“Looking back upon the year’s accumulated heap of troubles, Margaret wondered how they had been borne. If she could have anticipated them, how she would have shrunk away and hid herself from the coming time! And yet day by day had, of itself, and by itself, been very endurable–small, keen, bright little spots of positive enjoyment having come sparkling into the very middle of sorrows.”
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Published in 1858 by Chapman & Hall
Format: paperback; 424 pages
Also From This Author: Cranford, Wives and Daughters
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My Rating: 5/5
When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man, John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fuses individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale creates one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.
So, I adored this novel. It was such a wonderful surprise, because I had read the first third of it for a Victorian Lit & Technology seminar I took in college, but for various reasons I never finished it (the curse of assigned reading). This year, I decided to read it as part of my Classics Club and Back to the Classics lists, and now I keep thinking, “Why did I never read this book sooner?!”
North and South is a coming of age tale of sorts that follows Margaret Hale and her family as they move from their beloved country home of Helstone in the south of England to the industrial manufacturing city of Milton in the north. I identified with this novel in some particular ways, namely the fact that I have uprooted my life before and moved from what is known and comfortable to what is foreign and seemingly harsh. I’m sure most expats feel the same way: when you move to a new country and are unfamiliar with the language and culture, it can be very stressful and depressing for a while. But, if you try to assimilate and learn the ways of your new home, chances are you’ll absorb parts of the new culture and learn to embrace its differences from your mother culture. This is something I loved most about Margaret. She could have boxed herself up and refused to reach out to her new neighbors, but instead she intermingles with Milton inhabitants of all class ranks, and she grows to love them. And her eagerness to do so has a positive effect on her acquaintances as well.
Which brings me to Mr. John Thornton. Even though Margaret despises him from the start, I always had a soft regard for him (probably because of Gaskell’s descriptions of him, and because I already knew how this story would end from watching the miniseries). Thornton is viewed as a cruel and unkind master who has no compassion for his mill workers, which isn’t true, but this is attributed to Margaret’s misunderstanding of Thornton and Milton ways. By the end of the novel, Thornton learns as much from Margaret and his workers as Margaret learns from all of them in return. I loved that they all had faults and they all struggled to overcome them.
“I wanted to see the place where Margaret grew to what she is, even at the worst time of all, when I had no hope of ever calling her mine…”
Oh yeah, and I loved the romance :) It was one of the “bright spots” that relieved the moments of grief and suffering that take up most of this novel.
Read This Book If…:
• You love reading Victorian Lit that focuses on social injustices and “new” technology.
• You enjoyed Jane Eyre (there lies the same themes of human conscience, right vs. wrong, and compassion).
• You’re intrigued by Byronic heroes (Mr. Thornton has, in my opinion, qualities of both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester).
• You like endings that make you laugh, cry, and feel inspired <3
North and South is not your typical period romance. It deals with some serious grief and suffering; but as Margaret Hale discovers, there is always some “bright spot” to make life enjoyable. Plus, there’s a Byronic romance that will make you swoon (and it even made me cry, happily and sadly). And if romance isn’t your thing, this novel still talks about social injustices that remain relevant today. Unlike some other similar novels, North and South will make you think and feel but it won’t leave you depressed (I’m looking at you, Wuthering Heights).
Stop by later this week to see my post on the BBC miniseries of North and South!