North and South (Oxford World's Classics) by Gaskell, Elizabeth (2008) Paperback
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Published in 1855, Elizabeth Gaskell's 'North and South' with its themes of power and authority, and of gender and social inequality, has been compared with Charlotte Bronte's 'Shirley' for its depiction of the struggles of the workers against the mill owners, and Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' for its portrayal of the combination of antagonism and attraction experienced between the two main characters, and I can understand why this novel has been thus compared - however, Miss Gaskell has her own story to tell, she tells it in her own way and she tells it particularly well. I first read this novel many years ago when I was a teenager and feel I have derived much more from it by this second visit, finding it an involving and very interesting read. At 500 or so pages, this is certainly not the longest of the classics, but if you feel you might not have the time to devote to it, do consider downloading the Audible audio version:'North and South', which is very ably narrated by Juliet Stevenson and which you can enjoy listening to 'on the go' or whilst getting on with something else.
I originally read North and South years ago and while I enjoyed the relationship between Margaret and John it was the poverty and suffering of the mill workers which really caught my attention. After the BBC drama I read the book again and this time it was the romance I felt drawn to, the difference age makes, I suppose.
This is an interesting read which covers the struggle and social injustice of the workers, it has great interesting characters and the relationship between John and Margaret builds and simmers throughout the book. I'm glad that I now have this on my kindle since even though I was adamant that I wouldn't give up 'actual' books in reality I find I read them less and less these days.
I always thought of 'North and South' as the industrial northern version of 'Pride and Prejudice' less ribbons and balls and more poverty and suffering and while I like both books 'Pride and Prejudice' is I think my favourite book of all time maybe because it's the book that made me fall in love with reading.
This was my first Elizabeth Gaskell book, but it won't be my last.
The book first introduces us to the heroine of the story, Margaret Hale, at the wedding of her cousin Edith. Margaret has been living in London for the past ten years with her Aunt Shaw, as a kind of companion to Edith who is on the frivolous and ditsy side. Once Edith is married she leaves London to live in Corfu with her husband, Captain Lennox, and Margaret returns to her parents who live in a little rural village where her father is pastor. After some doubts her father decides to relinquish his position and leave the life of the church. He takes up a position as a private tutor in Milton (Manchester?), a northern industrial mill town. Margaret and her mother both initially suffer a huge culture shock at the complete change in life style and of the lives of their new neighbours in the town who are predominantly northern factory workers. In comparison to their pretty, green, quiet southern village, Milton is noisy, dirty and built up without any of the redeeming features of their old home.
The reader is introduced to a number of Milton families; the Higgins and Boucher family, who are mill workers and the hero of the story, Mr Thornton, his mother and sister Fanny. Mr Thornton owns the successful Marlborough Mills and attempts to show Margaret the charms of Milton after they become acquaintances through her father, who is tutoring John in the classics. Initially Margaret is unable to see Milton in a redeeming light and sees it as highly inferior to her previous homes and John Thornton believes she looks down her nose at him and his beloved town. This results in an Austen style storyline between Margaret and Mr Thornton; lots of thinking about the other, surreptitious glances and misunderstandings - will love eventually win?
After finally beginning to settle into a way of life after 18 months in Milton but suffering a number of tragedies, Margaret meets Mr Bell, an old friend of her fathers and a fellow at Oxford who takes her under his wing as her godfather. By now Margaret is fully aware of the silly fanciful life in London, where each day is spent much the same as the previous; eating late breakfasts, responding to notes and basically wasting time until the evening when there would be dinners or parties to attend. She begins to see this lifestyle as dull and repetitive and misses the friendships she had made in Milton, where some activity of another was always occurring and no day was spent being wasted at frivolous leisure.
Unlike other writers of her time, Gaskell was familiar with classes on both sides of the social structure and this shows in her writing. She was clearly familiar with the social issues and complexities of the time and of life at both the upper echelons of society and among the grafters. She touched on the reasons for the grievances of the mill workers and how they were mistreated and taken advantage of by some mill owners and the injustices they and their families faced; illness, poverty, lack of food/education with long and hard working days. She balanced this out by showing the reason why the "masters" (mill owners), made some of their seemingly unfair and harsh decisions.
I enjoyed how Gaskell wrote the dialogue of the mill workers in a northern tongue, it added depth to the story and made it easier to visualise the characters, although it did take some getting used to.
The only other thing I can mention without giving away all of the storyline is the ending. I think my husband thought I had finally lost it when he saw me grinning away on the couch like a lunatic. My only wish is that there was just another chapter, or even just a few more pages. I believe there's a BBC adaptation which was made a while ago, which I'm now going to have to track down to watch.
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