North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

nsNorth and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, Penguin Classics, 1995

Before reading this book I saw the BBC adaptation of it which is one of my favourite historical dramas. I finally got around to reading the original story and was enthralled by how dark and intelligent and sensory it was.

The heroine Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable family home in the Southern Countryside when her father, a vicar, moves them all to the fictional northern town of Milton, an industrial town. The changes this brings to her character and values as the poverty she sees around her awakens a passionate social justice is the golden thread running through this story.

Also significant is the clash of ideals between Margaret and the local wealthy manufacturer, John Thornton, and the simmering attraction between them. The prejudice Margaret holds for so called “shoppy” people extends to him but we find that he is also dismissive of the factory workers intelligence by referring to them as “hands.” The wrongness of this, Margaret feels, that it refers to the idea of the Masters having heads as well as hands while the workers have only hands.

I loved so many things about this book. There are so many different facets of the story. Nothing about any of the characters is clear. The Hale family who Mr Thornton sees as holding an elegant middle class lifestyle are actually just as dysfunctional as any family in Milton. The comforting and pretty sitting room hides the shabbiness, the dangerous secret they are keeping about one of their number, the weakness of the family and the pressure on Margaret Hale as the support for her parents.

Margaret Hale is a wonderful heroine for this book. Although she comes to Milton with set middle class snobbery she starts adapting as soon as she finds a “human interest.” Not a charity case but actual friends among the working class like the Higgins family. Her mother is shocked when Margaret starts picking up factory slang and this is in direct contrast to the ladies of Milton who try and put as much distance between themselves and the poor as possible. Margaret’s interest in the injustice she sees in society despite her privileged lifestyle is a theme that is still just as powerful in the modern day.

“How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?”

Another endearing quality of Margaret’s is her constant questioning of herself as a human being not as a person who is seen by others. Mrs Thornton mentions to her disdainfully how she would deal in a crisis and it weighs on her mind; the question many of us ask ourselves; in a dangerous situation would I be brave or a coward?

Elizabeth Gaskell is a wonderful writer and I love North and South. Not only because it is intelligent and has a likeable heroine who strives to step out of her class and even her sex in Victorian society for social justice but also because I had fun reading this book.

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