Wednesday, October 1, 2014

North and South (Elizabeth Gaskell)

North and South

by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and SouthNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell -- Historical Fiction/Romance

This is a long book but well worth it. It's a classic Victorian novel that every woman should read. Our heroine, Margaret Hale, the daughter of a county clergyman, grew up in London with her wealthy relatives. She was a sort of companion to her cousin Edith who is now getting married. Margaret looks forward to returning to her parents in the country, enjoying long walks in the forest and become reacquainted with the locals. She returns to find her mother in poor spirits and her father on the verge of something that will change all their lives forever. When Rev. Hale finds he can no longer in good faith be a clergyman in the Church of England, he moves his family to Milton, a northern manufacturing town, where he will teach the classics to willing pupils. Milton is full of smoke, "shoppy" people and one rude mill owner, a Mr. Thornton who believes commerce and progress equal success and success makes the man. Over the course of the next three years Margaret's life will change in ways she can hardly imagine as she deals with adjusting to life in a manufacturing town and the tragedies she finds there. This story has often been called Pride and Prejudice with a social conscience. It's also a love story for the ages. Margaret and _____ are right up there with Lizzy and Darcy in the romantic literary canon.

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways... First, there's the amazing heroine Margaret. She's a proto-feminist character. She speaks her mind no matter what and she desires above all else, independence. I found her a bit hard to like at first. I seem to be in the minority in that but she's alternately very good and alternately snobby. She can't help but have absorbed some London views but she's so kind to the poor of the South and such a clergyman's daughter that I think she should have a little bit more kindness for shop people. The people she meets in Milton help her understand much more about reality and help her form her own opinions. By the end of the book, she is one amazing woman!

All of the characters have their good and bad points, with the exception of one or two. John Thornton is an especially complex character. He's a mill master who pulled himself up from poverty. He has definite opinions and like Margaret, is very stubborn in changing those opinions. Yet, unlike most men of his time and class, he's willing to listen to Margaret and consider her viewpoint. He also longs for comfort, compassion and love. He is a very loveable man! His mother, on the other hand, is hard. She doesn't show her emotions easily but she is a lot like Margaret. She's strong and capable and proud. Her daughter Fanny and Margaret's cousin Edith exemplify what was typical of women of their social class at that time. Neither really come off very well by modern standards.

The workers are portrayed sympathetically, with one particular family taking center stage. Bessy Higgins is a young woman Margaret's own age who is dying of cotton lung (tuberculosis). She is a fairly typical Victorian martyr but she and Margaret are able to draw off each other and learn new things. Bessy's father is a firebrand who speaks his mind and gets into trouble for it. I really like him and he adds a lot of interesting depth to the story. Without him, you pretty much have an industrial Pride and Prejudice but Higgins shows Margaret first hand what the workers are like and what they're thinking and feeling. This allows her to form opinions and share them with anyone who will listen.

I can't really say a lot more without giving away more of the plot, but this book is among my favorite Victorian novels of all times. When you're done reading, watch or rewatch the miniseries featuring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage. :Swoon:!

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