Well, it’s taken me a month but I have finished reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I originally bought it following a recommendation I had had from a fellow blogger who described it as a “Victorian rewrite of Pride and Prejudice”. I can see what they meant. North and South is very much concerned with the morality and pride of its leading lady and gentleman (not to mention the other characters!). In the same way as Mr Darcy, Gaskell’s heroine, Margaret, is somewhat blind to her own faults and vanities. As one might expect from a Victorian novel, North and South does dwell upon right and wrong, good and evil, generosity and vice, but as the book also boasts a solid plot, believable characters and a healthy dollop of good old romance the passages which dwell heavily on moralistic considerations are fairly palatable, even for the modern reader.
As for the Janeites out there, sadly I can’t award North and South with having the same wicked wit and shrewd character depictions of Austen’s novels, but it is certainly an agreeable book to read. Gaskell’s prose does lack that tempo that Austen uses so well and there’s none of that droll repartee that I dearly love in Austen’s writing, but North and South does have something, its own charms, if you like. Like Austen’s works, North and South is narrated by an omniscient narrator and, thus her readers are allowed to peep into the mind of both hero and heroine and perceive exactly what they each feel at any given moment. This, I feel, is something that most modern romance writing seems to overlook, so many contemporary romances are written in first-person narration and allow their readers only to perceive the (usually neurotic) thoughts of the heroine. As a result of Gaskell’s narration, North and South’s readers become familiar with the internal convictions of both Margaret and Mr Thornton and the romance is all the richer for it.
As for Margaret Hale, she is a strong leading lady. She’s not the meek, affected society beauty (like her cousin Edith); Margaret is a brave, commanding woman with a real conviction of self. After all, she only succumbs to one swoon throughout the entire novel and, even then, there’s nobody there to see it. I think I may take up swooning when I’m next at Tesco (I hate supermarket shopping with a passion, it stresses me out beyond measure), although I doubt my swooning would provoke the same reaction as a Victorian lady’s, I’d probably just get trampled as people stampeded for the new loo roll on buy-one-get-one-free; but, I have diverted, back to Margaret. She’s no Elizabeth Bennet, but she is a heroine to admire and respect. Sure, she makes some silly mistakes and is frequently blind to her own foolishness, but she is looked up to by the characters around her and has real gumption (to use a word that didn’t even exist at the time Gaskell was writing). In fact, I would go so far as to say that gumption is the ideal word with which to describe Margaret Hale. Indeed, another observation I’ve made while reading classic romances such as North and South and Jamaica Inn is that modern romantic heroines seem to be a little lacking in gumption. Take Bridget Jones, for example – I do love her dearly, but she is sadly lacking in that self-assurance and conviction that so many classic heroines possess in such abundance. Why is it that modern romance’s depiction of women seems to be the neurotic worrier who can’t make a decision without consulting a war council of friends and self-help manuals? I don’t think women have changed so fundamentally over time, so why is it that the modern equivalent of Margaret Hale – strong, independent women of conviction – are no longer the fodder for romantic heroines? But that’s a rant for another day.
I think if North and South had been written today, a more accurate title might have been Urban and Rural, indeed, the novel does compare and contrast the differences in the lifestyle and the inhabitants of Milton, a Northern factory town, and Helstone, a Southern country village. Gaskell highlights the fact that there are hardships to be borne in either location and rich and poor live alongside each other and depend upon each other in both settings. It is the varying prejudices and presumptions that the inhabitants of each possess towards the other that is, perhaps, most amusing. The blindnesses of each are depicted with care, take, for example, the instance when Margaret is forced to explain to a Milton mill worker that were he to seek work in the southern countryside he would have to become accustomed to back-breaking work and lower wages, whether or not the absence of factory chimneys and dirty air are worth this is left to the individual to determine. Indeed the problems of Milton’s labouring poor and their mill-owning masters is one of the most rewarding aspects of Gaskell’s novel. Indeed, the social difficulties of Margaret Hale’s world are not so very different from my own world. Almost two centuries later the same problems are still being faced generation after generation, workers are still striking, the Unions are still baying, indeed, there are some intelligently told lessons to be learned from the pen of this Victorian minister’s daughter.
I enjoyed reading North and South, it kept me interested and entertained throughout. After I had accepted that Gaskell was never going to employ such an enjoyable writing style as Austen, I took North and South for what it was…a worthy classic romance with an entertaining plot, an engaging insight into Victorian industrial society, and a credible and compelling romance. That’s a ‘thumbs-up’ from me.
I move on to something a little different for In My Good Books…, a play, Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.