North and South is the first Elizabeth Gaskell book that I have read. I found this to be wonderful story that contained interesting characters and explored both personal relationships as well as larger social issues. In a way, Gaskell’s books are like a combination of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens with a little bit of Leo Tolstoy thrown in.
This is the story of Margaret Hale. The book opens as the nineteen - year old Margaret is preparing to attend her cousin’s Edith’s wedding. Margaret has spent much of her adolescence living with her cousin’s rich and somewhat frivolous family. We are also introduced to Henry Lennox, who tries to unsuccessfully to woo Margaret throughout the book. At the point that Edith is married, Margaret returns to live in the country community of Helstone where her father, Mr. Hale, a is pastor. Initially, Margaret enjoys the bucolic and country life during which time she assists her father as he brings charity and succor to the local inhabitants. However, due to Mr. Hale’s schismatic views, he decides to step down as pastor. The family is forced to move to the industrial city of Darkshire, where Mr. Hale will earn a living as a tutor. There, the family interacts both with the mill owners and the poorer mill workers. John Thornton is a strong willed but principled mill owner that Margaret’s father is tutoring. Much of the book concerns itself with the romantic attraction between Margaret and Thornton. At first, Margaret spurns the businessman, but as the story progresses, her attraction for him increases. Nicholas Higgins is a mill worker and union leader. Labor tension bring Thornton and Higgins into conflict. This strife also opens the door to lots of philosophizing and debate between the major characters about economics, capitalism, personal freedom, and more.
Later, Margaret’s brother Frederick comes into the picture. Several years earlier, Fredrick was an officer in the Royal Navy. While standing up to his abusive captain he becomes involved in mutiny and was forced to flee England under penalty of death. At one point in the plot he sneaks back into the country to see his dying mother. During the remainder of the story Margaret engages in efforts to clear Fredrick’s name.
A lot of words in this book are devoted to debates and discussions between Margaret and John Thornton. Margaret’s views can best be described as a Christian based liberal, social reformist with a tinge of aristocratic paternalism thrown in. Thornton is a laisse fare capitalist with a strong sense of personal ethics. Though it seems that Gaskill favors Margaret’s positions, she puts strong arguments into Thornton’s mouth and shows that his point of view is not completely invalid. This all intertwines with Nicholas Higgins’s pro - union and pro - labor views. It is also clear that Gaskell is somewhat well versed in these theories as well as economics in general.
What I found distinctive about this book is that it combined an interesting story and well - crafted characters with philosophical and social discussions and debates about social issues, economics and religion. Here, I am reminded of the Russian novelists such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Anthony Trollope also played on this ground a little with political issues but not to the extent that Gaskell does here.
In addition to the philosophizing the work is filled with interesting characters. I found Thornton’s portrayal to be intriguing. He is originally shown to be a tough businessman who was raised by a tough but still loving mother. He displays a strong ethical code based on personal responsibility. However, early on he reaches out to Mr. Hale in order to advance is education and immerse himself in culture. In what I think is a wonderful passage, he talks about the industrial machine known as a steam hammer and its inventor using colorful language and literary analogy,
so thoroughly was he occupied in explaining to Mr. Hale the magnificent power, yet delicate adjustment of the might of the steam-hammer, which was recalling to Mr. Hale some of the wonderful stories of subservient genii in the Arabian Nights— one moment stretching from earth to sky and filling all the width of the horizon, at the next obediently compressed into a vase small enough to be borne in the hand of a child. 'And this imagination of power, this practical realisation of a gigantic thought, came out of one man's brain in our good town. That very man has it within him to mount, step by step, on each wonder he achieves to higher marvels still
Later Thornton grows. He genuinely falls in love with Margarite. While he does not become pro – labor he takes innovative steps to reach out to his employees, tries to make their lives better and eventually earns their respect.
Mr. Hale is also interesting. He is very principled and ethical. However, he shows a lot of weakness. When he makes his decision, based upon religious convictions, he places his family in a position where they will endure hardship. Yet when it comes time for them to relocate, he is paralyzed with inaction and leaves the emotional and logistical work to Margaret who is only a teenager. Later, when it comes time to tell a woman that her husband is deceased, he once again is unable to act and leaves the task to his daughter. This combination of principles and weakness seems a fairly unusual thing in literature.
Margaret is obviously the center of the book. She is charismatic young woman. She earns great esteem from both lower and upper - class men and women that she encounters. She is calm and at times stoic. She is intelligent, she is a reader, and is easily able to hold her own ion all kinds of discussions that delve into philosophical and social issues.
Another theme here is the contrast between people who hold different philosophies, religious beliefs and partake in different lifestyles. This is inherent in the title of the book, the North of England representing industrial, capitalistic bustle and the South representing a more laid back, rural agricultural and aristocratic lifestyle. As Margarete and her family are displaced from this southern world, they are made keenly aware of these contrasts. At first Margaret faces the industrial Milton and its factories with dread. As the book progresses however, both she and the reader begin to see that both the North and South ways of life have their merits and drawbacks. Margaret connects with all kinds of people in the industrialized town. Towards the end of the story, when it comes time for Margaret to leave Milton she is struck with melancholy as she has to leave people and a place that she one looked upon with dismay. All this is intertwined with the growing attraction between Margaret and Thornton. Alongside this attraction, both Margaret and Thornton begin to moderate their philosophical ideas and move towards each other. Throughout the story various characters’ differences on religious issues also come to light. The story flows in a direction that indicates that social interactions work best when people tolerate one another and look to bridge gaps. All this reminds me of the novels of E.M. Forster. In many of Forster’s books, the theme of connections between different social groups, philosophies and cultures is explored. This is the first Gaskell novel that I have read so I do not know if these are reoccurring themes in her work. But as far as this book goes, it seems to have influenced Forster’s ideas.
This is an excellent book. Gaskell has managed to combine the strengths of Victorian novel with some very interesting philosophical musings. The novel is full of compelling of characters and relationships. In this way I thought that this combination was fairly unique for British literature of the time. I recommend this work to fans of Victorian literature.