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.
a professional and illuminating review... i've never read Gaskell either and this sounds pretty thought-provoking... so many Victorian novels, although magnetic in some respect, seem to fail in others, so that although they're well worthwhile reading, one's left with a sort of dissatisfied feeling at the finale. But it sounds as if Ms. G has all the bases covered. i'll look for one of her books. tx.
Thanks Muddpuddle. Because Gaskell’ hit some many worthy things in this book, it does seem complete and comprehensive.
Hi Brian, excellent commentary and I have been eager to read your review of North and South. I thought it was a great book as well and like you I loved the philosophy and debate about class and social issues. People have pointed out that North and South resembles Pride and Prejudice and the similarities are certainly there. But I came away from North and South with such admiration for Margaret Hale, her courage, her empathy and in comparidon Elizabeth Bennett despite her rather high opinion of herself led a sheltered life and I wonder how she would have held up to the tragedies Margaret Hale faced with such grace.
Interesting fact. It was Charles Dickens who suugested the title North and South to Elizabeth Gaskell for her novel. She was going to name the book Margaret Hale but went with Dickens' choice instead.
Wow, there's a lot packed into this novel. I suspect it's very, very long.
Margaret Hale sounds like a wonderful character. Terrific commentary, as usual.
Thanks Suko. She was a great character.
Hi Debra - My version was almost 450 of dense pages. It was fairly long. I tend to read a lot of long books.
Thanks Kathy. There are indeed similarities with Pride and Prejudice. Without a doubt Margaret had a tougher life then Elizabeth. Margaret also had a lot more solid opinions about social and economic issues.
I had heard that the book was originally supposed to be titled Margaret Hale. I did not know that was Dickens who suggested North and South.
This was my second Gaskell novel, my first being her very different Cranford, and my third being a git different but more in the social commentary style, Ruth. I'm really keen to read Mary Barton one day.
All this is to say that I really like Elizabeth Gaskell, and I think North and South is a wonderful - and unforgettable novel. The title so beautifully encapsulates the dichotomies she explores in the novel, too, doesn't it?
Excellent review of a book from a very underrated author. I think the movie version of N & S helped to make people aware of her. I'd never read anything by Gaskell until I'd seen the movie.
Great review as ever, Brian. This is a classic I'd really like to read at some point, particularly as the characterisation sounds so rich and interesting. There's a BBC adaptation too if you're interested.
Hi WG - I must give Gaskell’s other world a try. The contrasts between different ways of living and different ideas is perfectly encapsulated in the title of North and South.
Thanks Carol. I must give the film a try.
Thanks Jacqui. The characters ars really well drawn and realistic. I must catch the BBC adaptation.
Great commentary as usual Brian. I watched the BBC version of North and South and enjoyed it, afterwards I downloaded the novel onto my Nook but have yet to read it. The connections between the different social groups is always interesting to read about and I found Margaret and Thornton's characters to be interesting in the film version. I should bump this up on my TBR list.
Enjoy your week.
Thanks Naida - I really must catch the filmed version of this. Intersactions between different groups is alway interesting.
I have not read many Victorian novels but the bestselling authors I read from the 1940s for My Big Fat Reading Project must have been influenced by the likes of Gaskell, especially the British ones. The themes you bring up from North and South sound familiar. It seems that the British had some similar but also some distinctly different ways of dealing with industrialization, religious conflicts, etc. Then again we have our own North and South in America. All so interesting.
Hi Judy - The Victorian authors influenced is much that came after. Divides between different groups of people vary so much and there are so many permutations over geographic location and time.
It sounds like this book is a great representation of Gaskell's favourite themes indeed. I loved Mary Barton and Wives & Daughters, and I think North & South will have to be the next Gaskell novel I read. I know it's one she's most famous for. Her mixture of social justice issues of her time (often focused around the Industrial Revolution) and great characters is so phenomenal. It's sad that she's a Victorian novelist so often overlooked.
I've read most of Gaskell's books and agree that she is underrated. I need to read this one again -- I don't remember so much philosophy but I agree that that is a feature of Gaskell's work. I think you'll find much to interest you.
Hi Paula - I must give Wives and Daughters a try soon.
I thought that her approach to social justice issues was different here, at least from writers like Dickens, as she presented multiple arguments as to the best way for the world to work.
PS - Though I agree that Gaskell is underrated, it seems that she is enjoying a bit of a resurgence these days.
Hi Lory - She is underrated. I tend to zero in on philosophy and politics when it is part of a story.
your review is CAPTIVATING dear Brain !
how sublimely you beaded up the whole commentary ,it stunned me
flow in your expression is so valuable because it makes me realize that i am almost reading the book and being familiar with characters is joyous and exciting experience
i loved this one Brain :)
this is totally my type of novel ,i know there should be no type in readings but to be honest stories with strong female characters who have deep insight towards world and circumstances and courageous attitude inspire me most
i think writer has chosen the characters so wisely specially their encounter and they way they influence each others opinion is magnificent ,and this is the motive of writer indeed to present the both side ideas and throw light through their debates
love between two is symbolic and indicates that hearing and each other can make things easier and love or understanding is main thing which can make them realize that where they will have to be descendants or ascendants
like always a very beautiful fulfilling review my friend!
Thanks so much Baili. The Victorian writers tended to write some very strong women characters.
Combining the exchange of ideas with romantic entanglements is so well done here.
Thanks for an excellent review. Gaskell sounds like an author I would enjoy reading.
Thanks James. I think anyone who likes Victorian literature would like Gaskell.
Wow seems like a big read. I have not read her before .... or many Victorian novels .... but it seems that a story with much philosophizing on the side was pretty popular back then. I have read the classic Russian authors and some have it more than others. I guess the fight between rural agricultural vs. urban industrial issues interests me. Like a prelude to the Civil War. Nice review.
Thanks Susan. I find these topics interesting too! I think that if you find that interesting, and you like Russian literature then this might be the book to proceed with Victorian Literature.
This was the first Gaskell book I read too. I've gone on to read three others but North and South remains my favourite. Mary Barton would be second in line ...
Hi Karen - I may read Mary Barton next.
Once again a book I read at school and probably didn't fully understand ... or appreciate. Who knows perhaps I'll read it again some day. In the mean time its always so good to read your insightful thoughts on these books, thank you.
Thanks Felicity - I think that if I had read this when young, I would have gotten nothing out of the book. It is so interesting how we change over time.
I loved this book. And I loved the miniseries.
Hi Rachel - I must catch the miniseries.
Thanks Susan. I never read Little Women. It sounds like there are all sorts of interesting things rattling around in the book. It also sounds like there are similarities with this book.
One of my favorite books ever. I've read it at least three times and look forward to reading it a few more times at least! You are right--the story and the characters are interesting and compelling, flawed and heroic, and very real. Glad you enjoyed it :)
I thoroughly enjoyed your review.
Hi Jane - I can see going back to this book multiple times.
Thanks Liberty Bell.
I deleted my earlier comment about Little Women, as it did not reflect what I wanted to say.
This was a book that dealt with major social changes. Through war, the South lost its lifestyle while the North lost its President. Both led to a trainwreck of rebuilding and fraud.
While the book doesn't go in depth, it does show how the war left the country's women without husbands and rebuilding the role of women in the following decades. The main character shows how a woman's life requires guts.
Hi Brian! A bit puzzled by the use of “Darkshire” as the name of a city rather than a region, I looked it up and found some fascinating info about the book. Did you know that the original serial was published by Charles Dickens, in the magazine he was editing at the time? And he was writing his own novel on a similar theme, Hard Times(which I HAVE read)at the same time, which made it hard for Elizabeth Gaskell to avoid writing the same stuff. She had to make sure, for example, that the workers in Hard Times were not going to strike.
This intrigues me, I’m thinking it may be time for me to finally pick up this book.
Hi Susan - I never knew that there was so much depth in Little Women. Women have historically bounce a lot as a result of war and social upheaval that has been under appreciated.
Hi Sue - I had heard that this boon was originally published in Dickens’s magazine. I did not know that the two compared notes in regards to this book and Hard Times. I also read Hard Times. When I think about it, there are some similarities.
Excellent review! In terms of just the character analyses, I especially liked what you observed about Mr. Hale's character. Principle being compromised by passivity or inaction (I wonder if that's a comment on teachers/academics - they are big on theory but less effective in living by what they teach or effecting what they determine to be right). And I liked the message in the book of bridging gaps, so to speak, a harsh stance softened by exposure to another point of view or way of life, some compromise while still remaining true to one's convictions.
I was recommended this book on the basis of comparisons between Mr. Thornton and Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy, but after reading it, I found that it's Margaret Hale who is more Mr. Darcy-like to me. (She's a pillar of strength for her family, intelligent, has a strong consciousness of social class differences - her initial objections to Thornton are based in part on his profession - and ultimately uses the wealth she has at the end of the book to save her love from social ruin...)
Thanks Hila. Mr. Hale really is the epitome of all theory and unable to act.
It is interesting comparing Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy. In the end, she seems to have the strongest personality in this book.
Sorry to be so late weighing in on a post that I find intensely intriguing. First of all, I have wanted to read Elizabeth Gaskell for a long time and haven't done it. And silly me, I thought because I enjoyed the Masterpiece Theatre version of North and South, that I would not choose this title for my first Gaskell read. From your description, I missed a tremendous amount of North and South by only viewing the BBC adaptation. I am making a note.
I was very intrigued by your comparing this work to works by Dickens, Trollope, and Tolstoy and Jane Austen.
Hi Judith - There is never a rush to comment on a post. I think that it is cool to go back and comment on very old posts.
The more I read the more I make connections between writers.
I must watch the BBC version of this book.
I have not read this book, although I started the British TV series. I couldn't get into it, however. I read some short stories by her. They're good, although not on the level of Austin or the Brontes, in my opinion. She does, however, adequately record a time period in vivid prose, rather like Sarah Orne Jewett does with 19th century New England.
Hi Sharon - I thought that this novel was very strong. With that I think that Austin and some of what The Brontes wrote was some of the very best writing ever. Thus, I would not exactly put Gaskell that high.
I need to give the miniseries a try.
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