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Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell


“North and South has both met and made kind o’ friends in this big smoky place.”

Summary: After spending several years with her aunt and cousin, nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale has just returned to her beloved Helstone, a village in rural Southern England. Her life seemingly falls to pieces when her father, the village vicar, announces that he is breaking from the Church. He relocates the family North to the smoky, dirty industrial town of Milton. While Margaret tries to adjust to her new way of life, she becomes acquainted with John Thornton, a cotton mill owner. Misunderstandings and opposing opinions mean that the two start butting heads right away. Even as Margaret grows closer to an impoverished family of mill workers, she finds there’s more to John Thornton than meets the eye.

Review:  A few months ago, I found myself watching a trailer for a 2004 BBC miniseries called North and South. It looked intriguing and had stellar reviews, but being the typical English major, I had to read the book first!

With a vision of Richard Armitage in my head as Thornton, I began to read. (For some reason, I pictured Michelle Dockery as Margaret). I’m not sure if it was just the way the book pulled me in, or the dangling carrot of getting to eventually watch the miniseries, but I could barely put the book down once I got started. My Kindle edition didn’t have page numbers, so I was rather shocked when I looked up how long the book was in print after I had finished it. Apparently I have a lot more free time than I thought if I was able to get through a 500 page novel in just over a week.

Think of this book as a much more serious version of Pride and Prejudice. (EDIT: For a more detailed comparison, check out Beverly Farr’s post). There’s not as much witty banter, but there’s deep probing of  social and economic issues, religion, and familial love, among other themes. At the heart of the novel is the conflict between the relentless march of industrialization and the idyllic lifestyle of traditional England.

As an outsider to Milton, Margaret is in a position to hear both sides of the debate about the mills. Members of a workers’ union think arranging a strike is the only way to get their arbitrary bosses to raise their wages. In contrast, Thornton argues that he’s bound by economic trends that the rabble-rousers just wouldn’t understand. A clash between the two groups is eminent.

Can such different mindsets be reconciled? In the end, Gaskell’s answer is “yes.” What saves us is our mutual humanity, and the ability to see someone as a fellow, equal human being, no matter how our lives differ.

Gaskell’s characterizations are excellent. From the two leads to the cast of supporting characters, all have multiple facets which are revealed as the novel progresses. I found Thornton’s mother, and her relationship to her son, to be especially fascinating.

Fans of Austen’s more upbeat works be warned: the novel does have a rather gloomy tone at times. There’s always hope, but I began to share in some of Margaret’s weariness by the end of the book. Without giving away too much, you definitely get a sense of the less-than-stellar life expectancy during the Victorian era. There’s really not much humor.

In short: A strong-willed heroine and a brooding male lead in a combative relationship is good formula for a gripping read. Add in an insightful view of issues in mid-19th century England, and you’ll come away from North and South feeling like you’ve gained something by reading it. Looking forward to watching the miniseries!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Something similar: For the romance aspect, Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice. For the social commentary, Charles Dickens, or possibly Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, an abridged version of which is currently sitting in my TBR pile.

Where I got the book: Free on Kindle. The formatting was rather atrocious at times, though. Some footnotes may have been nice, especially when there was dialogue by a member of the working class. His speech is written phonetically and with slang, which of course adds realism but was pretty hard to understand at some points.

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9 comments on “Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. Brian Brown
    March 22, 2012

    Thanks for this thoughtful review; I’m going to link to it on my Downton Abbey post so people who want more than my curt dealings can get it!

    • backtothebookshelf
      March 22, 2012

      Thank you! I found your Downton Abbey post really interesting – I had just started watching the series and had a nagging feeling that there was something holding me back from loving it the way so many others seem to. Your post gave me a feeling of “aha! That’s what’s bothering me!” Glad to hear I wasn’t the only one.

      • Brian Brown
        March 22, 2012

        Well if something you read inspires you to go outside what a book review allows you to write, or you write a review that you think Humane Pursuits readers might like, shoot it my way–we might publish it and get you some extra exposure! http://humanepursuits.com/contact-us/

  2. Pingback: The Trouble with Downton Abbey | Humane Pursuits

  3. backtothebookshelf
    March 22, 2012

    I’ll keep it in mind – thanks!

  4. Beverly
    March 23, 2012

    Great minds think alike. I posted a link to your blog from my blog. I love Pride and Prejudice and North and South. And of course, Richard Armitage did such a fine job, I had to read North and South.

    • backtothebookshelf
      March 23, 2012

      Thank you! Coincidentally, I had just finished North and South when I started rereading Pride and Prejudice (3rd time around – gets better every time) for my Brit Lit class. Like you stated in your most recent post (I’ll add the link above), the setups of both novels are very similar but the narratives are totally different. It goes without saying, but Austen’s wit is fantastic. It was the 2005 P&P movie that got me hooked in the first place 🙂

  5. livritome
    July 11, 2012

    Nice review! I just read this and reviewed it also. A darker version of Pride and Prejudice — never thought of it that way and I agree. I also read it on Kindle and couldn’t believe how fast it went. I’m looking forward to reading Cranford soon. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Top 10 of ’12: Best Books I’ve Read This Year « Back to the Bookshelf!

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