Monday 15 September 2014

North and South by Mrs Gaskell

I have been trying not to re-read books because I have so many new book I haven’t read yet, but the Goodreads North and South group that I’m a member of were having a group read and I couldn’t resist joining in. Since everybody approaches a book from their unique perspective we all interpret a story through our own filter and will see things differently. I got a lot out of doing the group read as people raised points that might not have occurred to me, and solidified my views of other aspects. As with any book I’d consider a classic it’s very hard to write a review, I don’t feel worthy! So instead I’ll just say I’m sharing my thoughts!

Book cover - North and South by Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell
North and South tells the story of 18 year old Margaret Hale. She has been brought up in her aunt’s house in London for the last 9 years as a companion to her cousin Edith, but now Edith is due to marry and Margaret will return to her parent’s home. Though sincerely fond of Edith and Aunt Shaw, Margaret can’t wait to be able to be a daughter to her parents again back in the hamlet of Helstone in the New Forest. However, Margaret’s joy at returning home is short-lived. Her father, Mr Hale, is a clergyman, but he has been having a spiritual crisis, disagreeing with many of the doctrines of  the church. He doesn’t feel that he can, in good conscience, continue to act as a clergyman and has decided to move the family to Milton, an industrial town in the North of England, where Mr Hale proposes to work as a tutor, teaching the finer points of classics and literature to adult students.

Milton couldn’t be much more different to the New Forest. It is dirty, industrial and the people are different too, being far less class-conscious, more forward, and the pace of life is also quite different. One of Mr Hale’s pupils is John Thornton, a successful mill-owner. To Margaret, he personifies the North, being hard, uncaring of people, seeing his workers only as cogs in the machine of his business rather than as people in their own right and only caring for money. Margaret is sadly prejudiced against Mr Thornton, still retaining some of her London snobbery towards tradesmen and their pretences of being something other than they are.

Mr Thornton - North and South - Mrs Gaskell
In fact, Mr Thornton is a self-made man. Following his father’s suicide the then-teenaged Thornton left schooling and obtained a job as a draper’s assistant to be able to support his mother and sister. He not only repaid his father’s debts but managed to get a job as an assistant manager in a cotton mill, eventually becoming a successful mill-owner, through his hard work. He is driven, and proud of his achievements, though he feels that anybody willing to work could have achieved what he did. Over time and through some very sad events, both Margaret and Thornton change. She comes to understand how the Northerner’s minds work and the reasoning behind their views. Thornton comes to appreciate his workers on a more personal basis and once he is able to understand their perspective he can work to improve his workers’ lot in life without overstepping the boundaries of his proud countrymen.

Margaret Hale - North and South - Mrs Gaskell
I’ve always thought of North and South as being like Pride & Prejudice with a social conscience and I still think that’s a fair summation. Mr Thornton is proud, and rightly so, but the reason he holds himself apart from his fellow-man isn’t particularly his pride but his somewhat incomplete view of them. Margaret is also very proud, but she’s also extremely prejudiced. She has an additional problem in the form of the support she has to provide to her family during a time when they are under a lot of pressure.

Mrs Gaskell was writing at a time well-known for the increase in social conscience, where people took an interest in reducing problems and injustices in wider society. There were many attempts made by authors to raise awareness of the way life was for the working man in order to gain more understanding and empathy for his situation. In North and South Thornton himself is initially unsympathetic to the troubles of his worker – since he has raised himself up from scant earnings he sees no reason why any other man who can read and write couldn’t do the same but once he gets to know them on a human level he gets to understand them and their issues better. For all his self-made success, even Thornton isn’t infallible so he learns that hard work alone isn’t always enough.

Book cover - North and South by Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell
One thing I always enjoy with older books is a peep at aspects of life in times gone by. In some stories this glimpse could be nuances of society, etiquette etc. Here, the focus is on the life of the workers, an exploration of industrial relations and the moral role of the master is brought to life with human interest. All of this with the undercurrent of a romance that is full of twists, angst, misunderstanding and plenty of passion, kept sternly repressed by crinoline and frock coat for the most part!

If you’ve watched the excellent BBC adaptation I would still recommend reading the book. Not only do you get more of the inner thoughts of Margaret and Mr Thornton but I think you get more of the societal message that Gaskell was intending to convey along with the growth of the main characters. This is one of my all time favourites and I highly recommend it.

5 star read


  1. I will start by saying love the pics! I was distracted for a while :) Great review, I have the book but am trying to find the time! I think the majority of the time the books are better than the adaptations. Considering I loved the adaptation I can only wonder at how much I will love the book.

    1. I know, wasn't I restrained to stop at just one Richard Armitage picture?! I agree with you, I nearly always prefer the book, you get so much more detail and depth.

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  3. Great review, Ceri, many thanks!

    I'm one of those who watched the adaptation before reading the book and can't tell what it was, maybe Richard Armitage, maybe the extra dose of Victorian morality in the book, but I liked the film more (let's face it, it WAS Richard Armitage :D )

    What I did love most about the book though (which was something they didn't manage to convey very well in the adaptation) was a clear insight into John Thornton's feelings. You're left in no doubt about his attraction to Margaret, it's not just smouldering looks and guesses (though Richard Armitage makes smouldering looks into an art form!)

    But to me, there's one extra element that redeems the adaptation: The 'Look back! Look back at me!" I get goose-pimples as I write and remember the tone of voice, the intensity of the moment! THAT was a stroke of genius!

    1. I think part of my preference is what introduced me to the characters. In my case I read the book first so I already loved John Thornton before I saw the adaptation so it was only the cherry on top of the cake. I think if you saw the adaptation first the book might be less weighted towards the romantic and more towards the social issues so I can see how the book could fall short a little.

      Although the first time I read the book I didn't imagine anything quite as splendid as Richard Armitage (Mr Thornton is described as 'plain' after all!) once I'd watched the adaptation I needed no persuasion to alter my mental image of Mr Thornton, and although the 'Look back at me' isn't in the book, I realise now that I added it to my mental picture when I read that section! This for me is one of the best things about reading, that I can imagine what I like, even if it's not on the page :)


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