Monday, September 24, 2012
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Published: 1855, originally (I read the public domain version on my Kindle)
Source: Personal copy
Read for: A Classics Challenge, Back to the Classics 2, The Classics Club
When Margaret's father feels inspired to change his life's path, they are forced to leave their beautiful home in the southern countryside of England and instead relocate to the northern mill town of Milton. The smoky air, crowded streets, and different personalities of the people disturb and frustrate Margaret and her family. However, as they spend more time in Milton, despite the difficulties and trials that befall their family, Margaret learns that northern England also has something to offer. Part of this transformation is the character of Mr. Thornton, a man who Margaret initially does not understand but grows to respect as she spends more time in Milton.
In some ways, North and South was reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice for me. Boy meets girl, girl scorns boy, boy does some kind, loving things for her family in order to win her affection. However, the backdrop is utterly different. The Hale family is dealing with a complete upheaval of their lifestyle, resulting in poor health and disastrous consequences for some of the characters. North and South does not only focus on the interactions between the characters, but also larger issues such as the justness of strikes in the Industrial Revolution and what is owed to both the manufacturers and the men and women who operate their factories. While at times, North and South felt a bit heavy to me, overall I felt it was an enlightening read that caused me to think about issues that wouldn't have crossed my mind otherwise.
One prevalent aspect of North and South that I enjoyed was the fact that nearly all the characters, at some point, performed an action that was either wrong or was construed as wrong by society. These characters were not black and white idealistic constructions. Mr. Hale leaves the Church after a lifetime of service. Margaret's brother, Frederick, is in exile from England after participating in a mutiny in the Navy. Margaret is caught in a lie. Moral dilemmas abound in North and South, and it was a powerful experience to read how the different characters resolved those dilemmas. Each character certainly had a conscience, but the way they resolved their dilemmas was not necessarily the most heavily traveled path.
I also enjoyed the romance, although the slow burn that lasted throughout most of the novel's pages wrapped up a little too quickly for me. Initially, Margaret and Mr. Thornton do not understand each other -- she thinks, as a manufacturer, he is low class, and he thinks she is entirely too prideful (maybe a reverse Pride and Prejudice, then). However, despite the initial exposure to each others' less desirable qualities (in the mindset of the day, of course -- I still have never quite been able to understand class differences as they existed in previous times) they both act in certain situations in a way to gain the respect and admiration of the other. However, countless misunderstandings prevent them from confessing how they feel until the very end of the book. I would have liked more than a few sentences of resolution, after so much waiting and anguishing.
Elizabeth Gaskell is clearly an accomplished writer. Her words conveyed her images powerfully to me. Her writing wasn't flowery or descriptive like many authors I appreciate, but she wrote poignantly and with conviction, and her words had a lot of strength. Even in the sections that were not quite as interesting to me, such as all the talk about the strike (it was good, but there was quite a bit of it), while I was at times impatient to move on with the story, I could still appreciate that the writing was excellent.
North and South is a well-written, well-constructed book -- it is clear why it is a classic, and I enjoyed how much it made me think. While I didn't really emotionally connect with it, I think North and South is a worthwhile read for anyone hoping to expand their British literary horizons beyond the standard classic fare of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
Warnings: Some violence