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Notes on North and South by Mrs. Gaskell

Posted by Sherry on 11/18/2009 in Adult Fiction, General |

I had the impression a long time ago, in spite of knowing that Mrs. Gaskell was a British Victorian author, that this book was about the American Civil War. It’s not. It’s set in the (industrial) North and (rural) South of England. The contrast between industry and trade and farming and country life forms the backbone of the novel.

p. 27: Early in the novel, our protagonist Margaret receives a proposal of marriage and refuses it. I have a feeling that this relationship is like Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. I predict that Margaret and Mr. Henry Lennox will eventually, over the course of the novel, come to understand, then love, one another.

p. 62: I’m not that fond of Miss Margaret yet, although I can see that the author meant her to be a sympathetic character. Margaret has a disdain and near contempt for anyone who is “in trade or manufacture.” I suppose this attitude was common in nineteenth century upper middle class Britain, but it’s not attractive to modern ears. Also, Margaret’s father is severely depressed, and her mother is falling apart. However, Margaret’s main concerns about the place where they are moving seem to be the gaudy wallpaper and the fog. I just don’t understand the emphasis on the decorations and the weather:
“It needed the pretty light papering of the rooms to reconcile them to Milton. It needed more—more that could not be had.”
“Oh, Margaret! Are we to live here?” asked Mrs. Hale, in blank dismay.
She could scarcely command herself enough to say, “Oh, the fogs in London are sometimes far worse!”

p.196-197: The book has turned into a reenactment of Pride and Prejudice, but there are two possible Darcys. However, I’m not nearly as sympathetic toward Margaret Hale as I am Elizabeth Bennett. Nor can I imagine that Mr. Thornton has as much to be proud about as Mr. Darcy, not because Mr. Thornton is “in trade” and poorly educated but rather because he’s a thorny character with a doting mother and little or no sympathy for his workers.

p.277: OK, I am starting to feel sorry for the girl. She does have no real friends or family to depend upon. Still, I’m not too fond of Miss Margaret. She’s a little too stoic and and proud of her own stoicism.

I finally started to care about what happened to these characters in the last third of the novel. However, Cranford remains my favorite of Mrs. Gaskel’s novels. North and South borders on the melodramatic, and sometimes tips over into sensationalism. Four deaths within a hundred pages make the centerpiece of the story, with all the attendant Victorian mourning and histrionics. Almost every character in the novel is full of pride and full of themselves. The ending seems forced and saccharine-sweet.

If you are a fan of Dickens’ more sentimental efforts, the death of Little Nell in Old Curiosity Shop or the happily-ever-after ending of Great Expectations, North and South may very well please. I found it a bit cloying, and I think I can see the Dickensian influence, but not for the best.

8 Comments

  • Cara Powers says:

    It would appear that I’ll be avoiding this book as well. Such a shame. I’d like to find more female authors of the era that I enjoy.

  • Carrie says:

    I’m almost reliving my experience with Wives & Daughters in reading your thoughts here. It took me a long time to start to care about the main character. She’s just so long winded and verbose and takes forever to start making her point.

    But then, as you know, I don’t much care for Dickens either (for the same reasons).

  • JaneGS says:

    It was interesting reading your thoughts as you read N&S. I also initially thought Henry Lennox might be the love interest, and I ended up sympathizing with him quite a bit towards the end. I really like Gaskell and think N&S is a wonderful book, but I do understand that Margaret may not appeal to everyone although I think she and Thornton are both interesting, complex characters. I agree that there are a lot of P&P echoes in N&S.

  • Della says:

    Its interesting that you jumped to a Pride and Prejudice connection so early in the book. I’ve always thought that North and South was a very good parallel to P&P but based on the particular characteristics of Margaret and Thornton – the way they misjudge each other and they way they are actually quite similar but initially miss every connection because of their different backgrounds. I could go into it so much more but … spoilers are so frustrating.
    The other interesting aspect of North and South is the social commentary. Gaskell really gets into the issues of class and how the workers plight is interwoven with the business ethics of the Northern mill owners. At the same time we are learning to sympathize with Thornton’s financial straights and the problems of the industry we are seeing the toll it takes on the workers, through Margaret’s friendship with Bessy and Nicholas Higgins. This reminded me of Dickens’ more pointed style of social commentary and is an interesting departure from Austen who dealt almost exclusively with her own class and their problems. Lizzie Bennett never makes friends with a servant and visits her home.
    Actually, love story (which works great for me by the way) aside, the most interesting thing about this book is the picture it draws of the way social classes were changing in England right then. There’s a transition under way (illustrated as a contrast between “north” and “south” but actually sort of a future past thing) between the more feudal system which was still practiced in England up to and through the time of Jane Austen to a more modern sense of business and bootstrapping and everybody-for-himself. Margaret, coming from the more hide-bound South feels its her duty as a pastor’s daughter and a member of her social class to minister to the poor. She wants to bring baskets to the infirm and feed the begging children on the streets. Both sides of the social divide in the North tend to disapprove of this. The factory owners feel no responsibility to their employees other than to employ them and think her kindness is only prolonging the strike. And the mill workers themselves see her charity as demeaning. The strong minded Higgins is offended by her offer of help, although he does take assistance later when he’s saddled with a large family of children and no job. Gaskell seems to insert a moral to the story when, towards the end of the book Higgins gets dispirited and says he’ll try going south to look for work on a farm where life is easier and Margaret tells him he’ll hate it there and advises him to stick it out in Milton. And in the end a sort of middle ground is reached where Thornton and Higgins strike a truce – seeming to indicate that the moral is that you do have to work for what you get … but employers should take the interests of their workers into consideration as well. Thornton continues to insist that this is just good business sense, not charity or christian feeling, but its hard to tell if he really means it.
    Anyway … this got a bit overboard as a comment. Suffice it to say that I loved North and South. If you find the antique language and plot progression hard to follow I would at least recommend the excellent adaptation that the BBC-one did in 2004. Its beautifully shot, adapted and acted and the musical score is fantastic. I guarantee you’ll be swept off your feet and have plenty of sympathy for Margaret’s plight. Then perhaps the book will hold more interest.

  • Stephanie says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this, as well as Wives and Daughters. I don’t think I’ll mind the P&P similiarities too much. It’s been awhile since I’ve read P&P and while I enjoyed it, I prefer some of Jane Austen’s other books.

  • Aruna says:

    I like Gaskell (or at least what I have read so far), and I enjoyed reading North and South very much. I do agree with you that there was a lot of death toward the end of the book. Interestingly, I did not make that observation when I read the book; but it was very obvious when I watched the BBC adaptation. It seemed as if the last couple of episodes was filled with a series of deaths in spite of their changing the storyline so that there were only three deaths if I remember right.

    I enjoyed the social and political (Thornton’s capitalistic vs. Higgins’ more socialistic views) commentary very much.

    There are indeed parallels with P&P although N&S is a much darker book. JaneGS (see one of the comments above) has several entries in her blog in which she does a wonderful job of analyzing these parallels.

  • Aruna says:

    I like Gaskell (or at least what I have read so far), and I enjoyed reading North and South very much. I do agree with you that there was a lot of death toward the end of the book. Interestingly, I did not make that observation when I read the book; but it was very obvious when I watched the BBC adaptation. It seemed as if the last couple of episodes was filled with a series of deaths in spite of their changing the storyline so that there were only three deaths if I remember right.

    I enjoyed the social and political (Thornton’s capitalistic vs. Higgins’ more socialistic views) commentary very much.

    There are indeed parallels with P&P although n&S is a much darker book. JaneGS (see one of the comments above) has several entries in her blog in which she does a wonderful job of analyzing these parallels.

  • Rebecca Reid says:

    I really enjoyed this book. I saw Margaret as a real person, one who had flaws as well as positive points, and I found her prejudices against “trade” to be reflective of the time.

    On the other hand, I found Cranford, while an ultimately rewarding read, to be rather boring. I guess there is a Gaskell novel for us all!

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