Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I recently re-watched BBC’s North and South miniseries (2004) and liked it so well I downloaded the book to my kindle and began reading. This is one of the few times I felt the film adaptation was better than the book.

North and South tells the story of the Margaret Hale whose father, because of his conscience, leaves the ministry and relocates his family to the northern manufacturing town of Milton. Margaret languishes in Milton’s smog, missing friends while caring for an ailing parent. The only society to be found is with Milton’s elite tradesmen of whom Margaret thinks little. Meanwhile, Milton’s workmen go on strike (relatively novel in the mid 1800s as factory work was fairly new), causing trouble and unrest for the entire town.

Where Gaskell lost me is with the general characterization of Margaret. She’s too perfect. For instance, she tells one lie (to ensure someone’s safety) and, because she was caught in her lie by the man she cares about, she hates herself. With 20/20 hindsight, Margaret feels her lie was unnecessary and totally wrong and can’t get over the fact that her love interest thinks ill of her because he knows she lied. The self-loathing went on for far too many pages (and months in the story). Margaret: Girl, an innocent life was at stake so you told a lie. So what if that guy knows you lied. If he doesn’t care to understand the whole story, and you can’t bare to tell him, then move on.

Margaret Hale: misunderstood angel. Blah.

Where the novel was interesting was in the class conflict. Interactions between Margaret’s (demoted) family, the elite tradesmen and the workmen fueled the plot. I enjoyed the fiery conversations between Mr. Thornton (factory owner/love interest) and Margaret. I liked her spunk in speaking her opinion about the treatment of workmen as well as Mr. Thornton’s personal story. I’m not sure if they ever agree completely but they do influence each other enough to consider the other’s point of view.

Despite my frequent frustration with Margaret, I enjoyed Gaskell’s writing and her ability to weave a multi-layered story. It has a recognizable pattern (romance) but creates enough tension between characters to keep one reading to see their reactions. Though a friend of Charlotte Bronte’s, Gaskell’s writing lacks the darker shades of her friend’s writing. North and South does not explore the power struggle between Margaret and Mr. Thornton as well as it could have and like we see between Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Yet, North and South was not a light book as it took the manufacturing strike seriously. There was really no humor at all (missing Jane Austen’s wit) and so this novel fizzled out for me.

Give me passion and action or at least some intelligent humor (shoot, any humor) but not  this “oh, no. He thinks me a fallen woman!” crap. The miniseries is excellent. The book is for die-hard Victorian novel lovers who, like myself, will find some level of enjoyment in the cultural aspect of the story as much or more than the supposed romance. It was a struggle to finish but I’m glad I did.

Have you seen the movie or read the book? Both? What do think?

Publisher: Kindle Edition, 2009 (First published: 1855)     Pages: 499
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: free on Amazon


  1. I'm with you, the mini series was so much better! I had to read the book for a Victorian Lit class in College. I hated it. It didn't help that we read North and South back to back with Pride & Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.

  2. Sarah, I wasn't a huge fan of Wuthering Heights but appreciated its gothic elements. P&P is a favorite of mine though. I have read Gaskell's Cranford (in my Victorian lit class) and I enjoyed it more than N&S. I hope to read her Wives and Daughters as I loved that miniseries, too, and I've heard the book is supposed to be Gaskell's best work.

  3. I always wonder if the BBC mini series is stronger than the book. In a way it is. But I do love the cultural aspects of the book too much to really think it superior, I think. I don't know. I can't quite decide.