I am just grateful that I discovered BBC’s 2004 adaptation of “North and South.” For without it, I would not have unearthed a truly wonderful novel with the same title. I will try my best to limit referring to the series and focus on sharing my thoughts about the book.
“North and South” explores the journey of Margaret Hale and her family, as they move from the idyllic, slow and agricultural Helstone (southern part of England) to Milton, an industrial town in Northern England. The ways of the North are obviously different from the South and such has affected Margaret in her perception of the town and its people. She meets the Higgins family whom she befriends and John Thornton, a young cotton mill owner whom she dislikes. As she struggles with everyday life, she discovers that things are not always as they seem.
The novel was written by Elizabeth Gaskell between1854-1855 during the Victorian era. An era where there was an archetype for “ideal women,” that they are seen as pure and clean; their role is to have children and their place is in the home. Women have no legal rights and are expected to behave in a certain manner – be weak and helpless, fragile delicate flowers incapable of making decisions beyond selecting the menu and ensuring that their many children are taught moral values.
Why did I describe the women’s status during that era? Because, it is important to note that despite the time, the novel is not in any way Victorian, well, at least to me. Having Margaret Hale as the outspoken, strong-willed, intelligent and independent protagonist breaks the typical mold of women during that time. She has a mind of her own, is not afraid of speaking her mind and does what she thinks is right, regardless of what others might think or say. Margaret was a very headstrong heroine, as described: “…fulfilled one of her seaside resolves, and took her life in her own hands… But she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for woman, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.” (Gaskell 1855, p.521-522). This is what I liked best about this novel, the presence of a strong heroine.
For a novel in the Victorian era, I dare say that the work is brimming with passion. Mrs. Gaskell wrote eloquently and vividly. It was so rich and enriching. I can feel the power of her words.
On John after being rejected by Margaret:
He said to himself, that he hated Margaret, but a wild, sharp sensation of love cleft his dull, thunderous feeling like lightning, even as he shaped the words expressive of hatred. His greatest comfort was in hugging his torment; and in feeling, as he had indeed said to her, that though she might despise him, contemn him, treat him with her proud sovereign indifference, he did not change one whit. She could not make him change. He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain. (p. 256-257)
I particularly liked how Mrs. Gaskell described John’s disposition after leaving Margaret’s home after his rejected proposal. Oh poor, Mr. Thornton!
When Mr. Thornton had left the house that morning he was almost blinded by his baffled passion. He was as dizzy as if Margaret, instead of looking, and speaking, and moving like a tender graceful woman, had been a sturdy fish-wife, and given him a sound blow with her fists. He had positive bodily pain,—a violent headache, and a throbbing intermittent pulse. (p. 256)
But to liken Margaret to a sturdy fish-wife delivering a sound blow to the large-framed Mr. Thornton! What a description!
On Margaret’s thoughts after she rejected Mr. Thornton:
For, although at first it had struck her, that his offer was forced and goaded out of him by sharp compassion for the exposure she had made of herself,—which he, like others, might misunderstand—yet, even before he left the room,—and certainly, not five minutes after, the clear conviction dawned upon her, shined bright upon her, that he did love her; that he had loved her; that he would love her. (p. 245)
More than a love story
“North and South” is more than just a love story between two people, who I think have more things in common. John and Margaret are strong-willed, intelligent, outspoken and passionate about things or people they care about. Even Mrs. Thornton acknowledged the fact, “If John and you had come together, he would have had to keep a tight hand over you, to make you know your place.” (p. 395) But personally, I don’t think John will have to keep a tight hand over Margaret, he loves her too much to do that. But I digress. Going back to the novel being more than just a love story, the novel delves into various realities of the period, which were depicted by Mrs. Gaskell in an honest and graphic manner.
The novel illustrates the social and economic condition of the time. It was the industrial revolution and Mrs. Gaskell vividly showed the growing issues between the “masters” and the workers. It further describes how the masters think as regards their profits, management of businesses and workers. On the other hand, it also portrays the difficult situation of workers as regards their health and living conditions. It also gives a brief discourse of the Union – as perceived by the masters, Higgins, Boucher, Margaret and Mr. Hale (Margaret’s father). The novel clearly shows the social divide and thus reflects how the different classes in the society view each class and themselves.
The novel also resonates with religious beliefs. Well, it cannot be helped as one of the characters is a parson, Mr. Hale. And Margaret is one character who believes in God and is a woman of faith. However, I particularly liked how three different characters were brought about to pray: “Margaret, the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.” (p. 289) I guess Mrs. Gaskell wanted to “unite” people regardless of their religious beliefs/affiliations.
The author’s use of the original language of the classes, most particularly those of the workers is another unique element in this novel. I’d say, to add realism in the dialogues. Lastly, the novel tackles several moral issues – love of family and struggle between telling the truth and saving a family member, to name a few.
This is already a very long entry regarding my thoughts about the novel. I do have some more musings about it but I believe that there’s another time for that. To finally sum up and close my discourse, “North and South” is one brilliant read. It has all the elements which I look for in a book – great characters and a plot riddled with various controversial issues. One classic piece of literature that is certainly one of the greatest works of the modern era.