A Blog A Day: North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Happy Monday one and all! I thought today I would do a bit of a ramble about a book I absolutely adore – North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

I came to North & South through the 2004 TV adaptation of the book starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe but had not heard of the book before. Having fallen a little bit in love with John Thornton (and based on this adaptation, who wouldn’t?) I went looking for the book too.

Hand on heart, I do often struggle with classics and, while this book might appear to render itself inaccessible due to some of the themes in it, it really is so good!

Central character Margaret Hale is the daughter of a clergyman from the idyllic village of Helstone in the South. A matter of conscience leads the family to relocate to the bustling industrial North, to Milton, a thinly-veiled version of Gaskell’s home city of Manchester. Margaret struggles to find her way among people who have a completely different way of living than the people she is used to, and this is summed up as she offers to ‘bring a basket’ to the home of new acquaintance Bessy Higgins, to be told that Milton people value their independence.

This in itself is an interesting comment on the time (North & South was published in 1854) and perfectly sums up the privilege of the upper classes – Margaret takes it as a given that her efforts at giving charity will be received with thanks, and that she can insinuate herself into the lives of the workers in Milton because she is bringing a care package. Her eyes are opened to the fact that, however poor they may be, the workers in Milton value self-sufficiency rather than charity.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between Margaret Hale and manufacturer John Thornton. In a similar way to Lizzy and Darcy’s first meeting in Pride & Prejudice, Margaret and Thornton dislike each other on first meeting, each misunderstanding the principles of the other; Margaret feels Thornton is uncaring and exploitative, while Thornton sees Margaret as being a haughty, upper class woman. As they become better acquainted with each other throughout the book Margaret appreciates Thornton’s efforts to raise himself and his family from reduced circumstances, while Thornton comes to admire her beauty and intelligence.

Through Margaret’s eyes, too, we see the effects of a strike among the workers of Milton. For a book of its time, showing the realities of worker pitted against master is hugely progressive, especially when looking at the newly-industrial towns of the north. Dickens wrote at length about the effects of poverty in the Victorian era, but Gaskell used the character of John Boucher to great effect to show the real, human cost of industrial action at that time.

This and many other themes of power, control, the church and changing times are touched upon in North & South, but it is not a book that preaches to you. It is telling that both main characters become so open-minded as the book goes on – neither is scared to admit that their initial assessments might have been wrong, and both are willing to grow and learn. Perhaps we could learn a few lessons from them at present??

In summary, I would urge you to try North & South, even if you do not have an especially good relationship with classics. There is a lot that Gaskell’s writing can teach us today, but at the heart of it all is truly gorgeous love story which will appeal to any hopeless romantic…

My current version of North & South is this lovely one from Vintage books, but I am desperately waiting for Penguin to issue it as a Clothbound Classic – from my mouth to their ears eh??

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