeed occasionally called out for it), and part of her arc involves her learning to accept the people of the manufacturing town of Milton without somehow holding herself as apart and separate from them. Beyond that…she seems very generic to me. She is generally nice and well-meaning and educated and such, but she’s not unusually good or intelligent, and I don’t find her overly remarkable or memorable as a character the way I might protagonists from other works.
The story does have a number of twists, turns, and exciting events, such as a visit from Margaret’s brother, who is likely to be executed if discovered on English soil. There’s also the melodrama of sickness and death and the violence of a strike. Gaskell certainly tries to keep readers turning the pages.
Nonetheless, the book is topical in the way of many Victorian novels; its major concern is the relationship between the employees and the employers in Milton, the rights of workers, etc. Readers will likely draw comparisons to other novels of the period that treated the subject of mill owners and workers, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley. It’s a subject that was of popular discussion at the time, but may or may not hold equal interest for today’s readers. This is particularly true in North and South, where Gaskell has characters engage in lengthy debates and monologues on the subject, in order to press her final point that workers do deserve some consideration. If the reader doesn’t have a personal or academic/historical interest in such debates, the can make the book drag in places.
However, I did enjoy learning about the smoky town of Milton and seeing how characters could come to love a place that seems, particularly to newcomers, dirty and noisy and lacking in any beauty. If you’re interested in Victorian literature, North and South is certainly a must-read.