Book Reviews

Bookshelf Read: North and South

I’m not sure how I stumbled across the 2004 BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South but I’m sure glad I did. From start to finish, the story had me glued to the screen for a good couple of hours. The Victorian-era novel tells the tale of a young Margaret Hale who lives in the seemingly idyllic town of Helstone in Hampshire with her parents. When her father, a minister in Helstone, starts questioning his own faith, Margaret and her mother must move with Mr. Hale to the north of England to the grey and industrial town of Milton, where he decides to take a job as a tutor.

North and SouthThere Margaret sees the poverty and struggles of the local mill-workers and their families. It is also where she meets Mr. Thornton the mill-owner: she doesn’t like him from the beginning and thinks he is uncaring and ungentlemanly. Both from strikingly different backgrounds and viewpoints, Margaret Hale and John Thornton clash on issues over class, work and labour disputes. However, underneath their disagreements is a strong attraction that neither one is quick to acknowledge.

This might sound a lot like Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Fans have drawn similarities between the two, often arguing over whether Mr. Thornton is a better romantic interest over Mr. Darcy. (My choice is Mr. Thornton- because I adored his character in the book and loved Richard Armitage’s excellent portrayal of him in the 2004 BBC adaptation.)

I won’t compare the two but will say that if you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice you’re very likely to enjoy this book as well.

It is an in-depth examination of class and work differences between people who live in different parts of England, and of stereotypical male and female roles. Margaret has many interesting discussions with Nicholas Higgins (a rioter and mill-worker), Nicholas’ daughter Bessie and Mr. Thornton. These meaningful discussions throughout the book get you thinking. Something I appreciate about novels are those instances of deep reflections and discussions throughout that say something about the society or ideology at the time. I think it’s really important for authors to make a statement on issues and emphasize them.

Elizabeth Gaskell  examines the social differences between the Hale family, the Higgins family (whom Margaret befriends), and the Thornton family. South and North are juxtaposed as past and future, and traditional and modern.  Gaskell accomplishes all of this through her eloquent and poetic writing. Her style is similar to that of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s or Jane Austen’s: she makes beautiful use of language that resonates with meaning.

I enjoyed the subtle ways she described Mr. Thornton’s initial attraction to Margaret, his and Margaret’s interactions, and the inner motivations of the two characters.

Touching on Mr. Thornton and Margaret, I also liked the way their relationship developed slowly as they went from complete strangers, to close friends and then finally to two people in love. I understand that propriety between men and women were expected in those days (and that women were not to be seen alone with a man after dark), but the progression of Mr. Thornton and Margaret’s relationship felt very realistic and convincing. The book is a good example of romantic tension and development in literature.

North and South is more than just a romance– it is a social critique, and a challenge on ideas of femininity and masculinity. Gaskell turns female and male gender roles upside down. Thornton’s gruff layers are gradually shed as he forms a bond with the Hale family,  and decides to talk to Nicholas on equal grounds (a mill-worker in his factory that has decided to riot against him). Gaskell also shows Margaret’s strong resolve as she tries to bring her wanted brother home, look after her sick mother, take care of her weak-willed father, and assert her independence in a world where women were expected to be dependent on others.

I highly recommend this book. It can be quite melancholy and sad as you feel empathy toward the characters as they face loss of family members, friends and even their livelihood. But it carries a very important lesson of redemption and hope, as each character finds a new beginning and a new perspective. I think Gaskell saw a certain spirit in people of her time and she certainly captured that in North and South.

Have you read North and South, or similar books? What did you think?

10 thoughts on “Bookshelf Read: North and South”

  1. I loved North and South. As much as I liked reading Pride and Prejudice, it’s a whole world that didn’t really speak to me as much as industrial England’s North and South did. It seemed more real to me.

    Of course I loved the movie as well! Mr. Thornton had me mesmerized by his intensity and the growing awareness as a master to those who worked for him.

    Elizabeth Gaskell was such an interesting woman – ahead of her time, and writing about what she knew best, since her husband, I think, ministered to the working poor in industrial England.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I completely agree with you- Jane Austen’s work (while very good, seems to happen in a very imaginary and almost flawless world).

      I think she was a pretty strong personality for her time. That’s very interesting about her husband ministering to the poor- I never knew that! No wonder she had such an understanding of the conditions…Glad to know there are people who appreciate North and South so well 🙂

      1. I did a blog post on Elizabeth Gaskell back in June here: (sorry for the link)

        I’ve always loved industrial England because I spin wool and knit, so North & South resonated with me with talk about the mills that changed all that handspinning and hand weaving back then to what it is now. And the BBC miniseries featuring a real working mill was just heaven for me (even though the conditions I’m sure were appalling then) so I was hooked as it was something I could relate to, unlike Austen’s world which, while quaint and so stuck in the upper class, is just something that after discovering North & South, didn’t speak to me anymore.

      2. I think it’s nice when you have that personal connection to a story, like you said with your love of spinning wool and knitting, and its connection to North and South. It makes the reading experience and viewing experience even more special.

  2. I preferred North and South as an audiobook it was easier for me to listen to Nicolas than to read his dialect. Jane Austen might appear fluffy next to Gaskell but she was so observant & humorous. Gaskell did give us occasional a male point of view when that never happens in Austen’s world.

    1. I felt the exact same way about Nicholas’ dialect. It was pretty hard to read. That’s very true about Austen- I enjoy her humour, her insight about people and the way she knows her characters inside and out. I do love Austen’s stories like Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility but really love North and South (there’s something very compelling about it).

  3. This is my favorite novel – for so many reasons. It IS compelling, because Gaskell impels the reader to examine their thoughts on a breadth of social issues and at the same time she is weaving a heartfelt personal story between two lonely people who are trying their best to meet the challenges that life throws in their path. It’s a brilliant story and encompasses so much more than Austen’s novels, and includes more passion and more realistically drawn characters than many of Dickens caricatured figures.
    Thanks to the BBC and Richard Armitage for introducing so many to Mr. Thornton, who is the most fascinating hero of romantic classic literature I’ve come across. Gaskell lets us see how very vulnerable and tender this powerful man of industry is underneath all his practiced self-control.
    I love this book to pieces and never tire of discussing it with others. is a great place to chat with others who are similarly obsessed with Gaskell’s novel. 🙂
    So glad you found North and South!

    1. Thank you for your comment 🙂 I couldn’t have described the novel better myself. John Thornton is probably my favourite romantic hero to date.

      Thanks, I’ll be sure to check out I’m glad I found it too– it’s fun introducing it to other people too. They end up loving it!

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