I 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