I really enjoyed this book, I had never heard of Elizabeth Gaskell until recently and was surprised to learn she even contributed stories to Charles Dicken’s publications. She doesn’t seem as well known as people like Jane Austen, but I can’t think why not as this novel was outstanding and I’ll definitely read her others.
This story is about Margaret Hale and her move from the South to the North of England (due to her father’s work), and her difficulties to fit in with what she sees as quite an alien community compared to her own Southern roots, and her relationship with mill-owner Mr Thornton. I found this book and its descriptions of Northern life absolutely fascinating, and very accurate even today. Coming from the North myself I recognise many of the characteristics that she describes, and even though the book is set (and written) in the late 1800s, I can still see these characteristics in many of today’s Northern people.
Elizabeth Gaskell has a great talent for describing human nature and recognising how people act in certain situations, and their differences in experiences and characters. She also seems to have a gently sarcastic manner and to enjoy pointing out people’s foibles and silly little ways. Just a few pages into the book I was thinking of people I know who are just like some of the characters in the book, for example Mrs Shaw is a wealthy widow with nothing in life to complain about, but she likes to complain so exaggerates her ill health and has developed a nervous little cough everytime she thinks about her health. And although she was inwardly delighted to be advised by her doctor that she should spend the winter in Italy, for health reasons, she felt she could not openly acknowledge this delight and preferred to submit unwillingly to the advice ‘thus she was able to moan and complain in her soft manner, all the time she was in reality doing just what she liked’. I know so many people like this! When Henry Lennox proposes to Margaret, at the start of the book, and she has rejected him, she spends a great deal of time mulling everything over and worrying that she has caused him pain and whether she explained her views in the best way, and in contrast Henry is able, immediately after being refused, to talk on normal everyday subjects with her family and to seemingly be able to switch his emotions on and off and not to think or worry about things too deeply. In this example, as well as in many, many, more between Margaret and Mr Thornton, the author seems to easily identify and draw out the differences between men’s and women’s behaviour and feelings.
The book is very involved and interesting, with several plots going on, all which makes it very difficult to put down. The characters are extremely well written, and, as a reader, you end up caring a great deal for them all, even though I found myself disagreeing with them several times. I struggled to like Mr & Mrs Hale, for example; his decision to leave the church, particularly bearing in mind how much upheaval and distress this caused his family, I found very difficult to understand. He seemed to only be considering his own feelings and wishes, and ignoring his wife’s and daughter’s, and just selfishly expecting them to cope. He displayed a weakness of courage several other times as well, and in particular seemed unable to face up to difficult situations, for example requesting Margaret to break the news to her mother of him leaving the church and their move to another area. He struck me as someone who sticks his head in the sand and hopes problems just go away, which inevitably results in someone else (usually Margaret) having to deal with it. Margaret’s mother is not much better, she seems keen to always think herself badly treated and quick to complain about things, and all the planning and organisation of their move North and the search for a house falls to Margaret rather than her mother. She seems at times to be quite a silly and weak person.
I was fascinated by all the little cultural differences and misunderstandings that arose in Margaret’s dealing with Northern people, and how she often seemed to offend people, although it was sincerely unintentional. It is very difficult to fit in with a different community, and it sometimes seems as if there is an unwritten code of conduct or secret language that if you are not privy to then you have no hope of being accepted, no matter how hard you try. All these little things, such as her not shaking Mr Thornton’s hand on departure, seem so insignificant and yet express, wordlessly, so much. I felt such pity for her that she was being judged and misinterpreted just because she didn’t recognise the particular signs and gestures and language that the local residents use.
The book is full of comparisons and differences and contrasting points of view, and this seems to be a main theme of the story. Margaret’s view of the North is very different from Mrs Thornton’s view and this North/South divide is obviously one of the main features of the book – there are many comparisons of noise, pollution, the situation of the poor, language, greetings, industry, behaviour towards women, etc. Fanny Thornton’s opinion of the noisy dirty mill contrasts with her mothers’ view that it is a fine thing that represents the power and wealth of her son. There are several differing views of religion, with Mr Hale’s loss of faith compared to Margaret’s great trust in God and His decisions, and contrasted again with Bessie Higgins’ darker view of religion and her worries of what Heaven will be like. The strike displays, of course (along with the North and South comparisons), the greatest differences of views; Mr Thornton thinks the workers foolhardy as he can see that the markets are bad due to competition from America so there is no possibility of increasing wages as profits are already very small, and to stop work and strike would only result in orders leaving the area altogether; the workers however view the strike as their only possible choice of action as they think the Masters (of the mills, such as Mr Thornton) are taking a huge profit and not sharing it with them, and they see this as their only way to ensure more control for themselves and therefore greater security. It is very poignant to realise, (as the reader has the luxury of being privy to both sides of the argument), that the strike will hurt both Masters and workers alike and if only communication between the two sides was better then the strike could be avoided. The workers themselves display another difference and contrast, this being their views of how to handle the strike; with Higgins wanting to do everything legally and responsibly and others like Boucher resorting to violence and threats. There is also a difference of opinion about the strikers’ Union – Higgins sees the Union as able to help and represent the workers, yet Margaret sees them as tyrants (similar in manner to the Masters really) with their own demands and rules and cruelty.
The love story between Margaret and Mr Thornton is another main theme of the book, and this is very enjoyable to read, with lots of anxious moments wondering if they will ever understand one another and be together. All the usual differences between men and women, and their ways of dealing with situations, affect Margaret’s and Mr Thornton’s relationship, but they are also very much influenced by the subtle North and South differences, their similar pride and quickness to take offence and prejudge, and the undercurrent of the strike and her sympathies with the workers and reluctance to see the Masters’ views, (this is particularly demonstrated in how they choose to deal with the hostile and potentially violent protesters at the Mill – he calls in the soldiers to subdue the crowd, she tries to speak reasonably and gently to them and appeal to their better natures) – as well, of course, lots of other complications and misunderstandings! Their love does often seem doomed to failure, and their chance of being together seems very remote at times. The story is similar to Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in many ways, but there seems to be many more barriers in the way of Margaret’s and Mr Thornton’s love than there are for Mr Darcy’s and Elizabeth Bennet’s. Their whole love story seems much more complex, and therefore very fascinating.
I think Margaret Hale is now perhaps one of my favourite characters in fiction. She is very strong and determined, and tries hard to deal with all the situations and changes that are thrown her way. She cares very much for the poor and tries to help, yet with a respectful rather than patronising manner. She has a very good sense of how best to approach people, and appeal to them. She seems to represent the middle ground between workers and Masters and is accepted by both and her views are listened to by both, and she is comfortable with both Mr Thornton and Higgins. She can be very proud, and yet not too proud to question her previous judgments and change her mind – it is interesting how her yearnings to be down South and living at Helstone become yearnings to be up North and living in Milton. She also recognises that it is not only places that change, but people also, and she is able to realise that she has changed very much too. She is very kind and caring and many people depend upon her, and she seems to have a natural ability to bring out the best in people. I like how she develops as a character – at the beginning there were little difficulties that seemed unsurmountable to her, but by the end of the novel she is such a strong character that she can deal with anything that comes her way.
I also very much like Mr Thornton’s character. He is also very strong and determined, and seems quite rough and hard, yet it is important to him to also be fair and just. When he realises he has acted wrongly, he tries to put it right (such as when he was rude to Higgins on his application for work) – many men would not have concerned themselves with this. He cares very much for his workers, and is concerned they are hurting themselves by striking, and later in the book it is very admirable how he is open to their suggestions for improvement and keen to work with them rather than against them. He is able to listen to other people’s points of view, and is not too proud to take advice and admit he can improve himself (such as him wanting to have lessons with Mr Hale). I also greatly admire him because he admits, to himself only of course, that he has ‘a soft place (in his heart), but he had some pride in concealing it, he kept it very sacred and safe’. He obviously has great pride, but also a capacity for great love and his determination to love Margaret even though he feels she will never love him, is very surprising and touching.
This is a fantastic book, very involving and well thought-out, and one to be highly recommended and enjoyed.
North and South