I am thrilled to share my review of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. This is the first time I have read this classic novel about contrasting life in the English Southern countryside and the growing Northern manufacturing towns. I have seen the BBC adaptation a few times and love it! Finally, it was the right time to read this book. I was blown away. I was captivated by this story from start to finish!
- How has it taken me this long to read this brilliant classic? I don’t have a good reason for the delay, but I am so glad I finally read this one!
- My reading experience with this book is difficult to describe. The first third was hard to get invested in for me. Perhaps because it was somber and a long, somewhat depressing anticipation of departure. But once we meet the characters in Milton, I was hooked. It’s been a while since I was this hooked on a classic. And it felt good to want to read all the time.
- Just a few thoughts about the BBC adaptation starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage. These two are absolutely brilliant as the leading characters. I think they capture the personalities and interactions of these characters beautifully. The supporting cast is equally fantastic. Go binge watch the 4 part miniseries on Netflix this weekend. You’re welcome 🙂
According to Goodreads, “Written at the request of Charles Dickens, North and South is a book about rebellion; it poses fundamental questions about the nature of social authority and obedience. Gaskell expertly blends individual feeling with social concern, and her heroine, Margaret Hale, is one of the most original creations of Victorian literature.
When Margaret Hale’s father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience she is forced to leave her comfortable home in the tranquil countryside of Hampshire and move with her family to the fictional industrial town of Milton in the north of England. Though at first disgusted by her new surroundings, she witnesses the brutality wrought by the Industrial Revolution and becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers. Sympathetic to the poor she makes friends among them and develops a fervent sense of social justice. She clashes with the mill-owner and self-made man, John Thornton, who is contemptuous of his workers. However, their fierce opposition masks a deeper attraction.”
This book centers around Margaret Hale who is one of the most fascinating female protagonists of this time period. She is strong, passionate, tender, and intense. She cares deeply about others, especially her family. She is proud often to a fault. She is kind to those beneath her in station. But not always forgiving to those above her. Her faith is beautiful and subtly complex. Her journey towards understanding the industrial hierarchy of Milton and defending the working class is beautifully written. I was also struck by her transformation through the loss of her family and how her wisdom increased through her love, hard work, and determination. She knows who she is, she embraces it, and she doesn’t let anyone define the world for her.
John Thornton is an equally fascinating character. His strength and work ethic are impeccable. I enjoy the background on his history as a self made man and the way he fairly deals with his workers. He is fair, honest, but also strict and imposing. But I also love his passion and love for Margaret that seems to drive everything that he does. I was rooting for him from the first moment they meet. He seems to be a character of intense polarities. One the one hand, he is driven by his need to survive financially and run a successful business. And on the other, he is nearly obsessed with Margaret and his lofty feelings for her. I love the contrast, and I love this love story.
The relationship between Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale is one of the most underappreciated love stories in literature. Their complex journey towards love and mutual attraction is reminiscent of the great love story between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. They begin their acquaintance with several misunderstandings that they must overcome to see each other as they truly are–to see the best in each other. Their relationship is much more than mutual attraction. They talk about politics, business, industrialization, working conditions, workers strikes, and fair wages. They disagree and neither of them will back down. I love that we get inside both their heads as they interact. The contrasting ways they see the world and see each other are flawlessly described by Gaskell’s expert storytelling. Perhaps, ultimately, the difficulty of the journey makes the ending all the more satisfying.
The protagonists are flanked by beautifully developed characters that make the story richer and more compelling. I love the characters in this novel. Bessy Higgins is so sweet and innocent. Nicholas Higgins is an intriguing character for all his changing and development. He is a smart man, but also teachable in the right settings. His developing relationship with Mr Thornton is another favorite. Mr Hale’s journey from faith to doubt and from religion to teaching is interesting. Fredrick Hale’s situation is fascinating, certainly unfair, and provides an interesting contrast to his sister Margaret. Mrs Thornton’s hard personality stands out especially with the differences between her and her son. The contrast of the dynamic Milton characters and the petty, flat London cousins was especially intriguing for me. After all that time in Milton, Margaret grew to appreciate it and the people she met there more than her former friends.
This book gives readers so much to ponder and left me thinking about the ideas it raises long after I finished reading. There are so many interesting themes in this book– discussions of faith, the value and importance of education, love of family, country, and home, what makes a home, and what is right vs wrong. There are complex passages about industrialism–it’s values and faults. We learn about working conditions, the intricacies of strikes, unions, and running a cotton mill. But above all, readers discover the importance of faith and the way truth can be understood from many different perspectives. This is much more than a compelling story. Gaskell offers a complex picture of an important time period that changed the face of England and of the world.
Of course, at the heart of this book is the relationship between the North and South of England. Margaret’s varied experiences in the two places are fascinating as she changes and the landscapes she loves change. There are some long speeches about the wonders and hindrances of the North and South. (Although, sometimes the long debates between Margaret and Mr Thornton are a bit long.) But overall, I found it fascinating to see the way Margaret’s perceptions of the two places change. It was interesting how home changed for her. And how her experiences returning to Helstone years later were not the idyllic experience that she expected. Such a fascinating look at the importance of place.
I cannot say enough positive things about this book. I loved it! Love the ending! Love the movie adaptation! One of the best classics I’ve read in recent years!