Friday, May 20, 2016
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
North and South was written about the industrial revolution, but it is not a black and white treatise on the evils of the industrial age. Gaskell does a marvelous job of showing the attitudes and beliefs of both the factory owner and the factory worker.
Margaret Hale's father steps down from his role as vicar of Helstone (in southern England) and moves his family to the manufacturing town of Milton (in the north), resulting in an immediate clash of cultures. The refined Margaret is disdainful toward "factory people" and dislikes the noise and clatter and busyness of the town. Her father, on the other hand, revels in the activity. After a quiet life in a country parsonage for more than twenty years, there was something dazzling to Mr. Hale in the energy which conquered immense difficulties with ease; the power of the machinery of Milton, the power of the men of Milton, impressed him with a sense of grandeur. (p. 54)
As Margaret befriends some of the families in the village, she becomes more sympathetic and understanding toward them. Though she learns to admire and respect Mr. Thornton, the owner of Marlborough Mills, she believes she is too far above him for any romantic relationship to be possible. Gaskell writes beautifully of how these two head-strong adults change their perceptions of one another.
In addition to the fine writing, the book has some of the classic themes found in Jane Austen's novels (the prejudice of Darcy in P&P, the faithful/hopeless love of Anne in Persuasion, the selfless love of Colonel Brandon from S&S, and the character development of the heroine in Emma).
It's a very literary read since each chapter opens with a few lines of famous poetry and Gaskell sprinkles famous poetry and prose throughout. (My Penguin e-version had helpful footnotes explaining their origin.)
I chortled through the repartee between Margaret and her godfather as they walked in the woods together. She asks if he is tired. . . .
He replies: You would think it romantic to be walking with a person 'fat and scant o' breath' if I were Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Have compassion on my infirmities for his sake.
She: I will walk slower for your own sake. I like you twenty times better than Hamlet.
He: I am content to take your liking me, without examining too curiously your motives. Only we need not walk at a snail's pace.
She: Very well. Walk at your own pace, and I will follow. Or stop still and meditate, like the Hamlet you compare yourself to, if I go too fast.
He: Thank you. But as my mother has not murdered my father, and afterwards married my uncle, I should not know what to think about, unless it were the chances of having a well-cooked dinner or not. (p. 314)
Maybe it's only delightful in context, but it's just one example of why the book is far superior to the BBC movie, which was unable to show the subtleties of each personality.
If you love sparkling language, well-developed characters, subtle wit, and faith dialogue that isn't completely ridiculous, you'll enjoy this title.