Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Date Finished: 24 June 2008
My Rating: 5 Stars
This was my second encounter with the book North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. The first time I read it was when I took a Victorian Women's Literature class in college. On the inside cover of my book I had written Elizabeth Gaskell = calm intelligence. I imagine that is something my professor said and I felt I should remember. As I was reading this book I kept thinking about that note.
North and South is at once a social commentary on Victorian working class and one of the best love stories ever written. It is a slower paced book than many of today's readers may appreciate but anyone who reads this book will be richly rewarded.
Elizabeth Gaskell's character's are wonderfully drawn. The heroine of the story is Margaret Hale. She and her parents have come to Milton, the North, because Mr Hale, the country parson from the South, realizes that he can no longer accept all the doctrines of the church, and consequently resigns his position to move north and find work as a tutor. One of Mr. Hale's first students is Mr. Thornton, a local mill owner. Mr. Thornton and Margaret do not exactly see eye to eye on many things and one of my favorite parts of the book is when they debate what a gentleman is. The love story that develops between Mr. Thornton and Margaret is one of the most enjoyable love stories I've read. They misunderstand each other so much that the reader is left anxious in anticipation of whether they will ever come to understand each other. I have to say that I absolutely adore Mr. Thornton. Gaskell painted such a complex character in him that the reader and Margaret are left confused at times but also drawn to him. He seems so rough and hard but Gaskell makes it clear that he is also very passionate with a huge capacity to love. I love reading about his struggles with his feelings for Margaret. Even when rumors about Margaret swirl he tries to defend and protect her reputation. All I can say is that Gaskell knew how to write a love story!
I also love, or in some cases hate, the secondary characters. Margaret's cousin, Edith, absolutely tried my patience and I would have really loved to have seen her character trampled by a horse or something.
Mr. Hale was not my favorite character, he seemed weak and lacking in many respects, but through Gaskell's characterization you come to understand him and why he is that way.
Mrs. Thornton is another wonderfully drawn and complicated figure. She was prideful, shy and had a jealous heart all at once. An unforgettable character.
And of course there is the Higgen's family. Bessie and her father and sister are Margaret's working class friends and it is through them that Margaret comes to understand her new home and surroundings. Margaret, the daughter of a gentleman, finds her closest friends in her new home to be the poor working class laborers and not the rich mill owners.
Gaskell does a wonderful job of describing human nature through her characters. You come to understand them and the way they view life based on their experiences in life.
The love story often takes second stage to the social commentary on unions, the working class, masters, mills and the living and working conditions of Victorian England. Gaskell transports the reader as you learn about each characters struggles and in particular, Margaret's struggle to understand life in her new home in the North.
I am trying desperately to to capture this novel in a few short paragraphs and do it some justice but really, you have to read this novel. There are so many layers to the story and I am not adequate enough in my writing to give them justice. Gaskell's writing really does display a calm intelligence.
A quick note on the BBC adaptation. Watch it! It is amazing! It may not be true to the novel in many respects but it still captures the general feel and ideas of the novel. I thought they made Margaret a little more bold in the movie than she is in the book but I still loved her. And Richard Armitage is Mr. Thornton. He was perfect casting and captured the character so well. Have I mentioned that I love Mr. Thornton? He is one of the best literary heroes ever written or portrayed in a movie. I also love the score from this movie.
Here is a sneak peek at one of my favorite scenes. (I could not find a clip of my favorite and the ending can't be beat but I don't want to give it away by posting it.)
I've gushed enough on my blogs about Jane Austen that I think it is time I start gushing a little more about Elizabeth Gaskell. It is hard to say one is better than the other because they are so different yet I adore them both.
P.S. Here is another clip from the movie, just because I could not resist posting it.