First Published: 1854-5
Pages: 544 including afterword (Paperback)
Elizabeth Gaskell’s compassionate, richly dramatic novel features one of the most original and fully-rounded female characters in Victorian fiction, Margaret Hale. It shows how, forced to move from the country to an industrial northern town, she develops a passionate sense of social justice, and a turbulent relationship with mill-owner John Thornton.
North and South depicts a young woman discovering herself, in a nuanced portrayal of what divides people, and what brings them together.
So I guess the best way to succinctly sum up my feelings on this book is to repeat what I told my mum when she asked how I was enjoying it: ‘the TV adaptation is better than the book, and the story is better than the writing’.
North and South is a story I’ve been in love with since I watched the BBC adaptation with Richard Armitage in 2004. It’s basically Pride and Prejudice in an industry Victorian city, with class issues and commentary mainly replacing the originals gender issues. Mr Darcy is mill owner and self-made-man, Mr. Thornton, while Elizabeth Bennet is the socially conscious and initially insufferably snobby, Margret Hale. Instead of Pemberly and the Bennet sister’s there’s a backdrop of industrial revolution, class tension, and trade union strikes and a supporting cast ranging from servents and mill hands to lawyers and Oxford academics.
Gaskell, though, is no Austen and I found her writing very hard to get into at first. Less wit and charm and more turgid preaching and moralising. Neither of which I am particularly patient with. It improved towards the middle, where the older characters start suddenly dropping like flies, but the first half was a real slog. Gaskell does that Victorian omniscient narrator thing where, instead of enhancing the understanding of the side characters by popping into their thoughts, it ends up dully explaining everything and robbing the book of any tension. All tell and no show, especially at the beginning when we’re meant to be forming our first impressions of the characters. No disagreement between Margaret and Mr. Thornton (or anybody else for that matter) is allowed without instantly flitting into Thornton’s thoughts to let us know that it’s just a misunderstanding, that he didn’t explain himself properly, and that he finds Margaret beautiful. Kinda robs the romantic tension somewhat. Which is probably why I prefer the TV version so hard, Richard Armitage can convey Thornton’s feeling more effectively in a single look than Gaskell can in a whole chapter.
And then there’s also the preachiness. The only character more insufferable for it than Margaret (who spends a good quarter of the book angsting over telling a lie – to save somebody’s life but it was a lie) is Bessy, the terminally ill mill worker who spends every waking moment talking about how glorious heaven will be when she gets there. It’s genuinely cringe inducing and after about two pages I was wishing she would just pass away and put me out of my misery.
But three stars because I do like the story itself, the social commentary is interesting (if a little moralising in places), and once I got into the book (about the halfway point) the writing seemed to improve so by the end I was enjoying the novel more than I was frustrated with it. I also really like the side characters of Higgins, the trade unionist and Mrs. Thornton, Mr. Thornton’s imposing mother who doesn’t put up with any of Margaret’s fancy southern shit. The romance, I thought, was unconvincing but, I think, even Gaskell found that the secondary point after exploring the social tensions between the working class and the ‘masters’, the industrial north and the rural south. So after a tricky and deeply frustrating start, I did end up enjoying (if not always agreeing with) this book.
Will probably be a while before I decide to read another Gaskell though, and if I do it’ll probably be a library jobby. The ideas and plot may be good, but I’m not sure her prose has aged particularly well.
Definitely rate the TV version better.