Review: North and South

Rating: 5 / 5


I'm almost ashamed to say that I have not come across Elizabeth Gaskell before. The only reason I stumbled across her work was because of that wonderful entity-the BBC mini-series. What I watched convinced me I would appreciate the written work.

North and South, the novel, was written by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1855. The title refers to the two regions in England. The North was undergoing an industrial and manufacturing revolution at the time, while the South retained it's agricultural roots, resulting in the vast difference in the two regions - in terms of people, culture, work ethic, dress, even poverty.

It is against this backdrop that we meet Ms. Gaskell's protagonist Margaret Hale, who belongs to the rural South. Margaret has lived most of her life in London with her aunt, sharing in her cousin's lessons and at the age of 18 is to return to live with her parents at Helstone, the sleepy little town where her father is a clergyman. To Margaret, Helstone is idyllic with memories of forests covered with fern carpets, long walks and picturesque cottages and gardens.

After Margaret returns home, she perceives the little things that on her visits before she never really took notice of - her parents' married life is less than perfect, her mother continually expressing dissatisfaction with the small income from the current living and the grief they feel over her brother Frederick. Frederick had been part of a mutiny at sea and cannot return to England for fear of his life.

Mr. Hale soon informs his family that he is giving up his position as a clergyman to be a tutor in a cotton manufacturing town to the north of England- Milton. Mr. Hale's decision is based on principle since he has lost his faith and finds he cannot honestly continue any more, but even his wife as well as friends and family cannot commiserate since he's given up a guaranteed income for poverty.

In Milton, Mr. Hale starts off as tutor to Mr. Thornton, the owner of a prosperous cotton mill. Thornton is the epitome of the self-made man. Left poor after his father's death, he and his mother have scraped, saved and worked hard until he is a well-known name in the manufacturing industry. Thornton is inclined to admire Margaret, but she with the particular class prejudice of the time, despises tradesmen and doesn't think much of him even though her father finds him a most apt and interesting pupil, well read and well spoken.

Margaret's prejudices are peculiar since very soon she meets with Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy, laborers who work at one of the cotton factories and becomes great friends with them. But, I guess this was not so outside the norm, the "ladies" were often kind to people who they perceived of a lower class than them carrying them food and medicine when sick. Their disgust was reserved for the people who profited through trade. In Margaret's view the manufacturers with their buying for cheap and selling for profit and manipulation of the market to create demand were dishonest by virtue of doing so.

Due to fluctuations in the cotton market, the workers in Milton go on a strike demanding more money which the masters refuse to (and cannot) pay and this strike forms one of the cornerstones of the novel. With the aftermath of the strike, the lives of the protagonists and their relationship undergo massive upheavals, Margaret going through one of the most harrowing periods of her life.

But, it is from this period of time that Margaret starts to face up to her prejudices and when Higgins defeated from being out of work and unable to support his family comes up with the notion of moving to the South, since he has heard her praise it so often, she is able to give him a more rational picture than what her initial nostalgia had painted. And it is from this point of time that her pride allows her to face up to the growing respect and love she feels towards Thornton, but whose regard she might have lost forever by an act of secretiveness on her part.

Ms. Gaskell's prose is wonderfully dense, containing passages which ought to be ruminated at leisure. Unfortunately I'm not one of those readers who mark stuff as they read, else I would have added some here. She peppers her novel with realistic characters, even the secondary characters like the proud Mrs. Thornton and Higgins, and the mild Mr. Hale making their impact on the reader.

Margaret is a wonderful character, in the beginning full of youthful idealism and high principles which over the course of the novel are tempered to a better understanding of people. Thornton's character is more straight-forward, an honorable man known for plain speaking, in the beginning he considers himself unaccountable to his workers but Margaret's sympathy towards the workers helps him realize the value of opening a dialogue with them. And over the course of the book we get to know to know his thoughts concerning Margaret. A dialogue of his after he has proposed to Margaret and been rejected will probably stay with me a long time, it's so poignant.

"No one loves me,--no one cares for me, but you, mother."

I guess the only thing I dont like is that the author apparently believes in the school of hard knocks for her characters. Margaret undergoes one such trial by fire. At least I can vouch for North and South having a happy ending, expect some prolonged doom and gloom but it's not unalleviated.

Some of the questions and ideas Ms. Gaskell puts forward as to the relationships between management and laborers, the harsh nature of workers unions, religious faith and atheism were quite progressive for her time, as revealed through the prejudices of some of the characters. In fact, I would say that the novel has a certain symmetry to Pride and Prejudice, but with a lot more social and political commentary.

Fans of Austen and Classic literature will find this novel well worth the read.

As for the mini-series the good folks at BBC do know how to put them together dont they. It doesn't follow the book, but all these anal considerations (I should probably link to my rant over Knightley's P&P to better illustrate the craziness .... but I wont) slunk out the window once I set eyes on John Thornton. I believe I'm finally, finally over Colin Firth's Darcy. It's all about Richard Armitage now.



Sigh.

5 comments:

avdi said...

Loved the series, liked the book. She is not in the same category as Austen or Dickens, but she is quite a good storyteller.

May I slurp with your over Armitage?

I loved the way the girl becomes v rich at the end of the novel .. sigh.. i wish i had a rich uncle who would leave me his money.

Smita said...

Never heard of the author :-(

Our tastes are quite different na?

couchpapaya said...

avdi - ur so well read!! any other reccos in the same style? i plan to read other gaskells, but any other authors that come to mind for u ? as for armitage, the more the merrier :D

smita - well u liked picoult, i loved the kinsella's, we both like maccall smith and havnt been able to read shantaram :) i dont have a reading taste as such, i go through stages where i read only certain kinds of books (and have been stuck on historicals for a long time) but i do try to read everything.

WhatsInAName said...

hey
that was a tempting review as always :-) you do have the knack to make a book look so very interesting. Never knew that north south divide existed in England as well :-o 5 on 5? I am getting the book for sure

couchpapaya said...

WIAN - apparently the divide existed for quite a long time. am now reading a book about the 16th century when the northern lords rebelled against queen elizabeth I ... enjoy the book :)

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