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?