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….
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.