Today is the last stop on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Classics Circuit Tour. At this stage in the tour, you all know more about Ms. Gaskell than you probably ever thought you would. Rather than repeat what has already been said, let me get right to it. I chose to read North and South, considered her best novel. I was not disappointed.
Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
No. of Pages: 428
First Released: 1854
Synopsis (Courtesy of B&N): “Gaskell’s North and South examines the nature of social authority and obedience and provides an insightful description of the role of middle class women in nineteenth century society. Through the story of Margaret Hale, a southerner who moves to the northern industrial town of Milton, Gaskell skillfully explores issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to the mill owner, John Thornton.”
Comments and Critique: As I mentioned above, I chose this particular novel because it is considered her best. Having never read anything by Ms. Gaskell prior to this tour, I wanted to make sure that I was focusing on one that would allow me to enjoy all of her talents. I was definitely not disappointed by what the book contained. In fact, I was quite surprised at what was between the pages. I was not expecting the rich details of class struggles, the strong female character and a love story. This proves that sometimes, not having any idea about a book is the best way to read it.
Margaret Hale deserves our applause, and Ms. Gaskell deserves an award for her portrayal of Margaret. Written at a time when women were still considered inferior and limited by their social class and sex, Margaret pushes the boundaries beyond the societal norm. She portrays masculine characteristics and mannerisms within a very feminine body: she holds herself erect, she looks others directly in the eye, she is not overly emotional, and when she is, she tries to hide her emotions, and most importantly, she chafes under her “womanly duties”. It is such a subtle revolt against conventions that it took me almost half the book to truly appreciate Margaret. By the end, all of the other females in the books could be called insipid and unworthy and still bound by outside forces: Edith controlled by her husband, Aunt Shaw by conventions, Dixon by class, and Mrs. Thornton by her son. Kudos to Ms. Gaskell for creating a character that breaks those bonds and sets out on a path not normally forged by women at the time! (For this reason, I am going to count this book towards the Women Unbound Challenge because Margaret Hale represents a new way of thinking and acting that forged the way for future women.)
The dichotomy between the North and South was fascinating. I thought the differences closely mirrored those same differences here in the U.S. between the North and the South – agriculture versus industry, progress versus stagnation. The union debate was also interesting, given my own personal opinion about unions today and my experiences with them. I remain impressed that Ms. Gaskell showed both sides of the argument. I also feel she did an excellent job traversing the two opinions. She suggests at possible solutions and compromises but does not actually resolve anything, which is the most realistic portrayal of this fight. She does not take the easy way out of the argument but rather shows that there are no easy answers when it comes to this debate between workers’ rights and owners’ expectations.
Mr. Thornton definitely grew to be a favorable character, in my eyes. He had the perfect strength to counterbalance Margaret. However, I loved the fact that he needed to be knocked down a peg or two before being considered worthy of her. I felt their relationship was very much like yin and yang.
In all, I felt this was an amazing book. While it started out slowly, I realized as I was reading that it was slow reading not because it did not hold my interest but rather because there was so much to absorb from each page. In addition, the class commentary is still very valid in today’s society. I found North and South to be extremely worthwhile for the history and the life lessons it presents as well as for the introduction to some very memorable characters.