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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: A Harsh Lesson in Social Injustice

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Like her contemporary Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell wanted to expose the human consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

But while Dickens sought “to take the rooftops off” to show the disease and suffering caused by the relentless pursuit of the capitalist enterprise, Elizabeth Gaskell took to the streets. In North and South, she used her personal experience of suffering and poverty in the Manchester area for a narrative that shows how the attitudes of one individual to suffering change through expose to the problem. The result is a blend of Bildungsroman with the Victorian industrial novel.

North and South focuses on Margaret Hale, a young woman who enjoys the peace and tranquility of the Hampshire countryside where she lives with her parents. This idyll is disrupted when her vicar father leaves the Church due to a crisis of conscience and moves the family north to the mill town of Milton (a psuedonym for Manchester).

The Alien North As Alien World

Margaret views the North as an alien world. Southerners are people interested in education and conversation, their manners genteel. Her view of the North is a place of where people are not interested in learning, the air is dirty and illness and death abound.

She arrives in Milton with an acute 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…

Her preconceived ideas about industry and trade, born from her experience of Southern ways, are gradually relinquished as she gets to know the mill workers. In particular through her growing friendship with the vocal workers’ leader Nicholas Higgins and his gentle daughter Bessy.

Instead of the socially superior attitude with which she arrives at Milton, Margaret 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 between John Thornton and a mass of striking workers. In using her body to shield him she turns herself into an object for public scrutiny. By doing so, she steps out of the conventional private and domestic sphere Victorian women were expected to occupy. Instead of displaying qualities of modesty, and humility and behaving demurely, Margaret .

Agent for Change

It’s in the stormy relationship with Thornton, a self made man, that North and South shows Gaskell’s concept of how individual feeling fused with social concern can become an agent for change. Just as in Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell articulates her idea that the social problems of the working class could be greatly reduced if only workers and their employers could understand each other.

Margaret refuses to accept Thornton’s explanations of the relationship between owners and workers. By calling them “hands’, he dehumanises them, she argues. Instead she pleads with him to treat his workers as people, not as economic resources.

“Mr. Thornton,” said Margaret, shaking all over with her passion, “go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man. Save these poor strangers, whom you have decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor-creatures who are driven mad. I see one there who is. If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man.”

Margaret’s influence together with the collapse of his business provide the catalyst for Thornton to adopt a more paternalistic attitude toward his workers, putting him at odds with the other millowners.

Romantic Element

In addition to the social themes in North and South, we have a will-they-won’t-they romance between Margaret and Thornton. She starts off with a feeling of strong antipathy to this man while he constantly fights his attraction to Margaret. No prizes for guessing how all this ends.

The romance element wasn’t as interesting to me as the social component. This pair are worthy adversaries, each passionately defending their beliefs but their exchanges lack the subtlety of Austen’s clash between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Apparently Charles Dickens had some unease about the romantic element of the book, insisting that certain chapters be removed.

Gaskell does lean too much towards the polemic in this novel, just as she did in Mary Barton. So I found the conversations between Margaret Hale and Bessy Higgins as the latter lies dying from consumption, rather tedious at times.

But these are minor points of criticism and didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. It’s become by favourite Elizabeth Gaskell novel.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Endnotes

About the Book: North and South  was published in 1854, originally appearing in serial form in Household Words, a magazine edited by Charles Dickens. He decided on the title. Though today it’s one of her best known novels, critical reception during her life was less than flattering.

One critique in a radical weekly newspaper called The Leader accused Gaskell of making errors about Lancashire which a resident of Manchester would not make. The unnamed author went on to say that a woman (or clergymen and women) could not “understand industrial problems”, would “know too little about the cotton industry” and had no “right to add to the confusion by writing about it”. Ouch.

About the Author: Elizabeth Gaskell, most often referred to as Mrs Gaskell, was born as Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in London in 1810. Her mother died when she was 13 months old so the child was sent to live with her aunt in Knutsford, Cheshire, a town that provided the inspiration for the novel Cranford. Upon her marriage she settled in Manchester where her husband was a Unitarian minister. The conditions she witnessed there influenced her to write novels with a strong social theme.

Why I read this book: 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.

This review was posted originally in 2012. This updated version incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover. Formatting has been changed to improve readability.

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