North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

Written as a 22-part weekly serial from 1854-1855, “North and South was an interesting Victorian read comparing the industrial North of England with life in the more urban London. The focus of the novel is Margaret Hale, a single woman who is forced to move with her parents to the industrial Milton (thought to be based on Manchester) when her vicar father has a crisis of faith and needs to leave his position in the church.

As the story continues, there is an emphasis on those who grew up in a more genteel England of countryside and education versus those who were forced to grow up in a crowded and dirty town. Margaret’s father takes a new job as a teacher for a rich young industrialist, and that is how Margaret ends up being the liaison of sorts between Higgins, a worker and his family, and his boss, Mr. Thornton.  Margaret is not perfect though – she has prejudicial ideas about the Industrial North and the workers, including Mr. Thornton who had worked his way up the working class ladder from being a humble shop boy.

The Industrial Revolution was around this time, and this novel reflects the uneasiness of the upper and upper-middle classes, traditionally the ones with the money and the power, with the rise of the manufacturing classes.

Strikes have been endemic this year, which has led to “knobsticks” (non-Union workers) being brought in from Ireland to do the work of the striking employees.

If you are familiar with a lot of Victorian novels, they can be pretty wordy, but Mrs. Gaskell does not fall in that trap. Nor she does utilize too many obscure words or phrases (although there were some references I had to look up to fully appreciate). It reads in a quite a modern tone, with issues that are still around today: class conflict, the rights of the workers, courtship and marriage, the roles of women in society…

As I found out more about Mrs. Gaskell, it was striking to me just how heavy an autobiographical emphasis there was in this novel.  Her father was a Unitarian minister who had a crisis in faith and ended up moving to become Keeper of the Treasury Records. Her mother died not long after she was born, and so she was sent off to live with her aunt. (See the parallels in the plot so far?) Her older brother ended up in the Merchant Navy, traveling to India and disappearing there in 1827. (Similarities to Frederick, but with no mutinous tendencies.) And, in fact, her aunt’s house where Mrs. Gaskell lived was in a small town in Cheshire, which ended up as the model for “Cranford” later on. After getting married to a Unitarian minister and writer, Mrs. Gaskell lived in Manchester and then ended up in Plymouth Grove. Visitors to her house included Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and close friend Charlotte Bronte (who hid behind the curtains one day as she was too shy to meet the visitors).

People make the argument that good writers “write what they know,” and this was definitely what Mrs. Gaskell did. Being friends with Charles Dickens didn’t hurt either, as he published her work in his magazine at the time. One of the things that I enjoy about Mrs. Gaskell (at least in the two works that I   have read so far) is her emphasis on women in the stories – and not just their lives of visiting and cups of tea. Margaret in “North and South” has a social conscience and wants to help the downtrodden workers of the factory in Milton. Her religion also played a part when she brought together people of different religions to show that the world would not implode should that happen. Her tolerance was obvious.

Like most Victorian lit, the ending was not such a surprise (although it’s not completely obvious if you’re not familiar with the plot). It’s not that Margaret will get married (of course she will); it’s to whom. I found it rather a sudden ending, but perhaps that is what Mrs. Gaskell wanted: the marital success of Margaret and then you’re done. The story’s over.

Poking around on the net, I came across a theater company who host a musical version of “North and South” in Boulder, CO, which was interesting. Not particularly a big fan of musicals so probably won’t be making that trip. However, there is a 2004 TV adaption out there which I might be tracking down, and Mrs. Gaskell now has a plaque in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey put up in September 2010 above the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer and dedicated by her great-great-granddaughter (which I thought was a nice
touch.) Will be making an effort to see that when I go home to UK in October.

I read this in e-format from the wonderful Project Gutenberg.

4 thoughts on “North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

  1. I highly recommend the TV adaptation (and if you’re on Netflix, you can watch it instantly)! And I don’t know anything about Gaskell’s life, so it’s neat to see all of the autobiographical stuff. 😀 I wish I’d read this before seeing the adaptation, because I was so in love with the way certain minor characters were portrayed that to see them so differently in the book was frustrating (primarily, the way Gaskell writes about the lower class v how they’re shown in the film). But I did love Cranford, so one of these days I’ll have to give N&S another go!

  2. Glad to hear that you liked the tv adaptation. I am usually a bit leery about watching some tv version after the book as the characters are usually not the same as I have imagined them…! I think I am going to read “Wives and Daughters” next – in further research, it seems that this is the #2 favorite among people… Thanks for commenting

  3. Late to the party – I hope you’ve seen the BBC series by now!
    It’s funny that you imply that it’s a given that Margaret will get married, because in this story the heroine was prepared to remain single all her life – a very unusual and fantastically independent choice for a Victorian girl. It’s made perfectly clear that she would never marry Henry. So the only question remains toward the end is if Thornton and Margaret can meet again and allow the other to know their repressed affections. The ending is abrupt, but all the softening of character and perspectives has already been developed – there’s really nothing more to work out between these two. It may be trite to end with the assumption of marriage between these two, but the union forged in this story is far from common, and will have lasting affects on Milton and society. Both Margaret and Thornton have found home and purpose in coming together as a thinking and feeling team. I love this book so much – it’s my favorite classic romance.
    I couldn’t get into Cranford at all. i was bored out of my mind, waiting for some kind of plot. But I guess it wasn’t that kind of novel. LOVED Wives & Daughters, though.

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