Sunday, 12 August 2012
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is a classic English novel about class, love, and work. It was written in 1855, with an eye to the change in life up north with the industrial revolution - specifically, the cotton mills in Milton, in the north. I have seen the BBC production and love it - Richard Armitage as John Thornton, mill owner, and Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, southern daughter of a minister who leaves the church after a collapse of faith. They move up north where he takes up a post teaching the classics as a private tutor, going to Milton because Mr Hale has a friend from his Oxford education days who owns property up there, and offers to help get him settled. Mr Thornton owns his mill, but leases the property from Mr Bell, Mr Hale's friend.
What's fun is that Margaret and John dislike each other on meeting. She thinks he is a boor, and rough, and a tradesman, and he thinks she is proud, and haughty, and knows nothing. If you think Pride and Prejudice, you are right, as Gaskell wrote this with that novel in mind. She has changed the setting, and added a great deal about English mill-towns and working-class life that make this novel so interesting to read now, but the real story is always Margaret and John, and how they learn to really see one another beyond their initial prejudices and beliefs.
I could hardly put this book down, which enormously thrilled me. I was hoping for a deeper understanding of John and Margaret, as the tv show shows their change of feelings, but not enough to satisfy me as to their thoughts. North and South thrilled me with showing me the workings of John's mind. He is a great character, stern, intelligent, and self-made - the modern English man, shaped by the freeing of the Industrial Revolution, wanting their freedom from the political decisions from London. Fiercely independent as well, he also has a conscience, and as he discovers, an ability to love deeply, hopelessly, kind of like Anne Eliot in Persuasion. Even though the novel is mostly from Margaret's perspective, John is a stand-out figure, marching across the page, intensely alive and stealing every scene, just as he does in the tv show.
I have spent the day pondering why I like his character so much, and why I have difficulty warming up to Margaret. At first I thought it was how she was portrayed in the series, but as I read the novel, I realized that the character of Margaret is difficult to write. She is one of those good heroines who take in the suffering of others and often exist in relation to others. The most interesting part of her, the revelation that she loves John, is withheld from us, in the novel - we have to read between the lines, and I dislike this. If we get to feel her shame at the lie she tells to protect her brother, and the despair that John knows about the lie, which leads her to realize she can only care so much about his good opinion because she cares about him, it would have been good to have that clear statement of her feelings for him in the novel. We certainly get John's! There is no doubt that she does love him, it's just that the final chapter has a rushed feeling, when so long of the novel is the set-up and building to her realizing that she has changed - she comes to love Milton, and the man who lives there.
That aside, and that's just me, I wanted to share in Margaret's understanding of her own heart, and the joy that she loves, as well as the sorrow because she thinks he no longer does - to have that emotional depth shown from her too, clearly. This is a small quibble though, because this is a wonderful lively novel about life in mid-century England. I was fascinated to read about the poverty, the change of circumstance the Hales find themselves in when they leave their comfortable Rectory for the cold life of the north. The characters are all exquisitely drawn, the Hales, the Thorntons, and the Higgins, the three families that chiefly star in the different levels of society in mid-century Victorian England. In the midst of this, we see the dark skies above the mill towns, the heavy dark fog, the bad air caused by the machines, and the difficulties faced between those men who have achieved ownership of their mills, and those who work underneath them. Gaskell was well aware of the working-class in England as her husband's work as a minister took him among the lower classes of Manchester, one of the great manufacturing towns of England. She could see the changes for the women who could work, the struggles of families to earn enough to live on, and the working class fear that the rich were getting rich and not paying the workers their fair share. So in North and South, there is a strike by the workers, that draw Margaret and Mr Hale to learn about the working class needs, versus the views spoused by John Thornton. It's interesting to read now, especially as strikes still happen, with much the same causes and beliefs as back then. Not much has changed.
One of the things that is interesting about Margaret is that she does not really have any wants or desires of her own. She doesn't have any intellectual leanings, doesn't study on her own, doesn't want to be a teacher or do anything. She doesn't even want to get married, particularly, and ignores most men . There is no primping, no fashion talk except through her cousin Edith, who is rich, bubbly, empty-headed, and beautiful, everything Margaret is not. There is no jealousy, no wanting, nothing. They love each other and are close, but Margaret doesn't want anything for herself. She believes in fairness, and justice, but doesn't know what they mean until she goes to Milton and finds out that she has courage and cowardice in equal measure. So despite her not wanting to do anything but be a support to her parents, she is an interesting character as she discovers who she is as a person. This has to be one of the first novels that didn't have a female character constantly wondering if she would marry, worried about her prospects - which I think might have made a powerful novel if Gaskell had made her penniless and family-less when her parents die, instead of having her rich aunt whisk her away to London again, and then conveniently she is left money to become an heiress. I think if Margaret had been forced to make her way in the world, that would have been an illuminating novel, but Gaskell had already gone there with Mary Barton, so she backed down a little with this novel. Margaret Hale is a good woman, a good character, virtuous and kind and intelligent, strong and considerate.
I am so happy I finally read this novel. As always, the book is better than the tv series, at least for me. We get to see the inner thoughts of the characters, their motivations, and know everything in greater detail. The tv series is true to the book, and the characters, and the differences are minor tweaks, except the ending, which is better in the book, I think. She would never kiss him in public as they do in the tv series at the ending! Even though it is very romantic and I love it, on tv, I prefer how they come together in the book - very similar, but privately. Much more in tune with their characters. All in all, an excellent novel.