Dickens plus Austen = Gaskell?

elizabeth-gaskellI had never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s work before.  After reading her 1855 novel North and South, I have decided that this 19th century English writer is a cross between Jane Austen (especially Pride and Prejudice) and Charles Dickens (especially Hard Times) because of her combination of social critique, romance, and light satire.

Like Dickens, Gaskell is concerned in her novel with portraying the harsh effects of the industrial revolution on so many people.   Margaret Hale, a young woman in her late teens, is the daughter of a clergyman.  She is not as beautiful as her cousin Edith but people admire her because of her dignity and intelligence.    She grew up in the South of England partly in the  beautiful village of Helstone and partly in London.  At the beginning of the novel, Margaret discovers that she has to leave her beloved Helstone parsonage and move north to Milton, an industrial city (based on Manchester).  Her father is moving the family because he has some dissenting views from the Church of England and no longer feels he can remain a clergyman in good conscience.  (If Gaskell explained what these dissenting views were, I missed it.  Why keep them a secret?)

Margaret and her mother nearly have a nervous breakdown because of the move.  One would think nothing worse had ever befallen a soul than having to move homes to a new town. Margaret finds Milton lamentable at first.  A large, bustling, dirty industrial town with bad air, it has none of the charms of her beloved Helstone or the sophistication of London.  It also lacks the “right” type of people—gentlemen and their families.  Instead, it is full of industrialists and people who are in trade.  Margaret looks down her nose at all such people.

She begins to soften her stance towards Milton when she makes some new friends—some people who work in the mills.  However, by getting to know the “hands,” as they are called, she learns how deplorable the conditions are for them.  She learns that one young woman is dying at age 18 because of breathing in so much cotton.  She also learns how hard it is for the “hands” to make ends meet with the money they make and she sympathizes with them when they go on strike.  It is Gaskell’s sympathetic portrayal of the “hands” and her critical view of industrialism that reminds me most of Dickens.  (Apparently, Dickens was her editor, so this resemblance is perhaps not surprising.)

North and South reminds me more of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when it comes to her characters and her wit.  Margaret meets mill owner (and self-made man) John Thornton when she first comes to Milton.  He is attracted to her, but she looks down on him for not being a gentleman. (She has both the pride AND the prejudice.) Later, she disapproves of him because of the way he treats his workers.  The two characters remain sparring partners for most of the novel.  Gradually, though, we see both of them changing and growing (for the better) into more mature and complex selves.   Creating strong central characters who change in a realistic way throughout the narrative is one of Gaskell’s strengths.  I also enjoyed the way she gently but realistically created characters with glaring weaknesses: her mother is self-pitying, her father is weak, and Mrs. Thornton is, frankly, a witch.   The novel is not a comedy, but some of the scenes with these flawed characters interacting together were quite amusing.

Although I admired Gaskell’s critique of industrialism and her creation of characters, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped I would.  This was partly, I think, because of her long-winded writing style.  She could have cut out a couple of hundred pages with no harm to the story.  I also wondered why certain aspects of the novel were included.  Why the story of the brother in exile?  Why the proposal from Mr. Lennox?  The worst part, though, was the last half or so of the novel, in which people were dropping dead like flies.  I found that such melodrama ruined the impact of the story.

I neither loved nor hated the novel.  I thought it was OK.  I know that a lot of people love it, though, so if it sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to go for it.


This is my post for “19th century classic” in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

15 thoughts on “Dickens plus Austen = Gaskell?”

  1. this sounds like a book I would like to “skim” – 🙂 which is my favorite way to tackle most books – and then I go back for a full read if it is something that calls to me.

    your review here was nice and I feel like some reviews let us know more about the reviewer – which is the case here.

    oh and I wonder if the author intentionally left out the details about the “dissenting views w/the Church of England ” because sometimes people spend too much time dissecting the details – or even form arguments – and so just noting the split allows us to focus on the move. Do you know what I mean?

  2. I discovered Gaskell only through watching the BBC North and South miniseries. The story was so interesting, not just for the romance, but for the social commentary and the struggles between the workers and the mill owners. And Richard Armitage as Thornton was great, as was Sinead Cusack as his mother. I read the book and enjoyed it, but the BBC miniseries was better, I thought. The BBC production of Wives and Daughters is really good too and I particularly enjoyed the work of the female lead. I wasn’t as fond of Cranford, as I prefer a more flowing story.

  3. Hi, I’ve read Cranford at University, but no more of Gaskell, and I heard the North and South is her best work, so thanks for this review. The DIckens and Austen hybrid is what I would have expected, based on my memories of Cranford. These nineteenth century authors are worth a read. She also wrote a biography of her friend, Charlotte Bronte, so between that, and Charles Dickens being her editor, it sounds like they all kept their eyes on each other.

  4. You had me at Dickens + Austen…I thought I must get to Gaskell soon. Then your review cooled those feelings just a bit, but I do appreciate an honest critique.

  5. I did love this book but I think Wives & Daughters is the best one. There are also miniseries adaptations of both books that are wonderful — Richard Armitage is great as John Thornton, and lots of actors from other great British dramas like Brendan Coyle from Downton Abbey (though I’m not crazy about the woman they cast as Margaret). The Wives & Daughters adaptation is even better.

    1. I’ve heard about the miniseries and plan to watch both of them! Some day, when I am in the right mood, I will probably read Wives and Daughters.

  6. Interesting review – I’d never thought of her that way but I do see what you mean about the Dickens/Austen cross. I’ve read very little of her stuff – it’s the longwindedness that puts me off. Somehow Dickens manages to fill hundreds of pages entertainingly but I find with Gaskell that I’m often wishing she’d just get on with it. However, I do like the way she writes – perhaps I’ll try this one and see if I can get on better with her…

    1. I know what you mean about Dickens being more entertaining in his long-windedness! Some people talk/write too much, but are entertaining. Others are just insufferable.

  7. I discovered Elizabeth Gaskell through the BBC series Cranford. Then I wanted to know more about her and purchased the BBC production of North and South and I did read some of her original books.

    1. I saw Cranford, too, or at least parts of it. I’m looking forward to watching the BBC production of North and South. What did you think of her books?

      1. I liked the books but I think I expected them to follow the Cranford films more. I thought her voice really came through very clear almost contemporary. I think she was popular in her time. I watched some of the videos about how the Cranford film series was made and the producer said that they combined (3?) of Gaskells books into the Cranford story.

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