Bookish thoughts on ‘North and South’

So. North and South.

Elizabeth Gaskell, you sly little minx. You’ve managed to completely evade my radar for years — and that includes a pretty substantial English education with a focus on British lit. Until Andi and Heather began talk of a readalong to tackle one of your more famous works, I was operating under the (incorrect) assumption that North and South was a U.S. Civil War-esque melodrama perhaps pitting brother against brother, father against son.

I guess that’s just my American-centric mindset.

Despite being a professed anglophile and lover of history, I can’t say I knew much — if anything — about England’s Industrial Revolution. I can feel you all readying tomatoes to chuck at me now, but I’m being honest — the only thing was a complete mystery to me. I feel like my best introduction to the whole “pastoral to industrial” transition in Great Britain came from watching the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

And that’s what I kept thinking about while reading. How one peaceful, idyllic place — the English countryside — could be home to 19-year-old Margaret Hale for years, and how she would love and appreciate the quaint nature of her home. How different northern Milton would seem — Milton with its filthy air and unwashed workers, fat-cat mill owners and starving children. It would be like something out of a nightmare.

Good thing John Thornton was there.

The premise of Gaskell’s classic, penned in 1855, is this: Margaret, the fairly well-to-do daughter of a minister, is forced to move with her parents from tranquil Helstone to Milton, where Margaret’s father gains employment as a tutor. It’s Mr. Hale’s crisis of faith that removes their trio from the peaceful south to the smoke-clogged north, and a series of troubles begins to stymie her family.

Margaret doesn’t have much to do in Milton. She wanders around as her father takes on pupils and her mother’s health begins to fail, meeting with local workers and learning of their plights in Milton’s mills. She befriends an ill girl, tends to the sick and notices all the children “clemming” — starving to death, that is. People clem a lot in North and South. So much so that I had to Google the monkey out of that word, trying to figure out what the heck was happening to these poor townsfolk.

Mr. Thornton is an enigma to Margaret. As Marlborough Mills’ successful owner and self-made man, he’s part of the nouveau rich that rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution. Having earned his wealth through determination and ingenuity, he has the respect of many in Milton — but Margaret herself is unmoved. (She thinks, anyway.) As she befriends locals and a worker’s strike looms, Margaret finds herself on both sides of the issue . . . and unsure which way to turn.

It’s been so long — too long — since I dove into a good classic. Knowing next to nothing about North and South worked in my favor during the weeks I spent with this book, and I enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the language and piecing together a portrait of Gaskell’s brooding characters. The mystery surrounding Margaret’s long-lost brother, Frederick, and a supposed mutiny in which he was a key player added a great deal of suspense to the plot. As the threads began to unravel, I was completely sucked in.

Though tragedy after tragedy cast a melancholy pall over the work, it was hard to deny the attraction between Thornton and Margaret. Their tête-à-têtes regarding business and philosophy were interesting, if not sparkling with the wit and humor of other British writers like Jane Austen. So many knowledgeable people have weighed in on the Gaskell vs. Austen debate, comparing and contrasting the authors, and I won’t pretend to have anything intelligent to add to the conversation . . . especially after reading just one of Gaskell’s works. Suffice it to say that I definitely did and could see similarities between the authors, though I have to hand Austen the blue ribbon for creating a more likable, frustrating and beguiling pair in Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

That’s not to say I didn’t like Margaret and Thornton — because I totally did. When Thornton professes a few things and Margaret has a few things to say back (sorry for being vague . . . just trying to avoid spoilers!), I wanted to pinch her haughty little face. Margaret is strong and capable, intelligent and keen, but she’s utterly blind to matters of the heart. That made her especially annoying as Thornton is basically awesome and all but throwing himself at her, albeit in a very Victorian way, and Margaret is too busy screwing things up with her brother and endlessly worrying to notice.

But oh, the push and pull! The tension! The will-they-or-won’t-they! It got me in the end, friends. It always does. Though I agree with others (including Trish) that the ending feels a bit abrupt, especially in light of all we had to endure to get there, I kind of liked the simplicity of it. The inevitable quality of giving in to one’s emotions. The sense of relief when we lay down our swords and just . . . let it be. And the humorous bit at the end? The sparring? I loved it.

North and South was interesting, educational, emotional and atmospheric. Though it took me a little while to get used to the language and invested in the story, I did — and really enjoyed chatting with other readers throughout the readalong. I doubt I would have gotten around to this book without Heather and Andi’s encouragement, so three cheers for book blogging!

And um, yes — I’ve already purchased the BBC mini-series “North and South” on DVD for my viewing pleasure. I’ve seen enough “RICHARD ARMITAGE OMG! ASDFG@ERY72!!!!” sentiments to convince me that 2004 rendition is a must-watch, so everyone look out. . . I’ll likely have a new literary crush in no time!


28 thoughts on “Bookish thoughts on ‘North and South’

  1. This is a great blog, Meg. Thank you. Have you read any Charles Dickens? Full of social comment about the way we Brits treated children and the poor in the 19th century. Not really much change today!

  2. I sooooooooooooooo need to read this — your review has me excited again. Also, I sputtered coffee everywhere at “I feel like my best introduction to the whole “pastoral to industrial” transition in Great Britain came from watching the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.” You’re my favorite for saying that!!!

  3. I haven’t read the book yet but I’ve watched the mini-series dozens of times and I NEVER get tired of it. I hope you enjoy it! Richard Armitage brings on the swoon as Mr. Thornton. Sigh. ❤

  4. Yes yes yes–I DID like the sparring at the end. It was very cheeky and seemed very fitting. But can’t we have at least a big smooch? I guess I just need to let my imagination fill in the holes. 😉

    Like you I didn’t know very much about this book going into it and it was only recently that I realized it was set in England and not in America. To be fair there is a series called North and South about the Civil War. I look forward to reading more Victorian novels about industrialization (other than Dickens)

    • Agreed — the “delicious silence” wasn’t enough to satisfy my romance-loving heart, Trish! Good thing the mini-series filled in the blanks for us. 🙂 And I’m also looking forward to reading more Victorian literature in the future!

  5. You’ve piqued my interest in this novel. I was an English major and have never read it either. I love Austen and it seems similar, so I will have to check it out. Plus, I’ve heard so much about the BBC mini-series–I’d like to see that as well….of course after I read the book! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Meg!

    • Definitely recommend both the book and the mini-series, Christina! I watched the latter last week and was hooked. It was excellent!

  6. Elizabeth Gaskell also wrote Wives and Daughters which was made into a great miniseries by the BBC. I think it’s worth a read.

    • Thanks, Karen — I will definitely look for it! I could see myself getting cozy with another Gaskell this winter. And then I’ll have another mini-series to look forward to watching.

  7. Ahhh! It’s on my Netflix queue. I’m going to check it out now.

    P.S. What did you think about Downton Abbey? I remember you were going to give it a shot. I hope you liked it!

    • Puneet, I LOVE LOVE LOVE “Downton” . . . gah. Can’t even talk about it. I’m on episode four of the second season right now and am obsessed. I’ve even got my boyfriend watching it. (Sshh, don’t tell.) I’m slowly watching the remaining episodes because I’m going to freak out having to wait for the third season to start (in January, I think?).

      • I KNOW. I was so sad when I finished with the second season – suddenly, there was this gaping hole in my life, haha. I’m going to watch it again this month, from start to finish, so I know how you feel 🙂

    • North and South definitely has its grim moments, that’s for sure — prompting me to loudly ask, “Is anyone else going to die?” Because really.

  8. I’ll have to add this to my list of to-read! I love knowing that a classic works out as a good read. I’m one of those people who continuously forgets that old reads, classics, can be just as entertaining and humorous as current fiction. I get surprised each time I read a new (to me, at least) classic. I guess I should learn by now! 🙂

    • It’s so much “easier” for me to grab contemporary fiction, Rebecca — lighter, easier, sometimes more accessible. But I feel so accomplished after finishing a classic — like I’ve just tackled the world’s problems! I want to incorporate more classic literature into my reading diet now . . . they can definitely be entertaining, worthwhile reads!

  9. Margaret was so much more frustrating than Elizabeth Bennet. She did seem like she was just too naive when it came to men, maybe? I don’t know. I’m glad she finally figured things out in the end.

    I’m excited for the miniseries too!

    • I agree, Kristi — Margaret did seem more naive and stubborn than Elizabeth. And sheltered. Probably something to do with being the only daughter — and essentially her father’s confidante? Elizabeth seems to have much more free will, and isn’t as “innocent” — even though neither have much experience with men. Hmm.

  10. Gaskell’s such a great writer – so pleased you found her. She is compulsive reading…are you going to be tackling more of her work?

    • Definitely! I was really impressed with Gaskell and enjoyed her excellent storytelling. I think I’ll be adding Wives and Daughters to my queue next.

  11. I kept trying to get my iPad to turn the page at the end. I couldn’t believe there weren’t at least a few more pages left! Gaskell got all snarky…I was ready for more!

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