North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Quick plot summary: Country mouse Margaret Hale moves to a Northern town in England with her family, befriends a cotton factory worker and his daughter, and feuds with the handsome cotton mill owner John Thornton.

After watching the BBC mini-series, I was inspired to read Gaskell’s North & South. The mini-series is fantastic. If you like longing looks…

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Or looks out windows…

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Or looks over cups…

I lost my train of thought. Richard Armitage has got the smoldering gazes down, he must have studied Colin Firth’s performance in Pride and Prejudice.

In the book you have to use your imagination to picture the heated glances between John Thornton and Margaret Hale, but Gaskell allows more of a window into each of their interior lives. In the book, they spend more time debating ethics and business practices than with longing looks or dances.

John is a successful manufacturer, a master of men, whose earned his peers’ respect and emulation. He believes that his success came from being taught early “to despise all indulgences,” p. 85. He was able to lift himself from a shop assistant to a manufacturer through honest work and self-denial. This internal battle is mirrored in his perception of the fight between the working classes and the masters of industry. He is enforcing rules and expectations on his workers because without them they would give into their basest impulses. Those who have the ability are awarded by the system.

Margaret battles this idea, “You consider all who are unsuccessful in raising themselves in the world, from whatever cause as your enemies, then, if I understand you rightly,” p. 85. Her friendship with Nicholas and his grown daughter Bessie has showed her that those working in the midst of this system are not always awarded for their efforts and are faced with devastating obstacles. She believes that manufacturers have a moral duty to improve the overall lives of the people who work for them. A quite forward thinking opinion for this time period.

What I love about the book is that there is really a meeting of the minds. Margaret and John fall in love over their many intellectual debates and each impacts how the other sees the world. This makes for a more complex and interesting love story.

There are some wince-inducing portrayals of people in the book that have been corrected in the adaptation. In the book, Nicholas is an alcoholic and speaks in a very rough patois. It’s interesting that the director decided in the television adaption to make Nicholas sober in  and without an accent.

Although Gaskell portrays the working class sympathetically, with that sympathy is a dose of sentimentalization of their characters. They don’t come across as three-dimensional, or on entirely equal footing as the Thorntons and Hales, but at least they are present.

Goodreads rating: 4 stars

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

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