North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

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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19 thoughts on “North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. In my opinion, why read a more serious version of Pride and Prejudice when you can just read the original and not get all bummed about it? :p This one does sound interesting, though, particularly as relates to several of the themes you mentioned.

    I wanted to let you know that I nominated you for the Liebster award. You can check out that post here. Thanks for being such an awesome blogger!

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    • Thank you so much! 🙂 And congratulations to you for being nominated too! I’m so sorry that I haven’t responded until now, but I’ve been away from the blog for a couple of months. Things are getting a bit quiet again now though, I so hopefully I’ll be on the blog more!

      I can see myself re-reading Pride and Prejudice over and over again, and probably not picking up North and South for a second time. I am glad I read it once though!

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  2. Your review is so similar to mine! I watched the mini series years ago and loved it, finally got around to reading the book, and while I loved the characters, I felt like I was being hit over the head with the themes. Reading North and South didn’t make me want to read any more of Gaskell’s work, but I wonder if this is her best?

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    • Well I haven’t heard many good things said about her other books! And I think I’ll be avoiding them to be honest!
      North and South definitely does have a lot of a fans though. I wonder whether that is mostly due to the mini series though? It was very good!

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  3. I have been toying with the idea of reading North and South for a while now. I’ve never read any Gaskell and I thought somehow that her time in history and view of women in Britain then would be interesting. I also re-watched the adaptation not long ago. The trouble is you hear such negative things about her writing, just reading the comments you’ve had is enough to put me off – it’s also so long isn’t it? Must overcome my prejudices and get on with it. Nice review btw.

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    • I have to say that I’m glad I persevered through, but can understand that people give up on North and South. I have also been put off reading any of her other books because of what people say about them! There are too many books out there to waste a moment on one that you’re not enjoying!

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  4. I tried reading this a long time ago but found it too slow and quite boring so I quit. Recently I watched the BBC version with Richard Armitage and I really liked it, so I tried reading it again. Unfortunately, I still found the book rather dull and dragging….and….I stopped reading it again 😦 I just can’t get through it for some reason.

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  5. After watching twice the adaptation of Wives and Daughters and the Cranford series I decided to read the novels. Alas, I find Mrs. Gaskell’s style a bit ponderous given to excess overflow. No wonder since Dickens was her editor.

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      • North and South as an adaptation (especially the train station kiss–sigh) got my hopes up for reading the book. The first page put me off though–cluttery writing doesn’t work for me. Have you tried the Miss Read series or D.E. Stevenson? Yesteryear writers who also write of village life.

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  6. I really enjoyed reading this review because I absolutely loathe North and South! Margaret gets on my wick something chronic and all the lengthy discussions of politics and philosophy etc just smacked of bad writing for me – in those sections I felt like the voice of whichever character was supposed to be soliloquising (if that’s even a word) just dropped away, and what you’ve got left is Gaskell on her soapbox being shrill!

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    • Haha! There were times when I did feel a little frustrated, but mostly at myself for not being able to concentrate! You should give the BBC mini series a go, it’s much more romantic and the politics and philosophy is much more manageable.

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  7. Love the comparison to Pride and Prejudice. For me, this comparison always comes up somehow, when I think of the book or try to explain its appeal. Nevertheless, I think Gaskell is a very interesting author in her own right. I agree that at times the book is a little dense, yet my love for it (and I’m sure the mini series helped with that as well! Richard Armitage as John Thornton is probably still my favourite costume drama casting decision) is very strong. Glad you enjoyed the book even if it was different than you expected!

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    • I’ve always been a bit nervous about reading anything by Gaskell, because I’ve been put off by what people say about her other books. But I couldn’t wait to read North and South after watching the mini series!

      I really enjoyed reading through your posts on this book – You have put a lot of thought into all of the different themes and characters!

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