Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Genre: Classics / Social Novel
Date: 1996 (1854)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Started: 15th March 2017
Completed: 16th March 2017
Summary: When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810 – 1865) is best known for writing novels that critiqued Victorian society and the English class system. Her first novel Mary Barton focused on the problems that the Northern working class faced and this theme continues into her other novels, including North and South. Gaskell also wrote the first ever biography of Charlotte Brontë which was published in 1857.
Some of her best known and most loved novels are Cranford, North and South, and Wives and Daughters.
North and South delivers a complex plot about industrial strike action in Victorian Manchester which is intertwined with many different subplots which focus on the lives of individual people. Each subplot, whether it is one of romance or death, contributes to the image of Northern England that Gaskell wanted to portray to her middle class readers. Margaret, the main chavayer, is from the south of England and she believes the north to be dirty and classless until she is forced to move there by her father. She becomes a friend of the working classes but she’s also friends with a mill owner which creates a lot of conflict in her life. There’s also a section where Gaskell explores the problem of Victorian mill owners importing ‘cheap labour’ from Ireland. There’s no mention of how these immigrants were treated by their employers but by working class English people they were seen as a threat to livelihoods since they worked for less money and didn’t want any benefits that they were entitled to. It would have been interesting for Gaskell to explore how cheap foreign labourers were exploited by the middle classes, in a similar way to how the English working class were exploited by their employers, but this doesn’t come up in the novel.
I love Gaskell’s work because her writing is realistic and direct, even though the initial descriptions of the North always annoy me since I’m a Northerner. I do understand that these book were written for the Southern middle classes as a way to highlight the plight of the working class so these initial descriptions do make sense as they reflected the opinions of Gaskell’s target audience. That being said, I hate that fact that she named her fictional northern county ‘Darkshire’. Gaskell’s description isn’t overly fanciful in North and South and she doesn’t romanticise any part of the working class, unlike in Mary Barton, and this gives the novel a more honest feeling.
Gaskell created a wide range of very interesting characters although I found both Mr Thornton’s and Mr Lennox’s declarations of love for Margaret rather annoying. They were rather condescending and I don’t think they added much to the plot, except to show that Margaret is a strong woman who will not accept the first man who proposes to her. I really enjoyed the character of Bessy who is incredibly ill in the novel and has a tendency to talk about the apocalypse and the Book of Revelation a lot. She’s not afraid to die and she has accepted that she will die young because that’s what happened to young girls who worked in cotton mills in the 1840s. She’s a tragic character because of how she accepts her death rather than seeking treatment that she and her family cannot afford but through her Gaskell manages to demonstrate the conditions that the working class had to endure during this period of time. She’s a fascinating character and I think that she’s a much better character than Margaret in many respects. I also enjoyed Frederick’s story, Margaret’s brother, since he is a fugitive living in Spain and is unable to live in England with his family. He’s an openly Catholic character which is highly unusual for a Victorian book since England was still staunchly Protestant during this time, despite the fact that the Catholic Emancipation Act/Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1829. Frederick is incredibly interesting despite not appearing in most of the novel.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading North and South and it’s such a great classic novel to read. It’s very interesting from a social historian point of view as it can tell you a lot about Victorian attitudes towards the working classes. Gaskell’s writing is compelling and relatable and it continues to be relevant today.
It’s such a great book and I would highly recommend it.