Rating: 5 out of 5 stars | Read: 8 March – 16 March, 2018
I’ve been meaning to read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South for the longest time, and I can finally tick it off the list. Prior to this, I had only read Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë and a collection of her short stories, which didn’t really show the extent of her writing capabilities. I had a hunch I’d enjoy this novel, and I was completely right. It was such an endearing, enlightening and truthful read. It follows the protagonist, Margaret Hale, an middle-class woman whose forced to move from London to the industrial city of Milton (based on Manchester where Gaskell resided). She witnesses the brutal reality of the industrialisation through the contrast between the wealthy employers and down trodden workers. The novel follows Margaret’s growing understanding of this relationship, showing a sensitive reaction to this pivotal moment in history.
North and South had everything I love in a Victorian novel: a thoughtful discussion of class relationships, an actual relationship that was hindered by many notions and factors that dominate contemporary society, industrialisation and the impact this has on the working-class, and an interesting array of complex characters who guided the novel in the best way. Now I come to think of it, I don’t think I have one criticism of this novel. It was just brilliant. I enjoyed the level of detail Gaskell employed whilst discussing the life of the working-class society. As she was living in Manchester during the height of the industrialisation, Gaskell might have been aware of the daily struggle this class of people experienced. North and South confronts the ruling class, showing them that their employees are also people who need to work for a livelihood. I have no doubt that the brutal tone and imagery would have unsettled some of the middle-class readers.
My favourite thing about North and South was, without a doubt, Margaret Hale. She’s one of those heroines you can’t help but love; she’s sensitive, caring, understanding, and fiery. I think it’s safe to say she’s become one of my favourite literary heroines of all-time, and I can’t wait to revisit this novel and unpick more of her character. It was a privilege to follow her journey through life: her transition from London to Milton, her growing understanding of social issues, and her growing independency. It was quite refreshing for a nineteenth century narrative. Her sensitive approach, and genuine care, for the working class (Bessy, Higgins and Mary, in particular) really appealed to me. If you read this in relation to Dickens’ Hard Times, you will find a more intimate and thoughtful approach to this class issue. Margaret was definitely a defining quality of the novel.
I also really liked the more intricate aspects of the story, such as the themes, social critiques and narrative techniques. In particular, the debate between the country and city (or, more widely, the regions) heavily influenced the narrative. Helstone (the south) and Milton (the north) were persistently spoke about in relation to each other, creating a complex and thought-provoking discussion. Milton was depicted as unclean, where the air could literally kill someone, yet it contained genuine goodness. The types of people dotted around the city are passionate, friendly and loving (even the capitalist mill owners are, to a certain extent, understanding). In contrast to this, the country was depicted as a sort of utopia. It was enchanting and pretty, yet home to shallow and conceited people who had no personality or substance. Margaret’s move from the south to the north illuminated these contrasts beautifully.
Lastly, I cannot possibly write a review on North and South without mentioning Mr John Thornton. I knew I’d love him from Richard Armitage’s portrayal in the 2004 BBC adaptation, but I didn’t expect to like him this much. Immediately, you’re made aware of Thornton as the capitalist: the one you should all be weary of. He is, in this society, the enemy. However, as the narrative unfolds, you able to unpick his personality to find a sensitive and loving man beneath. He was written brilliantly, and had so many layers to his character. I have often seen him compared to Mr Darcy from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and, having read it, I completely agree. There were a lot of parallels between the two males, and North and South is a social take on the romantic narrative, so definitely check this out if you enjoy Austen. Also, the last two pages, though. The best part of the story, don’t you agree?
I’d definitely recommend this lovely novel. It was an endearing read, which opened my eyes to how an industrial city operated in the mid-Victorian period. The characters were all interesting in their own right, harbouring their own critique on society which unfolded, alongside the narrative, at the perfect pace. Everything was rounded of brilliantly. I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Thanks for reading, Lauren X