Sunday, November 25, 2007
North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
After watching the BBC mini series based in this book and enjoying it so much I just knew I had to find a copy of the book! That's what I did a few weeks ago.
The story begins by presenting to us the character of Margaret Hale, a middle class young lady who, by her father's decision has to move with the rest of the family from Helstone in the south to Milton (it's actually a fictional Manchester)in the north of England. Margaret's father was a clergyman but due to matters of conscience decides to leave the Church of England and devote himself to giving lessons to private students. In Milton they meet Mr Thornton who becames one of Margaret's father's students. He is a rich mill owner with a rational vision of the world and it's economical matters. He is strongly attracted to Margaret from the beginning but she is full of prejudice against someone who actually woorks for a living, which is totally against her idea of how a gentleman should behave. The fact that Margaret befriends a family of mill workers makes her more aware of their difficulties and makes her dislike Thornton even more. Gaskell makes us aware not only of society's rules and behaviours but also the differences between classes and the new problems brought by the inductrial revolution. The bad working conditions and low pay the workers are forced to endure but also the problems the mill owners face with the competition of new products from America.
A strike and then a riot at the mill in which Margaret saves him from the workers leads Thornton to propose without success but after refusing him Margaret's feelings will change as she realises he is not the harsh master she imagined nor a cold man, he is a proud man battling adversity who still finds the time to show some kindness to her parents. Her own circumstances make her seem at fault in the eyes of society and Thornton is the one who helps her even believing the worst of her. At that point all seems lost for them as Thornton would never offer for her again and Margaret is bound by society's conventions not to show her feelings. After tragedy strucks she leaves Milton. However an unexpected turn of events will bring them together again…
What attracted me most in the book is how well the characters are described and how we understand them well. Margaret's character suffers a big change since the beginning, indeed she is the character that grows the most. Faced with weak parents she is the one that seems to ran the house at times, it's in her that her parents confide their problems and count on to share bad or difficult news to one another. When we understand how alone and difficult her position was it's easier to understand and eventually forgive all those prejudices and the general lack of appreciation she shows for Thornton. Her only friend is a mill worker, Bessy Higgins, and we know her feelings more from her thoughts that from her confiding in other characters. With Thornton it's different, he remains steadfast and loyal to his love for Margaret and Gaskell does a wonderful job of explaining his feelings and his character. We know him not only through his thoughts but also from his moving dialogues with his mother about his feelings towards Margaret and his dialogues with Higgins regarding his business and it's problems.