I loved everything about the BBC adaptation of North and South (especially Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton!) so I was very eager to read the book by Elizabeth Gaskell. Possibly watching the series first was a mistake, as it definitely made me biased towards certain characters. I believe that I would feel very differently about the book if I had read it first.
Margaret Hale, who has spent much of her life in London is returning to her family home in Helstone. When Gaskell describes the southern hamlet that Margaret loves so much, it sounds like heaven. Unfortunately for Margaret, her stay in Helstone is not to be permanent due to her father, the local pastor, refusing to renew his vows. The family leave behind their peaceful life in Helstone and move to the grimy, dirty and noisy industrial town of Milton, where Mr. Hale plans to become a tutor.
Milton could not be more different to the tranquil idyll that is Helstone. Margaret finds herself in a cramped and tasteless house in a strange town where everything seems rough and vulgar – especially the people. She does make friends, but she also manages to rub people up the wrong way, no one more so than Mr. Thornton, a master at one of the mills and a student and close friend of her fathers. Mr. Thornton seems to be a rather severe character at first, and his family is simply dreadful. However, throughout the book, the reader really comes to appreciate the hard work of both him and his mother, who worked their way up from nearly nothing.
Countless disagreements between Margaret and Mr. Thornton made me want to knock both of their heads together. Both are stubborn, opinionated and ignorant. It’s difficult to like Margaret’s character, but you have to admire her. She is proud, stuck up and out spoken, but at least she has her own mind (even if it is sometimes a little misguided) and is not afraid to speak it. And she is certainly not one to moan or laze about. When her world is falling apart around her, she is the one to give courage, roll up her sleeves and do her bit.
I see North and South as a more serious version of Pride and Prejudice. There are some very obvious parallels between the two classics, but the characters in North and South are more solemn and there’s a lot less teasing and laughter. Where Elizabeth Bennett can be quick witted and playful, Margaret Hale is rude and stuck up. Both could be ignorant – but Elizabeth seems more able to accept her mistakes and learn from them. Poor Margaret has a lot to put up with though. She doesn’t have sisters to lean on when things get bad – she is the one that everyone else relies on and you have to respect her for that.
There were many interesting dinner table discussions about religion, class, the relationship between workers and masters, the role of women and even an exciting plot line involving Margaret’s fugitive brother. However, I did struggle with North and South at times, particularly when reading lengthy passages concerning certain themes and issues of the time. Although many of these themes are fascinating, they were often difficult to wade through. Most hard-hitting of all; death lingered over many parts of the book as a recurring theme. Gaskell has written about this subject in such a way as to make the reader feel the claustrophobic, stifling effects of death. It makes for a couple of depressing chapters, but interestingly, it’s not too sentimental. After all, life does go on, and there are many practicalities that need to be dealt with when people die. This is when we start to see the true determination and strength of Margaret’s character coming through.
I’m glad I persevered through the slightly more difficult parts of North and South, it was definitely worth the effort! I would recommend this to anyone interested in the divide between north and south, and the history of industry. For people expecting something deeply romantic, check out the BBC adaptation!
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