My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I finally picked up North and South on a whim after noticing that there was a read-along of the same being hosted this month. While I haven’t joined this group event, I’m glad it inspired me to finally get to it. The plot is a love story between two very different individuals from two very different backgrounds. The prejudices of one and the mistaken notions of the other keep the plot going until its conclusion
The Characters (spoiler alert)
Margaret Hale — Hers was a strength to admire though I could not feel attached to her. However, I like how Gaskell has developed a character prone to deep prejudices but has a kind heart without being saccharine. Margaret’s attachment to the Higgins family, a poor industrial working family, is more out of real affection than an intention of just doing good. She gets involved in their lives and comes to love them. She is very sensitive to the needs of this family while showing a surprising lack of any understanding of the Thornton merchant family (whence our hero comes from). No doubt this is because she is completely blinded by prejudices against people she contemptuously calls ‘traders’.
Mr and Mrs Hale — Mr Hale is weak man, yet one I can’t really despise. However, I find it rather odd that he could not talk to his wife about their having to move from their beloved home of Helstone to Milton in the north of England. It would seem to me, that of the two of them, in regard to their son, Frederick’s escapade, Mrs Hale was the one to take it better. Perhaps it simply is that he is a man who cannot face anything unpleasant which makes him much weaker than his wife. His wife, on the other hand, shows us a glimpse of that strength we see in abundance in her daughter. Gaskell’s description of how Mrs Hale faces her illness is very touching.
John Thornton — I think this character is rather sensitively drawn. He’s a man — a man of integrity — and he is proud of it. Yet where Margaret is concerned he is extremely vulnerable…right from their very first meeting. I’m not sure I have much to say about Thornton beyond this.
Initially, while reading the novel, I could not understand why Gaskell did not hold her place in the acknowledged classics canon. But further reading and thought into it has brought a few things to light. In comparing Gaskell to Austen, I found, that while the former dwelt a great deal on issues of her time and did a fairly good job of executing this novel whilst addressing certain important social issues, her narrative lacks the finesse and timelessness of Austen. Austen’s novels are detailed sketches of human nature penned with a great deal of humour and insight. And while Gaskell’s was purely a love story with a detailed background, Austen’s novels are more of a commentary on people and relationships. I think this was really brought home to make when I read the last two pages of North and South. To me, this novel ended like a regular Mills & Boon or Georgette Heyer romance, whilst the likes of Austen and the Bronte sisters seem to give us so much more than just love stories.
However, I thought, that in terms of dealing with the whole issue of the industrial machine taking over the lives of the people of north England, and it’s pros and cons, Gaskell did a fairly objective sketch without sensationalising and sentimentalising anything for the reader unlike Dickens ( a reason I can’t stand Dickens much). There is grace in the manner in which she portrays the masters (in Thornton) and the workmen (in Higgins) — we get to see both the sides of the same coin. Not to mention the fairness with which she describes the best and the worst of both the north and the south of England.
Gaskell’s style itself, while not particularly elevating, was neither a let down. I enjoyed reading the passages where Thornton speaks of his profession with such knowledge and passion. And yet, I noticed, that descriptively Gaskell did not have the power to transport. I refer to her descriptions of Helstone in particular. I do not know that I found her lacking because I was coming to her fresh out of reading L M Montgomery, or if I would have found it so even without having been drenched in Montgomery’s descriptive goodness.
I also noticed she had the tendency to skip over certain details that give the impression she had no idea in what manner to make a certain situation sound as serious as she needed it to be — I speak, in particular, of Mr Hale’s doubts and subsequent quitting of the Church and Mrs Hale’s ‘serious illness’.
On the whole, though, I quite enjoyed reading this novel and am looking forward to reading more Gaskell.