North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell – Review
Like her contemporary Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell wanted to expose the human consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Where Dickens sought “to take the rooftops off” in Dombey and Son to show the disease and suffering caused by the relentless pursuit of the capitalist enterprise, in North and South, Gaskell focused on the response of one individual when confronted by poverty and suffering. The result is a blend of genres – a combination of Bildungsroman with Victorian industrial novel.
Gaskell’s protagonist Margaret Hale is jolted out of her pastoral background when her vicar father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience and moves the family north to the mill town of Milton (a psuedonym for Manchester). Margaret’s physical journey to this new region brings about an awakening about the poverty and suffering experienced by the mill workers. Her preconceived ideas about industry and trade, born from her experience of Southern ways, are gradually relinquished as she deepens her friendship with some of the worker families.
She begins with an acute sense of class divisions and distaste of anyone involved in commerce.
I don’t like shoppy people. I think we are far better off knowing only cottagers and labourers and people without pretence….. I like all people whose occupations have to do with land…
But through her growing friendship with the vocal workers’ leader Nicholas Higgins and his gentle daughter Bessy, her sense of class is destabilised. Instead of the socially superior attitude with which she arrives at Milton, she begins to align herself with the workers, to challenge mill owner John Thornton about their conditions and to transgress the accepted boundaries of her class by speaking the language of the working class. Rebuked by her mother she retorts:
If I live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it..
Her transgression is complete when she intervenes in a violent scene where she intervenes in a violent scene between John Thornton and a mass of striking workers. In using her body to shield him she steps out of the conventional private and domestic sphere for women, turning herself into an object for public scrutiny.
It’s in the stormy relationship with Thornton, a self made man, that the book shows Gaskell’s concept of how individual feeling fused with social concern can become an agent for change. Margaret refuses to accept his explanations of the relationship between owners and workers which dehumanises the latter by the reductive term “hands”. Under Margaret’s influence and the collapse of his business Thornton learns to treat his workers as individuals and to adopt a more paternalistic attitude towards their welfare.
Their exchanges are at times somewhat tedious (Dickens himself was very uneasy with some of the discussions), as are some conversations with Bessy Higgins as she lies dying from consumption and contemplates the afterlife. I found the use of dialect hard to digest also.
But those are minor points of criticism and don’t distract from my feeling that this was an engaging book.
Why I read this: I included it in my Classics Club reading list on the basis that I’d read Cranford but didn’t care for it and felt there had to be something better by Gaskell. I wasn’t wrong….