Sunday, June 22, 2008

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.
Marg's thoughts:

Earlier this year, I was introduced to the awesomeness that is the BBC mini-series version of North and South based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Gaskell. After I had watched the DVD mini-series numerous times it occurred to me that I could, and probably should, read the book that it was based on. In due course, I went and purchased the book, but it then languished on my bookshelf for a while, until I realised that if I was going to lead a book-club discussion of it starting in June, then I really needed to read the darned book! And boy, am I glad that I did!

To give a very brief summary, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable existence as the daughter of country vicar when her father has a crisis of conscience and leaves the church. With no source of income, he moves his family to the northern industrial town of Milton where he is to teach and provide tutoring. One of his first students is mill owner John Thornton.

When Margaret and Thornton meet they tend to antagonise each other, with Margaret in particular being quite vehement in her dislike of Mr Thornton - a man who is not a gentleman in her eyes when she first meets him. Over time though, and through a series of rather dramatic events in the life of young Miss Hale and in the life of the town of Milton itself, she comes to see the very positive characteristics that 'these Milton men' possess. Poor Margaret has to deal with a lot throughout the course of this novel!

In many ways I think that this book was made easier to read by the fact that I had already watched the adaptation, particularly in the sections of the book where Higgins and the other mill-workers were speaking because Gaskell didn't shy away from using dialect that some may have found difficult to understand if they were being exposed to the story for the first time.

It was a real delight to find passages of dialogue that I recognised immediately where it was lifted straight from the pages of the book to the screen, and then it was equally as interesting to then rewatch the series and be able to quite clearly see which parts had been added by the scriptwriters and see what really added something to the story, what just added to the aesthetics because it looked really good, and also what was moved around or amended in the adaptation from word to screen.

One of the changes was in the ending of the book, and I have to say that for sheer romance the mini-series ending was superior, but the ending of the book was special as well, with a glimpse into how the two main characters would be able to share in mutual enjoyment and moments of humour as well as the fact that the ending in the book is probably more true to how a couple would behave at the time the book was set.

What the book was better at portraying than the mini-series was the build up in the emotions between our two principle characters, mainly because in a book you can get to know the inner thoughts and feelings which is much harder to do on screen. It definitely still happened on screen, but it was much more identifiable and palpable in the book.

If you didn't succumb to the North and South crusade that was happening earlier this year, I would encourage you to add the mini-series to your viewing schedule (and then come back and gush about how gorgeous John Thornton is), but if you don't want to watch it, then the book is definitely an entertaining read and is well worth the effort of reading. If I had to choose though, I would have to be honest and say watch the mini-series. The book was good, but the mini-series was superb!

What I have been thinking about since having seen this story in both the book and mini-series formats is what are my favourite scenes. The most obvious answer is the endings, but I must also say that the scene where Mr Thornton realises that 'it was her brother' also ranks right up there for me!

Given that I am talking about the mini-series you know that I really have no choice but to leave you with something to whet your appetite!

Ana's Thoughts:

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 than 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.

Highly recommended!


  1. Have either of you ever read Wives and Daughters, my own favorite by Gaskell? It's not quite finished because Gaskell died before she could write the last few pages, but it's obvious where the ending's going.

  2. I haven't yet. I do intend to read more Gaskell in due course though. I am hopeful that Cranford will be shown here on TV soon, so I may try that first...although that could all change in an instant!

  3. I've had N&S on my mind a lot lately. Love the series, but have never read the book ~~ although I intend to at some point.

    Thanks for the great reviews!

  4. I haven't read Wives and Daughters yet but I plan too, I have the mini series and I wanted to read it before watching the series. I already have Cranford in the TBR though...

  5. Wow! I haven't read any of her works but now I want to read North and South AND watch the movie. Wives and Daughters is on my TBR pile and I have added North and South. Thanks!

  6. Great reviews from both of you, Marg and Ana. I recently saw the Cranford mini-series and really enjoyed it. I just put the North and South Mini-series on hold at my library.

  7. I love N&S for many of teh reasons you two have highlighted including the characterization and the relationship between the main characters. Co ming from lancashire I no trouble with the dialogue and I love her working class characters who are so more real that teh one's Dicken's draws. There is nothing clumsy or flat about Higgins and Bessy and they are given an emotional life and pride and independence. I would also recommend Wives and Daughter, and Mary Barton. and Ruth (which is a similar plot to Hardy's Tess without the melodrama). Mary Barton and Ruth both use a bit of dialect again, but you sound tunned in to it now!