Jul 17, 11
Read in July, 2011
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is one of the most enjoyable Victorian novels I have ever read.
The setting is one of the agricultural, balmy South of England versus the industrial, smog-ridden North. Margaret Hale, the young heroine, has been cushioned in a life of privilege living in central London with her wealthy cousin until her cousin's marriage means that Margaret will have to move back to her parents home, a rural manse where her father is the local vicar.
This move coincides with a rite of passage for Margaret as within a few weeks, when only just having adjusted to a more frugal life away from London, her father confides in her that he has lost his vocation and must give up his living, leaving the comfort and security of their situation for a post as a teacher in an industrial town in Northern England, on severely reduced circumstances.
It is at this point when Margaret's journey takes flight and her blinkered inexperience of life and people is revealed in all its naivety. I would not want to spoil this for any other reader but the progression of the story is a wonderful path and many of the characters are very richly described, such as Mrs Thornton, the fiercely matriarchal figure who finds it hard to watch her son, the local factory owner, find his true self without her intervention and protection, but watches over him like a lioness. Mr Bell, Margaret's god-father, was also one of the warmest, wittiest characters ever written and I felt genuine affection for him on the page.
Like Dumas, Mrs Gaskell's characterisations are certainly her true strength and forte, pinning down human nature in simple, incredibly astute understatement and ease at times, often leaving the reader with a smile and a realisation of simply how good it is.
The social changes of the time were vast and I am sure that many who read this book at the time would have found Gaskell's voice clear on several levels: the social/class setting, the rite of passage of a young girl fallen from affluence to relative poverty, political unrest and formation of the unions, the nature of industrialisation in Britain at the time of the industrial revolution and reform for workers which eventually followed and finally a damn good love story which ends on the kind of note which one might expect only from the best writers (Jane Austen amongst others springs to mind here)full of passion and honesty.
I would highly recommend as I really loved it.