North and South

‘He may care for her, though she really has been almost rude to him at times. But she! – why, Margaret would never think of him, I’m sure! Such a thing has never entered her head.’

‘Entering her heart would do.’

I struggled for a ridiculous length of time trying to articulate the fullness of my admiration for this masterpiece, and I still fear I do not do it justice. A novel significant enough to be included in the Penguin English Library, North and South has already been the subject of countless critics’ and academics’ far more eloquent and perceptive analyses. But since it is arguably my favourite book of all time, and since I have yet to speak to a single person who has heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, I will flatter myself into believing that this review is somewhat meaningful.

It is sometimes said that where Austen ends, Gaskell begins. And in Margaret Hale (whom Penguin very rightly calls “one of the most original and fully-rounded female characters in Victorian fiction”), I can certainly see the same study of restraint, propriety and unconventional elegance amidst an unsympathetic supporting cast. But North and South is so much more than an industrial Pride and Prejudice. No, it is an incredibly ambitious portrait of the class, economic and religious upheavals of Victorian England, intricately examined through multiple characters and relationships spanning all social strata. Individually, they offer refreshingly diverse perspectives, but together, they masterfully mirror and augment each other to illustrate the sheer profundity of the shifts in the turbulent (an understatement) social landscape. (To be clear, none of this is achieved with any dull, expository dialogues. Mrs Gaskell simply shows.)

The tone is also more serious – Margaret’s trials are far more devastating than Elizabeth Bennet’s silly sisters or obnoxious acquaintances. The characters are less excessively frivolous, so even though Gaskell injects just as much cutting irony, readers are more inclined to shoulder Margaret’s hurt and disappointment than to dismiss her acquaintances with a laugh.

And of course, there is the central relationship: Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale. Their differences are so much more entrenched, so heavily written into their very cores, and so sympathetically elaborated on either side, that their “antagonistic friendship” (as Margaret calls it) is also much more intriguing than the superficial misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. Not only were they raised in polar environments (physical and social), Thornton’s paternalistic, almost callous commercial attitude disgusts Margaret’s compassionate nature. She astutely points out that the masters are just as dependent on the workers as the workers are on them, but Thornton refuses to show them more than the minimal respect they secure by contributing to his profits.

But what Margaret cannot glimpse is the heart beneath his frigid veneer. So when we finally witness the profound changes in our hero and heroine – the slow unravelling of their pride, their tentative steps into the other’s perspective – the effect is incredibly moving. Where Austen is laugh-out-loud hilarious, Gaskell grounds her wit in poignant shades of grey (allusion to Milton wholly intended). But Miss Austen’s fans will also find witty repartee and literary references – all very apt for the Southern daughter and her father’s favourite student.

The main criticisms confuse me, but I believe both can easily be refuted. Some are exasperated by Miss Hale’s ‘selfishness’. Others want her to stop acting so ‘self-righteously’ and to grow a spine. For the former, I presume the ‘selfishness’ was observed in her disapprobation of Thornton (since in all other aspects of the novel, the latter complaint is perhaps the more accurate interpretation of Margaret’s temperament). I argue that this was entirely the point – although ‘selfishness’ is not quite the right word. Neither Thornton nor Margaret understood where the other was coming from (figuratively and literally), and yet they made dismissive comments about each other’s ways. Their dispositional clashes are precisely what makes their relationship one of Mrs Gaskell’s many nuanced explorations of “what divides people, and what brings them together”.

‘It is no boast of mine,’ replied Mr Thornton; ‘it is plain matter-of-fact. I won’t deny that I am proud of belonging to a town… I would rather be a man toiling, suffering – nay, failing and successless – here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call more aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease. One may be clogged with honey and unable to rise and fly.’

‘You are mistaken,’ said Margaret, roused by the aspersion on her beloved South to a fond vehemence of defence, that brought the colour into her cheeks and the angry tears into her eyes. ‘You do not know anything about the South.’

And for the latter, righteousness and having a spine simply are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Margaret’s outspoken disapprobation of Thornton is already proof of her independent spirit. But more importantly, I think Margaret always had an iron spine from the very first page. She agreed to leave Helstone not out of weak-willed compliance, but because she could not bear to think her father a hypocritical church leader much more than she could not bear to leave her picturesque, romanticised country home. Likewise, her other decisions to obey her father were carefully weighed, practical choices to limit the pain to herself (as she wisely knows she can bear it far better than her mother), rather than let her father butcher the job and exacerbate the collateral damage, even if it meant shielding him from his cowardice. Sacrifices can be symbols of strength as much as signs of weakness.

The 2004 BBC miniseries (four episodes) is also my favourite adaptation of a British classic, which stays remarkably true to the original novel (thank goodness!). Sinéad Cusack is the most formidable, domineering, incredible Mrs Thornton (not to mention her perfect Yorkshire accent). Richard Armitage’s brooding Mr Thornton is already a classic (forget Colin Firth – not that I ever considered him remotely attractive enough to play Mr Darcy). And Daniela Denby-Ashe makes a perfect Margaret. The changes that were made actually added to the plot’s richness, at least in the context of the small screen. But do only watch it after you have read the book! Although I think North and South is one of those rare novels that are just as engrossing even after watching an adaptation first (because so much of the delight is in the execution, not merely the concept), it becomes much easier to appreciate the details and subtleties of the miniseries.

Favourite quotes: Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and ‘an’t please you, sir’.

‘I don’t know that you would ever like him, or think him agreeable, Margaret. He is not a lady’s man.’ Margaret wreathed her throat in a scornful curve.

He was in the Charybdis of passion, and must perforce circle and circle ever nearer round the fatal centre.

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Side note: It breaks my heart that there is no Clothbound Classics edition of North and South. If anyone knows where I can find a beautifully bound hardcover edition, please tell me!

For more quotes, notes and my running commentary, please check out my Goodreads reading activity (only on desktop computers).