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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

Elizabeth Gaskell, author of North and South

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.

Six Stunning Must Read Books of 2019

We’ve reached the mid point of 2019. It’s a good time to take a pause and reflect. 

A time to ask yourselves some questions. Have you:

  • kept up with your challenges and projects?
  • nailed that TBR stack?
  • found any knock out, truly brilliant books?

My answers to the above are, in order, partly,  no  and  YES.

I won’t bore you with how much I’m behind on my projects to read my classics club list or the Booker prize winners.   And I’ve already confessed about the rising state of my TBR.

Let’s talk about something far more interesting: six books I’ve read so far this year that were stunning. There’s  a psychological thriller, a classic novel, two memoirs  and two literary fiction titles.

Milkman by Anna Burns 

After a few years when the winning novel in the Booker Prize didn’t set my world alight, in 2018 we finally got a book that absolutely deserved the prize. Milkman by Anna Burns is an intense and powerful novel about trying to survive in a city where to be different, is to be in danger. The unconventional narrative form (no character is ever named) takes a little getting used to but don’t give up. If you do you’ll miss one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in years.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell 

Gaskell wasn’t alone among Victorian novelists in her anguish about the plight of workers in the newly industrialised cities. Like Dickens she wrote about their appalling living conditions, sickness and hunger. Mary Barton was her first novel and it’s a no holds barred tale about industrial strife in Manchester. This is a must-read novel for anyone interested in social issues.

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage 

Vanessa Savage’s debut novel is a spectacular psychological thriller. The Woman in the Dark is a  tale of a family’s descent into crisis when they move into a house whose previous  occupants were murdered. Within this she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse. Just one warning before you begin reading this: you’ll lose lots of sleep because you won’t be able to put it down .

The Salt Path  by Raynor Winn

Imagine you’ve lost your home and your business. You have nothing but a few hundred pounds in your savings. Your husband has just been diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition. Faced with that situation Raynor Winn decided to take a walk. Rather a long walk. Six hundred miles in fact. The Salt Path is her account of walking the coastal path, camping wild and encountering hostility because strangers thought they were untouchable homeless vagrants.  This is a memoir that can make you angry but it will also make you laugh because Winn has a wonderful eye for the absurd situations in life.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay

Adam Kay was a hospital doctor specialising in obstetrics for six years and kept a diary of his time on the front line of healthcare. This is Going to Hurt is  astonishingly funny but also sobering because Kay shows how poorly junior doctors are treated. Underpaid and expected to work well beyond their contracted  hours, the job puts a strain on friendships and relationships. This is an astonishingly frank novel but despite his criticisms, Kay is still a firm believer in the principles of public healthcare.

Circe  by Madeline Miller 

This was a book I wasn’t looking forward to reading. I did so only because it was selected by the other book club members.  But this re-imagining of Circe (the Greek sorceress who gets a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey) was a revelation. Miller’s descriptions of the world inhabited by the Titans among the Greek gods is breathtaking. If you’ve not yet read this, do yourself a huge favour and go out now and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry.


Those are my six choices for the first half of 2019. It will be interesting to see if any of them still make the cut when I come to the end of the year.

What would you choose from your own reading so far this year? Any knock out reads for you?

Classic Club: Spin #19

classicsclub3

It’s time for another Classic Club Spin.  I wasn’t going to participate this time around because I already have a few books lined up to read in the next few weeks. But then I noticed today that we have an extra long period in which to read the selected book.

So here we go with a list of 20 books remaining from my Classics Club list.  I don’t actually have 20 titles remaining from my original list – I am down to the last 13 in fact – so have had to add in a few extras just to make up the numbers.

Here is my list. I’ve tried to go for a mixture across centuries and geographies. The bulk are  from the twentieth century but I’ve included a smattering from eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also. Geographically, it’s a mix of British, French, American and Australian. Just to be patriotic I included  two titles by authors from Wales.

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield  — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  2. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  3. Basil Wilkie Collins 1852
  4. Framley Parsonage  Anthony Trollope 1861
  5. The Kill/La Curée – Emile Zola 1871-2
  6. Daniel Deronda  — George Eliot 1876
  7. New Grub Street George Gissing 1891
  8. My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin  1901
  9. O pioneers —  Willa Cather  1913
  10. Gone to Earth  — Mary Webb 1917
  11. Return of the Soldier  — Rebecca West 1917
  12. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  13. The Last September —  Elizabeth Bowen 1929
  14. All Passion Spent  Vita Sackville West 1932
  15. Frost in May Antonia White 1933
  16. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  17. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934
  18. The Grapes of Wrath   John Steinbeck 1939
  19. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  20. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955

 

Tomorrow we learn which of these titles I will be reading between now and the end of January 2019. I have a hankering for the Trollope, it seems just the right kind of book to be reading in front of a cosy fire. But otherwise I have no particular favourites.

Reviving the Classic Club project – Spin #18

classicsclub3The Classic Club is entering a new era with a changing of the guard (in other words we have a new set of moderators). They’re fired up with bags of enthusiasm and some of that has clearly rubbed off on me because it’s prompted me to revisit my Classics Club list.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Classics Club the idea is that we list 50 classics that we’d like to read over the course of 5 years. The definition of ‘classic’ is very fluid so there’s no compunction to be reading Tristram Shandy if it doesn’t appeal.

I put my list together in August 2012 and made good progress for the first few years. But I’ve neglected it for the last twelve months. I read only two from the list last year and so far it’s just been one – The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola  So naturally I didn’t make the “deadline’ of completing 50 by the end August 2017. I still have 14 titles to go. But really it doesn’t matter. It’s a self imposed deadline and I can’t imagine any of the club moderators are going to throw me out as punishment.

To coincide with the ‘relaunch’ of the club, we get to play in the Classics lub spin where the idea is to choose 20 titles from our Classics Club, number then in sequence starting with 1. On August 1, 2018  the wheel will turn and reveal the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List, by 31 August 2018.

The moderators would like us to put the list together in four categories:

  • 5 books you are dreading/hesitant to read
  • 5 books you can’t WAIT to read
  • 5 books you are neutral about
  • 5 books which are free choice

I don’t really understand the point of creating a reading list that includes books I am dreading to read. So I don’t have any in that category. Nor do I have any that I can’t wait to read – if I truly couldn’t wait then I would have read them long ago. So I’m going to have to go with just a free choice list. Since I don’t have 20 titles remaining, I’ve had to add in a few to the original list just in case a number between 15-20 comes up on Wednesday.

My list is as follows: it’s a mixture of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’ve included two Welsh authors and an Australian to bring a little diversity

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield  — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  2. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  3. Basil Wilkie Collins 1852
  4. Framley Parsonage  Anthony Trollope 1861 
  5. New Grub Street George Gissing 1891
  6. Lord Jim   Joseph Conrad 1899
  7. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  8. All Passion Spent  Vita Sackville West 1932
  9. The Pursuit Of Love  — Nancy Mitford 1945
  10. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955
  11. My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin  1901
  12. O pioneers —  Willa Cather  1913
  13. The Last September —  Elizabeth Bowen 1929
  14. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  15. Troy Chimneys  — Margaret Kennedy 1952
  16. Gone to Earth  — Mary Webb 1917
  17. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  18. Return of the Solider  — Rebecca West 1917
  19. A Kiss Before Dying  — Ira Levin 1953
  20. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934

If I had to choose a few that I would most like to read it would be Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton whom I read many years ago but don’t feel I appreciated her enough at the time. I would be quite happy with some of the Virago classics too such as the Mary Webb or the Maura Laverty.

All will be revealed on August 1.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier [bookreview] #20 booksofsummer

Jamaica Inn Sometimes it pays to give an author a second —  or even a third — chance. Such has proved to be the case with Daphne du Maurier, an author I first encountered via My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately it proved a deeply unsatisfying experience. I was expecting far more suspense and menace but though the book promised so much in this direction, ultimately for me it failed to deliver.

But I had another of her novels sitting unread on my bookshelves; Jamaica Inn. Surely the woman considered a master of the art of telling suspensful stories with sinister overtones couldn’t disappoint a second time? I’m happy to report that she didn’t. Jamaica Inn is a romp of a novel that proved a perfect companion during a heatwave that robbed my brain of any ability to deal with taxing reading material.

Written in 1935 but set in the early 19th century, Jamaica Inn is a fast-paced drama full of murder, paranoia, violence and sexual threats.  It’s set in a delapidated Cornish coaching inn, on a lonely road between Bodmin and Launceston, a place surrounded by treacherous marshes and high tors. This is an unforgiving landscape, certainly not the pleasant farmland community of ‘shining waters … green hills and sloping valleys’ that was home to our heroine Mary Yellan for 23 years of her life. But on the death of her mother, she cannot continue to manage their farm single-handedly. Without the farm she has no option but to take refuge with her aunt Patience and her husband Joss Merlyn who run a pub called Jamaica Inn.

Bodmin Moor 2

Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Her arrival at the isolated inn is the first stage in her journey from paradise to hell, from ignorance to tortured knowledge and from innocence to sexual awareness. Du Maurier provides a suitably Gothic tone to herald Mary’s arrival at the inn. She travels in a coach that creaks, sways and groans its way across the bleak moors in mist and driving rain. Mary reflects that the people of this part of the country must be “born of strange stock who slept with this earth as  pillow, beneath this black sky. They would have something of the Devil left in them still.”

When she arrives at the inn it’s to discover a place that seems steeped in suffering. It’s “like a live thing’ yet has a “cold, dead atmosphere”. A clock ticks “like a dying man who cannot catch his breath” and on Mary’s first night she is spooked by the battered wooden inn sign that creaks “like an animal in pain. ” Outside Mary hears the wind whistling across the moors as if it’s “a chorus from the dead” which isn’t that far from the truth since there are indeed the corpses of murder victims buried among the bogs.  It doesn’t take long for Mary to learn that the inn’s reputation as a place of secrets is fully justified.

Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

As she is drawn inexorably in to the smuggling, theft and murder committed by Joss Merlyn and his associates, Mary learns also what it is to be fearful for her own safety. She’s a brave girl, repeatedly facing up to her thuggish uncle and refusing to be cowed by his brutality but she treads a treacherous path; torn between the desire to expose wrong doing yet wanting to protect her aunt.

Uncle Joss is one of the great villains of fiction. He’s the key figure in a network that lures ships off course and sends them crashing into the rocks so they can steal the cargo. He’s a powerful figure whose considerable physical presence is matched by a cunning nature. When he opens the door to Mary on her arrival she sees:

… a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high with a creased black brow and skin the colour of a gypsy. … He looked as if he had the strength of a horse with immense powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees, and large fists like hams. His frame was so big that in a sense his head was  sunk between his shoulders giving that half-stooping impression of a giant gorilla, with his black eyebrows and his mat of hair.

He and Mary play a cat and mouse game from her very first night when he threatens to “break you until you eat out of my hand” if she gossips about anything she hears or sees at the pub. She faces down his threats instantly: “If you hurt my Aunt Patience in any way,  I tell you this —  I’ll find the magistrate and bring him here and have the law on you and then try and break me if you like.” But though Joss has a grudging respect for her courage, she’s still a threat to his empire and one he will not refrain from harming if it suits his purpose.

Amidst the dramatic scenes du Maurier has woven a few interesting themes. One is around love and sexual desire. Mary becomes attracted to Joss’ brother Jem Merlyn though she knows he’s a dangerous man, a horse-thief who bears a physical resemblance to her uncle.  Mary is smitten by his bright eyes and long dark lashes but can she trust him?  How much does he know about the smuggling? Her encounters with Jem set up a conflict where Mary recognises “he stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him.”  This is not a girl with a rose-tinted view of the relationships between men and women, but one who knows that if she gives in to her temptation there would be no turning back.

Du Maurier broadens this romantic dilemma into a broader theme about the female situation. Mary is frustrated that as a woman she has fewer weapons in her armoury against her uncle. As a man she could challenge him uncle in open combat, but as a woman she is nothing more than “a petticoat and a shawl.” Later, during a day out with Jem, she becomes as frustrated by differing gendered attitudes towards sexual liaisons:

She wished that women were not the frail things of straw she believed them to be; then she could stay this night with Jem Merlyn and forget herself as he could forget, and both of them part with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulder. But she was a woman, and it was impossible. A few kisses had made a fool of her already.

Mary knows that the real risk of a relationship with Jem isn’t a damaged reputation, it is that she would become the kind of abused woman she finds in her Aunt Patience. In her aunt she sees someone whose previous lively personality and intelligence have disappeared because of constant fear of her husband. Living in “perpetual high anxiety” under his reign has turned into into “a whimpering dog that has been trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience.”

Mary puts her faith in her own strength of will to combat a fate where she would, like Patience, trail like a ghost in the shadow of her master. But she is operating in a world  where it seems violence against women is normal and all Jem can promise her is a hard life.  The novel’s ending leaves us wondering whether there will in fact be a ‘happy-ending’ for Mary.

Footnotes

About the bookJamaica Inn, inspired by du Maurier’s stay at the real inn in 1930, was published in 1936, the fourth novel she had written. Three years later it was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock,  the first of three of her works he was to transfer to the large screen (the others were her novel Rebecca and short story The Birds). The coaching inn still exists though today is a far more successful commercial venture than it was in the novel. From the pictures on the website it looks rather cosy. I’ve never been there by my husband tells me it’s a ‘bit touristy’…..

About the author: Daphne du Maurier was born in London into an artistic and literary family. Her connections helped her establish her literary career, giving her the ability to publish some early works in Bystander magazine. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931. Her most famous novel Rebecca, published in 1938 became one of most successful works.  In 1969 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire but never told any of her family about the honour and never used the title. She died in 1989.

Why I read this book: Jamaica Inn is one of those novels that it’s guaranteed people will have heard of even if they have never read it or seen one of the various film/tv adaptations. I found it in a library sale and thought it was about time I gave it a go. It’s on my reading list for 20booksofsummer2017

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