North and South by Elizabeth Gaskill, is not a book that springs to mind for reviewing, being neither new, or as often reproduced in film as many other 19th C British novels. I can’t even say that it’s one of my favourite books from that period, still it has a very many things that make it worth reviewing.
Gaskell takes us on a journey through the social changes brought on by industrialisation, and how the agricultural South became ever more a different world from the busy industrial capitalism of the North. She explores (somewhat painfully at times) the issue of strikes and Unions, as well as the harsh reality of health impacts and poverty associated with factory work.
Religion, and the changes occurring in English churches at the time are also examined, and in fact form the main catalyst for the change in Margaret Hale – the heroine’s – life.
If you like history, and particularly have an interest in the world that spawned the thinking of Marx and Engels, then this is a book worth reading simply for the historical context. Nicholas Higgins and his family form a remarkable sub-plot which touches all the themes mentioned above while providing challenge and friendship to Margaret.
Margaret is one of those wonderful heroines who is good, a little proud, but a rock of sense in a maelstrom of dislocation and loss. She feels deeply, and is the human lens through which the many social issues are given both consideration and response.
One of the things I like about North and South is that much of the romance between Margaret and the mill owner Mr Thornton, is told from his side. We spend a lot of time in his point of view watching Margaret and understanding his love, which only deepens as he is refused by her and then thinks she loves another.
Aside from some dizzying head-jumping, the focus on Mr Thornton’s thoughts and feelings (and his own life of struggle and success), makes the story richer.
Something else that I like is the tragedy. Seven people – four of whom are very important in Margaret’s life – die in the course of the book. This aspect of real life, changing fortunes and the sense of mortality it gives, again make this book feel more real than many of its contemporaries. It is not morbid though, nor does the death toll really strike you until you’ve done reading.
There are great characters in this book. From Dixon, the faithful and feisty servant, to Mrs Thornton, the imposing matriarch, and Higgins, the firebrand unionist, there is no one who is comical or satirical, but just solid, well-drawn and engaging.
My main criticism of North and South is that it wants to educate the reader, and this shows. Blocks of dialogue and exposition are dedicated to filling us in on the details of manufacturing and unionism. These were probably fascinating to readers at the time, and might be likewise now if you don’t know much about them, but they slow the story at times.
I don’t know many people who love this book the way they love Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights, but I think that’s because this book has a more serious purpose. Or maybe it’s the extensive use of Northern dialect which takes a bit of getting used to!
For anyone interested in the story, but not the reading, there is a reasonably faithful BBC production of it floating around. Otherwise, I recommend it as a very interesting, well written book.