North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1855
If you read my recent review of Ruth, you already know that Elizabeth Gaskell has no time for correct, moral Victorian thinking. True to form, in North and South, Gaskell depicts characters who refuse to conform. Rascally rebels with hearts of gold. They do the right thing by their own moral standards. Yay! Fun! No, not fun. Social scorn, loss of status, risk to self and family. But, fun for the reader!
Can we talk for a minute about Elizabeth Gaskell’s treatment within the canon? Do you read the introductions to classic novels? I’ll be honest, I usually read the first couple of paragraphs and skim the rest. Some fool named Alan Sutton wrote these sentences for his introduction to the Pocket Classics edition of Lois the Witch and Other Stories “Mrs. Gaskell (1810-1865) was first and foremost a woman of her time, a lady of Victorian expansiveness. She was not a brilliant, nor a passionate novelist like George Eliot or Charlotte Bronte, but an intelligent, compassionate and enthusiastic woman, whose life centered around her family.” Barf. Barf. Barf. Just barfed in my mouth a little. Excuse me Alan Sutton, but did you really create a dichotomy between women with families and brilliant authors? Really? Bronte and Eliot are passionate, but Gaskell is only enthusiastic? Probably because she was spending all her emotions on her children and husband. Ugh. Pardon me, I need to pause to roll my eyes several times.
Elizabeth Gaskell published under the name Mrs. Gaskell. Bronte and Eliot published under male pseudonyms. Bronte and Eliot did not have conventional families. Does it not seem like this is why Mr. Sutton chooses to relegate Gaskell to some lower tier of writer? Dickens had about 27 children, but judging by his grand position in the canon, had plenty of brilliance and passion left over for his novels. I could write pages about the utter worthlessness of those two sentences. Instead I will say this: I have now read all of Gaskell’s major works and all but one by her contemporary, George Eliot. Middlemarch by Eliot is perhaps my favorite Victorian novel, but I generally prefer Gaskell to Eliot. Yeah, I said it. In Ruth and North and South Gaskell bravely and PASSIONATELY skewers conventional Victorian morality. Meanwhile, Eliot wastes pages upon page of Adam Bede and Silas Marner in affectionate, but incredibly patronizing depictions of charming, rural, simple, superstitious country folk. Her condescending tone rubs my fur the wrong way and is frankly tiresome. I really never thought I would find a Victorian author I preferred to Eliot, but I did and it’s Elizabeth Gaskell.
That being said, Sally Shuttleworth wrote an introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of North and South that gives Gaskell her due. Shuttleworth examines the complexity of the gender, class, and community tensions depicted in the book. It’s a great introduction written by a person capable of seeing past the “Mrs” in Mrs. Gaskell. Shuttleworth is worth a million Suttons. Honestly, if you are interested in the 1,000 merits of Elizabeth Gaskell or North and South, you should pick up a copy and read Shuttleworth’s intro. It’s better than anything that I am about to write.
Let’s get back to business. The heroine of North and South is Margaret Hale. The daughter of a clergyman, Margaret is used to being about the highest ranking person in her tiny town in the south of England. Her father, the novel’s first rebel, resigns from his job, because he objects to some point of doctrine that the Church of England insists he must preach. His little family cannot understand why Mr. Hale must take this stand against the Church, but he feels he must. So, the Hales relocate from the green and sunny South to the smoky, industrial northern town of Milton. Margaret hates it. In fact, she’s a bit haughty and repulsed by the squalid environment and filthy, unmannered masses. Accustomed to deferential treatment, Margaret is frightened by the loud, boisterous crowds in Milton. She actually gets catcalled, “You may well smile, my lass; many a one would smile to have such a bonny face.” Yep, telling scared women to smile is at least as old as the 1850s.
Despite her initial revulsion, Margaret’s heart warms to the workers. She makes friends with a particular family and sees that their wages do not meet their basic needs. Margaret starts feeling very socialist and pro-union when she sees sick and starving Milton families. This feeling creates complications for M, because she must interact socially with the mill owner, Mr. Thornton. Sparks fly. Thornton is a self-made capitalist fatcat. Margaret is an uppity wannabe aristocrat who scorns trade. They really dislike each other, in a classic romcom way where they can’t stop thinking about each other and despite their better judgment feel certain tingles in certain unspeakable regions.
I really love Margaret, partially because she speaks angrily to capitalists at dinner parties just like me. The romance with Thornton is imperfect to me. He’s extra manly, somewhat scary, and uncompassionate. But, the heart wants what it wants. The romance is extra complicated, because Margaret sides with the workers who go on strike, wanting better wages from Thornton. As you can imagine, this drives Thornton crazy, in a sexy way.
You might like North and South if:
- you loath capitalism.
- you ruin social events by loudly loathing capitalism.
- you secretly want to stop loathing capitalism and marry a petrochemical engineer. (Is that a type of engineer?)
You might not like North and South if:
- you love Ayn Rand.
Final Thoughts: I loved it. The more I think about it, the more I love it. All hail Margaret Hale! Speak truth to power, Victorian heroines, speak truth to power.
Hello madam. Glad to see you’re still reading, and you’ve still got the same talent and capacity for humor in your writing.