Classics Club read # 1: North and South


I’ve been rather slow to get started with the novels on my  Classics Club reading list. But I took the plunge last week with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I’d never read anything by her until a few months ago and my first experience wasn’t a great one but I was persuaded by those who are fans of Gaskell’s writing, that the novel I’d chosen, Cranford, was not one of her best. As I wrote at the time, I was disappointed by the lack of a real plot, feeling it was a series of incidents rather than a cohesive novel. I was assured however that North and South was a more substantive read.

It was the second of her novels in which she highlighted the destructive effects of the industrialisation and urbanisation of Great Britain. Her primary focus in North and South is on the destructive impact of the industrial revolution on the workers who are the engine houses for the wealth enjoyed by mill owners and industrial magnates, yet share in none of that wealth themselves. Instead they endure poverty, bad housing and ill-health.

Gaskell relates the story through the eyes of Margaret Hale, who is uprooted from her comfortable home in leafy Hampshire when her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience. Her upbringing in a rural parish in the South of England and in the fashionable salons of London has left her ill-equipped for her new home – the textile town of Milton in the north of England.

The ‘north’ and ‘south’ in this novel are not simply geographic locations. They symbolise rather a division of attitudes. To the mid Victorian mind, the north stands for the perceived virtues of entreprenneurial skill and self interest where capitalism is to be applauded not denigrated. The south represents the educated and comfortable existence of a class whose wealth comes not from trade but from heritage and the land. Margaret Hale, like many of her Southern acquaintances, views the former as inferior, common and vulgar.

In the North, confronted by the reality of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers, she develops a passionate sense of social justice in their fight against the mill owners for improved working conditions.

After a fairly slow start, with some very unconvincing pieces of dialogue between Margaret Hale and a local mill owner, the self-made John Thorton, the novel is beginning to gather more interest for me.  Not only is the tension cranking up as the conflict between worker and industrialists builds towards a strike,but the personal tension between Hale and Thornton is gathering pace. Sparks are not yet flying in that regard but it has all the hall marks of some dramatic interchanges.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 17, 2012, in Classics Club and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’m interested to hear after you finish if you think it’s an important book to read or worthwhile. I’m curious about it …. cheers http://www.thecuecard.com/

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    • It’s considered a landmark book in the way it treats the clash of cultures. I’ll do a review when I get to the end which could be some time since I’m a slow reader….

      Love the pic of your Labrador. They’re so adorable.

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  2. I like the way you’ve described the tensions between the north and the south. You’ve put it across so briefly and yet so beautifully! I hope you like it at the end, as much as you seem to being doing so now…perhaps more. 🙂

    The next Gaskell on my list is Mary Barton. I’ve heard it’s a bit raw when compared to her North and South, but as I respected the latter, I don’t foresee any difficulties with the former. …

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