Elizabeth Gaskell is the most under-appreciated author I know of. I went to Barnes and Noble to buy North and South the other day. I would have settled for Wives and Daughters, if that was the only one they had–but no. They didn’t have either.
They didn’t even have a Gaskell section.
Everyone goes on and on about Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and the Brontës, and poor Gaskell never gets a glance. It’s a crime, really.
I finished North and South a few weeks ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
It’s a gem. It’s a sparkling, shimmering, obscure little gem.
I honestly have no idea why it isn’t as popular as Pride and Prejudice. It might not be quite as sharp and witty, but it’s every bit as interesting, and a good bit more romantic.
The book is a bit heavier than Pride and Prejudice thematically. It takes place in nineteenth-century England. The land is split in two–North, which is industry-driven and fast-paced, and South, which focuses on agriculture and is slower-paced.
The catalyst of the plot takes place when Margaret Hale moves from the South to the North, takes a heavy dose of culture shock, finds a man she’ll hate forever, hates him for a while, finds friends in unexpected places, and falls hopelessly in love with the man she’s sworn to hate forever.
The heroine of this book is a strong, beautiful, sensible young girl, the likes of which English literature has never seen. (I’m being facetious. English literature has seen the likes of her before, but that doesn’t mean we love her any less.)
When her father has a crisis of conscience, Margaret moves from her beloved, slow-paced, podunk home in the South of England to the industrial Northern town of Milton.
Margaret’s relationship with Milton is a beautiful thing–she absolutely hates it at first. It runs on cotton mills (no one in the South wears cotton; everyone wears linen and is snooty about it) and it’s dirty, smelly, smoky, and bad for the health. The people are rude and abrupt, compared to what she’s used to in the lackadaisical South, and the busy-ness and industry are a shock.
Eventually, however, she makes new friends, with whom she has many many conversation (or else she listens in on them), and she begins to understand the town–and the people in it.
In the end, Margaret has to leave Milton, and in that moment, she realizes she doesn’t want to. She won’t hear her Southern friends speak badly of it, and when the time comes to leave, she lingers in the town she once hated until the very last moment.
Honestly, the development of the relationship between Margaret and Milton is almost better than the relationship between Margaret and Mr. Thornton.
Mr. John Thornton is the owner of a cotton mill and a man of stone and granite. He has a will of iron, a mind of titanium, and a heart of steel–
Until, that is, Miss Margaret Hale comes along and melts him right into butter.
To butter, my friend.
When he first meets Margaret, he can’t stand her–he thinks she’s the haughtiest girl he’s ever met in his life. Soon, however, he comes to see her in all her charm, elegance, and strength, and he falls head over heels in love with her.
You can tell because he looks at her a lot.
In reality, he does absolutely nothing to betray his unmanly feelings, until she gets hit by a rock trying to protect him from a mob. Then, suddenly, quite without his consent, all his repressed feelings come to light in a rush of agonized love as she lies quite unconscious on the sofa–
“Oh, my Margaret–my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to me! Dead–cold as you lie there you are the only woman I ever loved! Oh, Margaret–Margaret!”
It’s a little melodramatic. But it gets better when his mother walks in and he stands up abruptly and awkwardly and says, “Miss Hale is hurt, mother.”
After this, he has no choice but to propose to “his Margaret.” An argument to rival the famous Miss Bennett vs. Mr. Darcy scene ensues, ending with Mr. Thornton’s passionate remark that “she can’t stop making him love her–no matter what–so there!”
I’m paraphrasing, slightly.
Doesn’t this sound exciting, though? For a Dickens-era English romance novel (Gaskell was actually a kind of apprentice to Dickens) it’s really quite fast-paced.
There’s even some action. It’s limited mainly to Margaret getting hit with the rock and her brother pushing a guy off of a platform, but it’s something.
This is Margaret’s weak, pretty, invalid mother. She loves Margaret very much.
This is Margaret’s weak, handsome, conscience-stricken father. He loves Margaret very much.
(Needless to say, Margaret is the pillar of the household.)
This woman is Mr. Thornton’s mother. He got all of his soft, compassionate, steely qualities from her.
Her relationship with her children is actually fascinating. She loves John dearly–he’s the one she’s proud of, the one she respects and trust–but her interactions with him are generally cold and brusque.
She has a daughter named Fanny, whom she also loves dearly, but isn’t proud of. Fanny is frail and weak-minded. Because of her weakness, Mrs. Thornton showers all the affection she feels for John on Fanny–Fanny gets the kind words and the loving epithets.
In short, she coddles her daughter, but she relies on her son. You can tell that all her true affection lies with John because they have a strangely co-dependent relationship.
“No one loves me,–no one cares for me, but you, mother.”
Yes, that is actually something he says, after being rejected by Margaret. (And yes, that comma/m-dash combo is actually there in the book.)
It isn’t necessarily very healthy, but it’s interesting.
One of Margaret’s “friends in unlikely places.” He’s a strong character and a primary catalyst for the plot–he helps instigate a strike that puts severe stress on all of Milton. The strike is central to the book; it’s the reason for the mob that struck Margaret and forced Mr. Thornton’s romantic hand.
This is Nicholas’s daughter, another one of Margaret’s “friends in unlikely places.” She’s an invalid, taken ill by hard work in a cotton mill and the “fluff” that got in her lungs while she worked there.
She loves the book of Revelations.
This is the man who has the misfortune of falling in love and proposing to Margaret too early in the book–a fault which all attractive young bachelors should avoid at all costs.
See, gentlemen, you’ve got to wait until the end of the book–second-to-last-page kind of end, if possible. Give her as much time to hate you, fight with you, disagree with you, and then fall in love with you as possible.
If she likes you right off the bat, it’s a no-go.
I think I get more cynical with each one of these I write. I meant to write a glowing review of this book, because I really thoroughly enjoyed it.
In these romance novels, though, there’s just so much to ridicule–too many good opportunities to pass up.
To emphasize Gaskell’s skill as a writer, though, and show you the true quality of this book, I’ll leave you with this little tidbit:
“Frederick came briskly in, with a forced cheerfulness, grasped her hand, looked into her eyes, and burst into tears.”
That quote means a lot to me. I hope it does to you, too.