Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Again. A Review.

Hello, Book World! I know it’s been quiet here. For some reason I’ve found myself struggling to articulate what it was about North and South that I loved and enjoyed so much. Unfortunately, I know that I won’t be able to talk about any other book that I’ve read in the past few weeks (Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, Tanya Erzen’s Fanpire and Maria V. Snyder’s Scent of Magic) till I lay to rest my thoughts on North and South! So here goes nothing.

North and South was not a title that Mrs. Gaskell chose herself (apparently Dickens did); yet, the title is prescient, foreshadowing the story about to unfold within its pages.

Mrs. Gaskell transports the reader to England of the 1850s juxtaposing the aristocracy with tradesmen; masters with men; bucolic, laid-back South with bustling, audacious North. It’s impossible not to have a visceral sense of a country and of a people struggling to assimilate the seemingly disparate forces that they found themselves in the midst of.

North and South begins with Margaret Hale in London, preparing to leave her home of 10 years to go back to the picturesque village of her childhood, Helstone. Alas, she is soon to be wrenched from Helstone too and transplanted to Milton located in north of England.

The set-up allows Mrs. Gaskell to have the flux in Margaret’s personal life mirror the larger transformations going on in the English society at that time as farming and agriculture struggled in the face of growing industrialism.

Born and brought up with Southern sensibilities, Margaret is aghast at the grimness of both air and men, and the suffering and poverty that she encounters in Milton. At the same time Mrs. Gaskell lays bare all the biases and prejudices of Margaret’s upbringing and milieu and this in turn stops Margaret from becoming an insufferable luddite. Instead she takes on the role of an observer whose newness to the industrial ecosphere makes her question the status quo, especially the state of “hands” aka the labourers in the industrial towns that were mushrooming all over northern England.

If Margaret is the torchbearer of the South then John Thornton certainly epitomizes the North: a self-made man who by dint of hard-work and self-discipline rose to become a wealthy and an important manufacturer. Mrs. Gaskell sets them up as a perfect foil to each other.

They start out at the opposite ends of the spectrum and reflect the sentiments of the time with Thornton perhaps espousing the views of the prevailing industrial class and Margaret perhaps voicing what Mrs. Gaskell herself must have thought and felt after having lived for so many years in Manchester, the industrial town on which Milton is modeled.

Thornton feels that those who are “unsuccessful in raising themselves in the world” are “their own enemies.” Commenting on his own success he says:

“I feel that in my own case it is no good luck, nor merit, nor talent,—but simply the habits of life which taught me to despise the indulgences not thoroughly earned,—indeed which Miss Hale says is impressed on the countenances of the people of Milton, is but the natural punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure, at some former period of their lives. I do not look on self-indulgent, sensual people as worthy of my hatred; I simply look upon them with contempt for their poorness of character.”

Poorness of character? Oh dear. That sounds like a 19th century version of a 21st century answer that’s trotted out whenever questions are raised as to why certain groups of people are not as successful as others. Or for that matter why one gender (read women) still does not have it all together in the 21st century, a century of “girl power” where women can be, do, and have anything they want; where it is most certainly the girl’s responsibility if she doesn’t succeed in a world that has as its basis egalitarianism and equality.

The problem with that answer (in both the centuries) is the thorough disregard it has for any and all structural issues that come into play, instead putting the onus of success or failure squarely on the shoulders of the person in question. Or as Ben Bernanke recently (and surprisingly) put it:

The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

In another plot twist Thornton refuses to tell his workers the reason for wage cuts, an action that leads the workers to strike. On being asked why he would not share the reason with the men, he replies, “We, the owners of capital, have a right to choose what we will do with it.” He also feels that he should not interfere with the independence of his hands, that “[B]ecause they labour ten hours a-day for us, I do not see that we have any right to impose leading-strings upon them for the rest of their time.” In other words, he sees no intersection between the two classes beyond the “cash nexus” to use Mrs. Gaskell’s terminology.

Margaret’s response to Thornton’s stand continues to be relevant in the 21st century:

“I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own.”

The interconnectedness and interdependence of human beings as a species no matter the class or creed is as true today as it was 150 years ago.

Through the course of the novel Mrs. Gaskell places her two protaginists in situations that leads them to revise their initial opinions.

Perversely (and like that other great heroine, Miss Eliza Bennet) Margaret’s refusal of Thornton’s marriage offer forces her to stop pigeon-holing him into the “Big Bad Milton Manufacturer” box and view him with a degree of compassion, a feeling that is accentuated when she [POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT – Highlight to reveal] becomes indebted to him for “saving” her when she lies to a police officer about a murder scene.

Thornton’s turnabout comes as he begins spending time with Higgins, the character that Gaskell uses to represent the working class in the novel. Thornton’s integrity forces him to acknowledge Higgins’s and he soon comes to respect Higgins’s opinions. The final nail in the coffin is [POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT – Highlight to reveal] Thornton’s utter financial ruin where he goes from being a master to a person who has to work under someone else, just like one of his hands.

These situations serve to soften the contours of Thornton’s and Margaret’s initial self-assuredness. The convergence of the two view-points is complete in one of the last scenes of the book.

Before his ruin Thornton had built a canteen for his hands at the factory. Referring to this ‘experiment’ he says:

“I felt that I was on the right path, and that, starting from a kind of friendship with one [referring to his deepening acquaintance with Higgins], I was becoming acquainted with many. The advantages were mutual: we were both unconsciously and consciously teaching each other.”

That dialogue above? Oh my goddess! My husband and I have had many a conversations on the dangers of the impersonal. It’s easy to hate, and to be afraid of the nameless and the faceless. It’s easy to relegate an anonymous mass to the dustbin. Put a face, put a story to that which had been impersonal and things suddenly take on a more nuanced view.

Thornton goes on to say:

“I have arrived at the conviction that no mere institutions, however wise, and however much thought may have been required to organize and arrange them, can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact. Such intercourse is the very breath of life. . . . I would take an idea, the working out of which would necessitate personal intercourse; it might not go well at first, but at every hitch interest would be felt by an increasing number of men, and at last its success in working come to be desired by all . . . even then I am sure that it would lose its vitality, cease to be living, as soon as it was no longer carried on by that sort of common interest which invariably makes people find means of seeing each other, and becoming acquainted with each others’ characters and persons, and even tricks of temper and modes of speech. We should understand each other better, and I’ll venture to say we should like each other more.”

“And you think they may prevent the recurrences of strikes?”

“Not at all. My utmost expectation only goes so far as this—that they may render stikes not the bitter, venomous sources of hatred they have hitertho been.”

Ahhhh. Dear Mrs. Gaskell. Could you by any chance have oracular powers and look into the future? Striving to understand each other is perhaps the very step that we as a species need to take.

And oh my god, did I just write 1500 words on North and South?! Well, in my defense some of it were also those passages that I just HAD to quote.

In conclusion, I LUUUUUURRRVVVVEEEDDD North and South. I guess idea-books are just my thing?!

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Again. A Review.

  1. I think you have honed in on one of the central themes of Gaskell’s work. She’s challenging her Victorian readers to see past all the superimposed labels we put on each other to discern the individual. I always thought that despite the completely different worlds they came from, Margaret and Thornton were very much alike: strong, intelligent, selfless, determined, etc. I think Thornton sensed all her finer qualities very early on, but it took much longer for poor Margaret to really take a look at the man behind the master of the mill. Thornton was forced to recognize Higgins’ individual character.
    It’s true, when you stop to actually look at individuals, and not blindly categorize people into groups, the ‘differences’ between us begin to fade. We’re all human, after all.
    I love this book both for the hopeful social messages and the personal love story.

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  2. Hi there. What you say about the essential sameness of Margaret and John strikes me as true. That’s why they probably had such a strong reaction to each other at the very beginning itself.

    And yes, exactly–the hopeful message and the love story is exactly why I loved the book too though I didn’t dwell a lot on the latter here.

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  3. Oh, this is my favorite love story – ever! I read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre AFTER reading N&S and was unmoved in my opinion. I love the way Gaskell lets you get into Thornton’s mind. The angst is exquisite. 🙂

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  4. For me, it’s a toss up between Gaskell and Austen — but I have to point out that N&S omits the humor you find in books like Cranford. I hope you find Gaskell’s other works equally enthralling.

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  5. Wives and Daughters is wonderful. The setting and pace is much more like Austen. There’s humor and strong drama, and of course Gaskell’s social themes and well-drawn personalities. Some love Cranford, but at the time I tried it,I wasn’t impelled to finish it.

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