North and South by Elizabeth GaskellJanuary 13, 2010
Elizabeth Gaskell is everywhere these days. The sequel to Cranford is on Masterpiece Theatre, she swept through the blogs a few months ago on her Classics Circuit tour, and now here she is, making her first appearance on my reading list. She deserves the hype. North and South surprised me because it was my ideal Victorian novel: an interesting cast of characters, a focus on the social issues of the era, an intriguing romance, and–this is what is most unique–a strong, intelligent, female character.
North and South follows the life of Margaret, whose family is suddenly required to leave their rural home in the South of England and relocate to an industrial city in the North of England. The change of scenery requires a great deal of adjustment, which isn’t made any easier by an impending worker’s strike, which threatens to bring the town to a standstill. Whose side will Margaret take in the battle between mill owners and workers? How will her views and opinions change as she becomes accustomed to life in the North? And how will her views and opinions change the people she meets? These are the questions that Gaskell tackles.
There are so many things that I loved about this novel, but I most appreciated the character of Margaret. Who knew that hidden in the backlist of great British authors, there existed a Victorian writer whose prose was as great at Dickens but who wrote female characters who broke the archetype? Margaret is strong and independent. Even if she does spend a huge amount of time doing what people expect of a young, unmarried woman in the 1800s, her inner thoughts and outer words see that she has a much deeper character than I ever imagined. I love how she speaks her mind when arguing with Mr Thornton, one of the mill owners in town. She surprises him by her logic, her persistence, and her flare for rhetoric. Margaret’s private thoughts reveal that she is not simply ready to be the perfect Victorian woman. For example, in this passage, Margaret expresses how she feels after her father has left on a trip:
“It was astonishing, almost stunning, to feel herself so much at liberty; no one depending on her for her cheering care, if not for positive happiness; no invalid to plan and think for; she might be idle, and silent, and forgetful, — and what seemed worth more than all the other privileges–she might be unhappy if she liked. For months past, all her own personal cares and troubles had had to be stuffed away into a dark cupboard; but now she had leisure to take them out, and mourn over them, and study their nature, and seek the true method of subduing them into the elements of peace.”
Gaskell’s Margaret isn’t the Victorian woman that we read of so often. She is not a pillar of grace and perfection, content to carry the world on her shoulders. Instead, she recognizes the stress and difficulty of being expected to behave with perfection constantly. Later in the book, it comes as no surprise when Margaret announces that she “took her life into her own hands.” Indeed, it is only when she does so that she finds true happiness. This is really the ultimate consequence of the opinion she thinks over while her father is away.
One small note: I’ve read multiple times that people feel as if North and South is just a relocated version of Pride and Prejudice, because the main love story is somewhat similar: girl meets boy, girl hates boy, boy’s proposal is rejected by girl, girl eventually realizes her wrong and marries boy. My main problem with this comparison is two-fold: 1) Austen certainly did not invent this sort of love story and 2) I found the love story to be a much smaller part of this novel than it is in Pride and Prejudice. North and South has so many other plot lines and themes: the tension between workers and mill owners, the plight of the poor during the industrial revolution, the differences and similarities between rural and urban life, and the moral conundrum of choosing between telling lies and saving family members, among others. Of course, Pride and Prejudice also has many layers of social concern in the novel, but they were quite different than those found in North and South.
I’m thrilled to discover that I now have several of Gaskell’s novels to read. I’m glad that I have a copy of Cranford waiting for me on my bookshelf.