Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell

Free download available from Project Gutenberg:  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4276

Other books I’ve read by Gaskell:  none, yet.  I’ve spotted at least three others on the Guardian list:   RuthMary Barton and Cranford.  Gaskell wrote North and South in 1855.  She was friends with Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte (whose biography she also wrote), Florence Nightingale and a whole lot of other famous Victorians.  She was the wife of a Unitarian minister and had a strong interest in the poor and disenfranchised.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  State of the Nation titles

Some quick thoughts about this book:

  • It is not about the American Civil War
  • It is modern and sexy.
  • It’s all about power to the people!
  • There’s some weird slang in this book — I guess the lingo of 1850 Manchester, England.  I could figure out most but in case you get hung up, “to clem” means to starve.

If you are put off by the idea of plunging into a Victorian Novel with a capital N:  envision sexy Richard Armitage or Brendan Coyle in the lovely 2004 BBC miniseries based on the novel, hold your nose and plunge in!  Or even— watch that first, or read this book as you watch.  Either way, you won’t regret it.  This book was written 160+ years ago and its ideas, dialogue and characters are as fresh and vibrant as any novel today.  There are no long sermons, Gothic passages in the moonlight or incomprehensible political references, I promise!

Briefly, the story goes like this:  lovely but somewhat naive Margaret Hale, who has been brought up in London as a lady-companion to her rich cousin, returns to her parents’ home in the South of England.   Margaret’s dad, a very idealistic and cool minister (he reminds me of an early hippy)  has decided that he must leave the church because he can’t go along with some of its precepts.  He moves Margaret, her mom, and their cranky maid, Dixon, to Milton — which is actually the real-life Manchester, in the North of England.  (Get it, North vs. South….).  They arrive smack in the middle of the Industrial Revolution.  Envision:  dust, dirt, smoke, lots of grubby scrounging peeps, tubercular factory workers, etc.  This move is a big come-down for the Hales — Mr. Hale cheerfully goes to work as a private tutor-professor — but this smoky nasty town is a major paradigm shift for the gentle Mrs. Hale (who has some sort of aristo connections), spunky Margaret, and the ever-whiny Dixon.   The other two families that feature in the book are the Thorntons — nouveaux riche factory owners and the Higgins — struggling factory workers.  Margaret develops a love-hate sexual tension thing with John Thornton, the young, ambitious factory owner and a touching friendship with Bessie Higgins, who is dying from some lung problem picked up working in the factories.  Bessy’s dad, Nicholas is a leader in the nascent Union movement.  The cool thing about this book is that it portrays all the classes of English society of the times:  the old, languid aristocracy (Mrs. Hale and her relations), the intelligentsia (Mr. Hale and his Oxford buddies), the industrialists (the Thortons) and the workers (Higgins and crew) and treats them all with intelligence and sympathy.   Gaskell is very in tune to the plight of the workers but she balances that with the struggles of the Thorntons realistically and fairly.  Margaret and John’s relationship is symbolic of the misunderstandings between the older way of life (pastoral, agricultural) and the new way (industrial, mechanical).  Their love story is sweet and simmery.  In turn, Gaskell also demonstrates that workers and bosses have a lot in common and can work together productively.  There’s a lot about labor and management in this book — but it doesn’t come off preachy or sodden thanks to Gaskell’s deft handling of plot and character

I really loved this book.  I loved its modernity and big message.  This was a great addition to my Guardian 1,000 challenge reads.  On to Cranford!

Richard Armitage as John Thornton in North and South. He said in an interview that North and South was a favorite read. Me, too!

3 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

  1. Pingback: A Challenging Year: 2012 Guardian 1000 Reading Progress | livritome

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