Wednesday, 17 July 2013

'North and South' by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

Synopsis: Margaret Hale has spent half of her childhood with her parents in their lovely rural home in the New Forest and the other half of her childhood with her wealthy relatives, the Shaws, in their home in London. Margaret's world is then turned upside down when her clergyman father decides to leave the Anglican church after having had some kind of a faith-crisis. Her father then uproots the family to the north of England and they settle in the busy, industrial city of Milton (a fictional city which Gaskell based on Manchester). Margaret's father becomes a classics tutor in order to make the ends meet while Margaret and her mother struggle to keep up their respectable appearances. Margaret has a very hard time adjusting to Milton life. She's repulsed by the city's noise, dirt and smoke and is shocked and appalled by the poverty around her. She then forms a deep sympathy for the town's mill workers and develops a stormy relationship with a man called Mr Thornton - a young and powerful mill owner and her father's favourite pupil. Thornton is a self-made man and every woman in the town (especially his mother) sees him as highly successful and desirable. However Margaret strongly disapproves of Thornton's treatment of his workers and thinks him harsh and unfair. But over time Margaret begins to realise that there are two sides to every problem and her negative views of Milton and Mr Thornton begin to change.

I've read North and South before but not for several years. This reading was my first since seeing the book's 2004 adaptation. I feel I have to get something out of the way, the thing that practically everyone picks up on when they read the book. Yes, North and South has some very striking similarities with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The comparisons between the two books are simply unavoidable. In both of the books, a man and a woman meet and take an instant dislike to each other. However, the man's feelings for the woman quickly change. He falls in love with the woman and proposes to her. The woman rejects the man in no uncertain terms but later on she starts to think that the man isn't so bad after all. Then there's a family crisis, the man saves the day, and the woman finds out about it. Eventually the woman now realises that her feelings for the man are "quite different". The man proposes again, the woman accepts, and they live happily ever after.

However, North and South and Pride and Prejudice are also very different. North and South is not Pride and Prejudice fanfiction! North and South is set about 40 years after Pride and Prejudice and takes place in the Victorian era rather than the Regency era. Gaskell and Austen's writing styles are also very different with Gaskell's style being more wordy and descriptive than Austen's. North and South is a grittier and more serious book than Pride and Prejudice as well. Pride and Prejudice is by no means "fluff" but North and South deals with heavier themes and it has less humour. The book has got class division, Christian faith and doubt, death, and the north-and-south cultural divide in England. The book is full of fascinating social commentary. It isn't at all dry and I learnt so much about the differences between the north and the south back then.

The characters in North and South are also very different to the characters from Pride and Prejudice. Margaret Hale and John Thornton do have some basic similarities to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy but they definitely stand on their own and are well-developed characters in their own right. In some respects Margaret's character is actually closer to Darcy's than Elizabeth. Margaret's family might well be poorer than the Thorntons but they have much better connections than them. As a result, Margaret is actually Thornton's social superior and is quite cold towards Thornton at first because of her prejudices towards "tradesmen". Mr Thornton is quite a different character to Darcy too. He's a self-made man and has a job that he's very proud of. Gaskell spends quite a bit of time describing Thornton's inner feelings and emotions as well and this was quite unusual for a female writer at the time. Anyway, North and South is a brilliant book in its own right. It's a beautiful, rich and passionate love-story. It contains fascinating social commentary. It's extremely well-written. I love both Pride and Prejudice and North and South. They're both two of my favourite books of all-time and I love them in different ways! Okay?! Now I can move on!

Another reason why I love North and South is because of its characters. Gaskell's characters feel so real and even the more minor characters like Dixon and Mrs Thornton are extremely well fleshed-out. My favourite characters though are the romantic couple. Margaret Hale is very likeable and she's a heroine that you can really admire and respect. She's brave, strong, independent and intelligent and her morals are all in the right place. I'm glad that I decided to re-read North and South though because I liked Margaret much more this time around than I did when I read the book for the first time. I found myself getting annoyed with Margaret because of her haughtiness and coldness towards Thornton. But when I re-read North and South I felt like I understood Margaret more. I got much more of a sense of Margaret's loneliness and the difficulty of her position from reading the book again. She's forced to leave her childhood home - and the comfort and security of her old life - to go to a place that's hundreds of miles away. She knows that they'll have a very different sort of life there and that they'll be living on severely reduced circumstances. Then, when the Hales eventually do move to Milton, Margaret is forced to do a lot of chores because the family struggles to find a new servant. This is something that Margaret would never have been expected to do back in the south and she knows her relatives would be appalled by it. There's also the fact that both of Margaret's parents are rather weak in their own ways. They love their daughter but they often take advantage of her. They'll often confide in Margaret rather than each other so she's the one who has to pass on bad or difficult news. It really makes you wonder what their marriage was like whenever Margaret was living with the Shaws in London! Finally, the only real friend that Margaret makes in Milton is Bessy Higgins. By re-reading the book I gained a lot more sympathy for Margaret for what she has to put up with and I was able to forgive her for her flaws much more easily. Margaret makes a lot of progress in this book too. She eventually comes to realise that the south of England is nowhere near as idyllic as she thinks it is and that, like the north, it has its fair share of problems. And Margaret really does learn to respect, admire and love Thornton over time. The way she gradually falls in love with him is really well-written and believable.

And then there's Thornton who is a truly wonderful romance hero. I find that I can't read North and South without picturing Richard Armitage as Thornton now and I have to admit that I now love Thornton even more because of that! :) But even before I saw the 2004 adaptation I still loved Thornton. He has so much passion for Margaret and is inconsolable when Margaret rejects his marriage proposal. I also love that Gaskell gives the reader so much insight into Thornton's emotions and feelings. Because of that North and South is actually quite sensual for a Victorian novel. Although completely chaste there are some scenes of genuine sexual tension in the book. There's the scene where Thornton is having tea with the Hales and he's absolutely transfixed with Margaret's beautiful hands and the scene where Margaret saves Thornton from the angry mob by literally throwing herself at him and clinging to him. Thornton relives this moment in his mind over and over again. Thornton is also loyal, loving, generous, compassionate and forgiving and he matures throughout the book. Early on in the book we find that Thornton doesn't really see his workers as being individual people. He just sees them as "hands" and he doesn't think he owes them any sort of moral care. But Thornton's views of his employees and his responsibilities changes due to Margaret's influence. And when Thornton's business is on the verge of collapse he refuses to speculate and risk everyone's livelihood.

As you can probably tell I love North and South and I completely recommend it. It really is one of my absolute favourite books of all time and is definitely one of my favourite love-stories. The book is relatively obscure compared to the works of Jane Austen and the Brontes which is such a massive shame because it's every bit as romantic and gripping as theirs. Is the book 100% perfect? Well, any readers who aren't from the north of England might struggle to understand what the Higgins family members are saying. I know I struggled at times and I'd suggest that readers whose first language isn't English would be better off getting an edition with a glossary. The ending of the book is also a little bit rushed although it still finishes in an immensely satisfying way.

North and South is a fantastic book and the 2004 BBC miniseries is a wonderful adaptation of it. It stars Daniela Denby-Ashe, Richard Armitage and Sinead Cusack and it's one of my favourite literary adaptations. The miniseries takes a few liberties with the book - there are certain scenes that are removed and certain scenes that are added - but it's still an incredible adaptation. The acting, script, production values and music are all wonderful.

Rating: 5/5

P.S. It might interest some readers to know that North and South was originally serialised in Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words and it was actually Dickens who came up with the book's title. Gaskell had originally wanted to call her book Margaret Hale but Dickens told her that she should call it North and South because it had a better ring to it and it was a more accurate reflection of the book's themes. I completely agree with him!


Mizzie-Me said...

You know what, I love your blog so much! I've already gotten dozens of books on my have-to-read list from here, and North and South is definitely one of them now. So I hope you don't feel like I'm ripping all my blog topics off your blog :D

bookwormans said...

I absolutely love this book (and the BBC adaptation as well)! You are quite right in that while it shares similarities with P&P, it is entirely it's own work. I always felt that Gaskell's writing was Austen mixed with Bronte and an added dash of Dickens. Over here in America I had less of a problem with people thinking it was a re-hash of P&P and more of a problem with them assuming (based on the title) that it was about the American civil war.

Indigo Montoya said...

Thanks for the comments ladies! They are as always much appreciated : ) I've been in France for the past 10 days and I've only just got back so that's why your comments have taken so long to be published.

Mizzie-Me - I'm so flattered that you've been enjoying my blog so much! You can carry on "ripping it off" for as long as you like ; ) I actually read another two great books while I was in France so you might want to add these to your neverending pile of books to read as well! Mwahaha! I also recommend North and South's BBC adaptation as well. It makes some changes to the book but it's mostly a very faithful adaptation. And Richard Armitage's hotness as Thornton has to be seen to be believed!

Bookwormans - Yes, I completely agree with you about Gaskell's writing being some kind of Austen-Bronte-Dickens hybrid. Ever read Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'? It's one of my favourite books. It was only published in 2004 but it's written in a deliberate 19th century style - it's like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens teamed up to write a book about magic. It's a very long book but it's wonderful : )

Trudy said...

Lovely review of my favorite novel! I also felt much more compassion for Margaret on my second read. It's a great book to go over again very carefully to pick up all the things you might have missed the first time around. Watching for clues that Margaret is falling in love with Thornton is great fun!
I love all the social messages that Gaskell is trying to convey, but I really love most of all the captivating romance. She describes Mr. Thornton's passion and anguish so vividly, you can't help but be moved by his suffering. And, of course, Richard Armitage does an amazing job of portraying Thornton's emotion struggle on flim.

Indigo Montoya said...

Aw, thank you so much! : D I hope you think I did the book justice! At some point I'll review the 2004 adaptation as well but there are a couple of other TV adaptations that I want to do first. Oh, I agree with everything you said and thank you for following me too. I'll be sure to follow you back.