North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

When you love Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, and love to talk about their work, there comes a day when someone recommends that you read Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell.

Recommendations are funny things, if they come at the right moment, and that ‘right’ moment is impossible to define, you may pick up the book immediately and read it without prejudice. If a recommendation comes at the wrong moment, the recommendation will be forgotten, with no judgement recorded.

However, if a recommendation comes from someone we do not like, or, more importantly, we do not respect, the recommendation will be remembered, but the book will be associated with all that is wrong with the world and, henceforth, will be avoided like the plague.

My experience of Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell started badly. Those who recommended her were, more often than not, from a peculiar group – the lovers of Jane Austen who maintain that Georgette Heyer should be considered Austen’s equal.

Jane Austen’s genius, like Shakespeare’s, is that she is accessible to all. In her novels, some find a mirror, seeing only themselves in fancy dress reflected, while others find a window, with a view of the whole world.

Gaskell, in part, shares this genius. She can be read on many levels by a vast array of readers. I had, unfortunately, only met one sort of Gaskell reader.

The greatest surprise of my reading life was when I discovered that every one of my preconceptions about Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South was wrong.

North and South is a work of the highest order.

Dickens serialised North and South in his paper Household Words following the serialisation of Hard Times. Both novels are set in England’s industrial north.

In my opinion, I think Dickens did a very brave thing, for those who read North and South immediately after finishing Hard Times, as I did, will see just how inadequate Dickens’ style was for getting at the heart of the matter. His eccentricities and his characterisations seem awkward and inappropriate in an industrial setting.

The industrial towns of England were the future. They were entirely new and had no grand tradition. The men and women of such towns were new, too. The very structure of society was in flux in such towns as it was tied to success and was being formed and reformed daily. The democratisation of England began in the north.

Dickens comes closest to grasping the nature of these towns when he describes the lives of two characters, Stephen Blackpool and Rachael. Both are working-class and both could walk out of Hard Times and straight into The Road to Wigan Pier by Orwell.

North and South, on the other hand is a thoroughly modern novel. Mrs Gaskell appreciates and captures the unique qualities brought to the world by Industrialisation. North and South humanises the, till then, inhuman world of business. She manages to offer both the Boss and the Worker a picture of the other, free from fable. (I almost forgot to mention, amidst this greater story, she also manages to write one of the most beautiful and affecting love stories ever penned!)

Hard Times is a great work, both light and dark, and, as with many of Dickens’ novels, it helped alter public prejudices – in this case, concerning the plight of the working-man.

For many and various reasons Dickens was a unique genius. He finds ‘character’ in the most unlikely places; he could find personality in a stone. Unfortunately, because he was unique, all those who tried to emulate him failed. The Dickens school of fiction was not long lived; it found its beginnings and its end in Dickens himself.

In Mrs Gaskell, however, we find a direct link with modern writing, both literary and popular, with its adherence to a realistic representation of life, its belief that honest reportage can effect social change, and with its preoccupation with the relationship between the middle classes and the working classes and the problems of democracy.

Mrs Gaskell reveals a nineteenth century many of us did not know existed, a nineteenth century we can relate to directly, a town life and suburban life we know, a life which has long been obscured by later writers – by Hardy’s Dorset, by Trollope’s London, by George Eliot’s Middlemarch, all of which seem slightly foreign and antiquated when compared with daily life as depicted in North and South.

In 1854, Mrs Gaskell did something spectacular, something which has gone unnoticed, in writing North and South she gave the world the first great novel of the 20th century.

Richard Armitage as Mr Thornton from the BBC's North and South

P.S. Do not rely on the BBC production; you will cheat yourself out of enjoying one of literature’s gems. Get hold of North and South as quick as you can. You will not regret anything but the time you have to spend away from its pages.

Read Penguin’s synopsis of North and South:

When her father leaves the Church, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the North of England.

Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of local mill workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice.

In North and South Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

7 Responses

  1. Hi, I found your blog for a casuality and and I could not resist comment. Even though I never read Hard Times, I really loved North and South. I had to study it for a course of English Literature (I’m Italian) and, like you, I started with preconcepts. It was expected to be a boring sentimental novel, full of love and marriage and I discovered, in some way, also a poiltical novel .As a language student I liked particularly the way in which she paints the two different worlds (north and south) by dialects.
    Another book that really surprised me was Wuthering Heights: never seen so much evilness!

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  2. I’ve just started the book on my Kindle. I loved the BBC version when I saw it a few years back and have meant to read it since then. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the BBC version. Here in America the novel isn’t part of any recommended reading list I know of since Austen is usually the go-to. Even as a lit major she was never mentioned to me. So as far as awareness goes the series is a great tool here. Lots of people have been drawn to the book because of watching N&S on PBS. For me it is like getting the director’s cut of the film.

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    • Thank you for your comment.
      As long as BBC dramas alert people to wonderful books one can say nothing ill about them. They ought to be lauded!
      My only fear is that when the BBC does a good job a great number of viewers will feel as though they know the story and have no reason to read the book.
      But you are right, if someone hasn’t heard of a wonderful book they can’t know to read it. The BBC drama brought North and South to you and for that I am very pleased.
      Thanks for reading the post.

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  3. How interesting! I’m just working on North and South with my last year students these days. I introduced Gaskell to them and they were suspicious because they thought “something like Austen” was expecting them. We read some pages from chapt. XXII (the riot) and they were still uncertain… but when I started comparing the pages of the book with the TV adaptation… they got enthusiastic ! I’m telling them about the plot, characters and themes in the novel and showing fragments of the BBC version (also pointing out the differences with the novel) They can’t wait for my next lesson. Girls want to know whether Margaret comes to love and marry Thornton and boys said …”This is less boring than Austen!” ( I love Austen and also many of my female students!) Great success. It is not easy to teach teenagers about literature , especially in a foreign language ( we are Italian!)

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    • Thank you for your comments.
      It’s great to hear your students are getting into North and South it really has so much to teach all of us (besides being a wonderfully engaging read!).
      I stayed in Italy when I was eighteen and my Italian host was a student of English literature – he encouraged me to read more nineteenth century literature. So my love of English literature was due to an Italian and began in Italy!
      Thank you for taking the time to write.

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  4. This is a post that will actually make me buy a copy of this book! I like that! Thanks for the review.

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    • Thank you for your comment! It’s a great book. Maybe you could set it for your book club… or start one!
      Thanks again for taking the time.
      Did you know you can follow us on Twitter?

      http://twitter.com/booktopia

      Bye for now.

      Like

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