North and South ~ by Elizabeth Gaskell

Good book!  And one of those narratives where the Audio format actually improves things because Gaskell included a fair amount of 19th century, lower class Manchester dialect, using appropriate phonetic spelling.  It makes for fairly difficult reading – especially for a 21st century California girl, but with a good recording artist – like  Juliet Stephenson – it’s  wonderfully and easily comprehensible.    Yes,  I read and listened to this and it took me 4 days because it’s pretty rich stuff – besides,  I really did NOT want it to end.

Margaret Hale, age about 17 or 18,   is the only daughter of  the Vicar and Mrs Hale,  but has been staying at the Shaw home in London for the last ten or so years.   Edith is Margaret’s best friend as well as her cousin.  While there, she was groomed for the life of a lady,  but when her Edith married Captain Lennox and left home for Corfu (an island in western Greece). Margaret went back to her parents in Helstone,  southwest of London.
Margaret is a less stereotypical example of the “Angel of the House” than is found in Dickens.



North and South
by Elizabeth Gaskell
1854 / 302 pages
read by Juliet Stephenson 18h 18m
rating –   10
(read and listened)

Within a short time after Margaret’s return,  Mr Hale had a crisis of religious conscience about changes in the Church and felt he had to resign his job.  The family moved to Milton, a small industrial (and dirty) town similar to Manchester at the time.  There Mr Hale was employed as a tutor to the local businessmen or whomever wished and could pay him for the services.  Although not a lucrative job, this was apparently  a respectable occupation and appropriate for an ex-vicar.

After a few months in Milton,  Mrs Hale is stricken with some ailment which, due to her tendency toward snobbishness,  we’re let do believe might be a bit exaggerated.  It’s not.  She dies.  Lots of people die in this novel so there are some very sad parts.

Also early on in her  life in Milton,  Margaret is offended by the rough talk of the people she meets,  but there is one who interests her for some reason – not romantic.  This is Nicholas Higgins a widower with a young daughter named Bessy.  Nicholas works in the mills and is a true union supporter down to strikes if necessary but he’s not a hothead.  Gaskell uses language appropriate to Nicholas’ station in life and she writes it out phonetically with the result that it’s rather difficult for a 21st century California reader to decipher.   Also,  some of the words are archaic or colloquial for the times,  “clem” or “clemming”  for instance – it’s the pinch in a person’s stomach when they are very hungry – close to starving.

Meanwhile, there is a man who is interested in Margaret – that’s  Mr. John Thornton,  the owner of one of the main textile factories.   He’s also one of Mr. Hale’s students.   He and Margaret have a huge experience dealing with the union and this ties them.  His family, comprised of  himself, his mother and his sister, is one of the “first” families.  The Thorntons are quite rich,  but Mr Thornton is almost in awe of the Hales’  education.  It might be noted that Thornton is in competition for one of my very favorite male characters in all of fiction.  Truly.

There are several other interesting characters,  none totally good or totally bad – John’s mother,   Mr Bell who is Margaret’s godfather,  Mr Lennox who is a relation of Margaret, Dixon who is Margaret’s maid,  Mr Hale who is her father,  even Bessy who is Nicholas’ daughter and Mr Thornton’s sister, Fanny.   Margaret’s brother remains shadowy – as well he should.

The plot goes about it’s business simmering and stewing in a couple or three threads and with surprising twists to increase the tension within the thematic oppositions:   North/South environments;  home/outsider;  union/owners;  money /poverty (& class structure);  health/illness (dying); banquets/ starving;  love/loathing; pride/humilty;  parents/children; conscience/ruthlessness;  sexual roles,  etc.  And of course there’s the possible happy ending romance which keeps the reader guessing until the very last page.

Although this was first published by Charles Dickens in serial form in his magazine,  “Household Words,” AND in the same year as Dickens’ own novel “Hard Times” AND about the same basic troubles,  there are many differences between the two authors and these books.  Gaskell’s  plot is far more carefully thought out than the soap-opera of Dickens’ in Hard Times and North and South is less polemic about the social issues than Hard Times,  – etc.    It’s still the same setting though, and Gaskell’s sympathies are generally in line with those of her publisher.

Cleave Books  

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7 Responses to North and South ~ by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. It’s a great novel isn’t it. She explores that dichotomy between rural and industrial so beautifully. I’m guessing you never saw the miniseries? My reading group did this fairly early in our collective life and we all liked it. I’ve read a few Gaskells (well, three I think), but the one I still have on my radar is Mary Barton.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Yes, me too – in fact it was the BBC mini series which introduced me to Gaskell. (It helped that John Thornton was played by an absolute dish).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marie says:

    So, upon finishing this novel with it’s difficult old English and reaching the much anticipated happy ending, I ended up re-reading the ending about 10 times, because the ending made me that happy and I felt I had worked so hard for it. Amazing book!

    Liked by 1 person

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