Review: North & South

Posted 17 May, 2010 by Lianne in Books / 7 Comments

North and South
By: Elizabeth Gaskell

From her home ground, her father’s comfortably middle-class living in Hampshire and her aunt’s establishment in Harley Street, Margaret is exiled to the ugly northern industrial town of Milton. Surprisingly, her social consciousness awakens. It is intensified by a relationship with the local mill-owner, Thornton, that combines passionate attraction with fierce opposition.

I first read this book back in 2008 after watching the lovely and awesome BBC adaptation starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage (if you haven’t seen this yet, I suggest you do. Like, now, LOL) and absolutely loved it. It was a while since I’ve read it so I decided last week to re-read the novel again as part of my goals this summer to re-read a number of books on my shelves. Anyways, since I didn’t write a review the first time around, here it is =) Spoilers ahead!

Where to begin? I have to say, the first thing that struck me about reading Gaskell’s novel (I should note that this was my first Gaskell novel) was how accessible it was. Sometimes when you’re reading a novel with social commentary in it such as Dickens, the reader can get weighed down with the dialogue and you feel like the author is going off on a lecture. But with Gaskell’s novel, the presentation of the social commentary and the major social issues of the day is woven into the story in such a way that you don’t feel like you’re being lectured by the author. Elizabeth Gaskell is an amazingly gift storyteller in narrating the story in such a way that you forget sometimes that you’re reading something that written in the mid-nineteenth century. Her characters come from different social classes–John Thornton the mill owner, Nicholas Higgins the union make and worker, Mr. Hale the parson turned dissenter, etc.–and she really presents their perspectives without any bias. I’m not big on social commentary during the Industrial Revolution period but it’s a very accessible read in presenting the situation of the time.

Speaking of characters, all of the characters that populate this novel are very well-rounded with their own personality quirks and preferences. I also enjoyed how their way of speech is reflective who these characters are and where they are in society. In a town like Milton, a lot of these characters from these classes are able to interact with each other given that the industrial business is part of the overarching modernisation drive. What is also interesting is the way that people move up and down the social laddar, an aspect that reinforces how fluid the social classes are in the United Kingdom. While social classes and the industrial setting that these characters live in make up a part of the novel, these characters are still rich with emotions and the character interaction is just great. I also love the glimpses we have on what the characters are thinking, especially Thornton’s because it reveals so much about his character and how passionate and feeling a human he is underneath the business side of him.

Thornton is my favourite character in the novel because of how multi-faceted his character is; he’s a very principled man amidst the fast pace of the industrial business world and it’s impressive how he’s worked his way up after the hard times he and his family fell on early in life. I guess he’s also a curious man in a position of wealth and authority given his desire to learn the classics and talk about literature and philosophy with Mr. Hale, who was his tutor. His love and care for Margaret even after she rejected him is telling not only of how much he strongly he feels for her but also how devoted a lover he is. It was interesting to see how patient he was when conversing with Margaret even though he knew how much she disliked him (especially initially). Their interaction was interesting because she does challenge him to act beyond what a mill owner would normally act (the riots against the import of Irish hands come to mind here). He also has his faults, which also fleshes him out as a character.

Margaret Hale, the protagonist of the story, is also a very distinct and well-rounded character. She’s very strong-willed and opinionated (and isn’t afraid to show it) but at the same time she can be pretty clueless when it comes to the men around her falling in love with her. She’s compassionate and caring, as we see when she’s caring for her ailing mother and visiting Bessy Higgins. I admired how she continued to be completely compassionate and giving even though her relationship with her mother was…not as close. I don’t know how else to describe it but I found it odd that her mother leaned more on Dixon than her own daughter; sure, Dixon had been with her all her life, but Margaret’s her daughter! And I know that Federick is their only son and exiled away from England for fear of prosecution and death, but the way that her mother spoke of him made it clear that there’s a level of favouritism going on. In some ways, it felt very much as though Margaret was alone despite her interactions with everyone around her. She initially is disgusted with moving away from Helstone in the south to the industrial place of Milton, which colours her opinion of how life works in Milion and her relationship with Thornton (much to my aggravation; the man was being civil and she manages to remain a hostile front towards him for most of the novel xD). But she learns to understand the place and even take a liking to it despite of all the things that happened.

Overall, it was an enjoyable read (both the first and the second times). The pace of the novel is perfect for the story and there are just so many threads that come together and meet seemlessly. It’s also very accessible and multi-faceted. I think I like the BBC adaptation’s ending more than the book but the book’s ending was pretty cute as well. I definitely recommend this book if you’re into reading the classics; Gaskell is sorely underrated and is a definite must-read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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7 Responses to “Review: North & South”

  1. Excellent review of “North and South!” I think your comments and assessments are spot-on. I am so glad that I have finally taken the time to immerse myself in Gaskell’s books. Cheers! Chris

  2. I LOVE this book! I love the characters, the story, the rich social commentary 🙂 It’s definitely one of my favourite books!

    I think your point at how well Gaskell incorporates the social commentary into the romance is excellent. The only other Gaskell novel that I’ve read so far is Mary Barton which I would NOT recommend because with that book I really did feel like I was just being preached at the whole time. But it was Gaskell’s debut and I suppose everyone has to start off somewhere. And I love your comments on Margaret and Thornton’s characters too.

    As you’ll already know the 2004 adaptation of the book is one of my favourite adaptations full stop 🙂 Apart from the beating scene near the beginning I don’t think there’s a single thing I’d change about it. It’s that good!

    • Oh goodness, I totally agree about Mary Barton! I read a few years ago and, like you said, it really felt like you were being preached to the whole time. The story itself just dragged, I almost remember nothing from that read =S You should check out Wives and Daughters when you have a chance; sure, it’s not complete, but the story is so wonderful <3 and I think the BBC adaptation did a good job with presenting the story 🙂

      • Wives and Daughters is next on my list! I’m really looking forward to reading that one, and I’m very keen to see the BBC adaptation too. I thought Justine Waddell was really good in The Fall 🙂

        • I hope you enjoy it (both the book and the movie)! Justine Waddell was amazing in The Fall, I agree; I wonder what she’s starred in recently…

          • Hi! I thought you might be interested in a new modern-day web series adaptation of the book called East & West. In this version Margaret has moved to Canada and she’s a Richard Armitage fan! I’ve put the first episode on my blog if you feel like watching it.

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