“Through the story of Margaret Hale, a southerner who moves to the northern industrial town of Milton, Gaskell skillfully explores issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to the mill owner, John Thornton.”*
I previously reviewed the novel Mary Barton, also written by Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell. Like Mary Barton, I found North and South to be a pleasant and rapid read. In this novel, Gaskell avoids the tear-jerker suffering of the lower classes, and instead explores the middle and upper classes, and creates a novel about relationships and marriage. A little bit of a lighter read than Mary Barton (thank goodness).
Similar to Mary Barton, North and South primarily sets itself in a northern manufacturing town – there the similarity ends. North and South only now and then delves into the working classes and the drawbacks and benefits of the burgeoning unions. Gaskell instead focuses on Margaret Hale and her middle class life and the delicate romance growing between herself and Mr. Thornton. While not an Austen novel, the novel follows common tropes of the romance novel – a rough beginning where each character takes an instant dislike of the other, the slow understanding growing between the two characters, and the final romantic denouement. An otherwise typical romance set in a dismal setting and dark atmosphere.
For many readers, you may be thankful in the knowledge that much of the romance in the novel takes a back seat to other issues. I believe the factor that raises North and South above other Victorian novels and Gaskell’s other stories, remains the characters. Specifically, this novel is about character development – at the beginning of the novel, Margaret Hale is a snobbish, well-meaning but sometimes un-thinking woman who looks down on those who must work for a living (men who do not occupy a softer, respectable occupation, such as tradesmen and manufacturers and merchants). This novel follows the opening of Margaret’s eyes – newfound respect and admiration for other classes. Margaret’s viewpoint and her actions slowly change throughout the novel. It can be very refreshing to read about a character’s whose views and prejudices can believably change to reflect a better attitude.
Verdict: I indulged in the light entertainment of this fiction - a marriage novel at heart, Gaskell generally avoids offending anyone in this novel and fails to bring any great truths to light. A classic…no, but a typical Victorian novel capable of gentle amusement.
*Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.