Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post previously published on August 29, 2015

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published 1855

Summary from Goodreads: ‘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.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.