Only A Novel

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Posted in Books, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fiction, Literature, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on May 17, 2008

‘Oh, Helstone! I shall never love any place like you.’

North and SouthSo exclaims Margaret Hale in a fit of passion after a long day spent in the country hamlet of Helstone in recollection of days past. North and South is a novel where the places are as much the central characters as the protagonists themselves. One cannot separate the people from the places. The Hales are from Helstone, the Thorntons and Higginses are from Milton, the Shaws are from London.

Margaret describes Helstone as “like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson’s poems,” where cottages had “roses growing all over them.” The manufacturing town of Milton-Northern cannot be more different: It had a “lead-coloured cloud” hanging over it, and its air “had a faint taste and smell of smoke.” And, of course, the ways of their respective inhabitants will be different in proportion.

This novel, first published in book form in 1855, tells a tender and touching story. It tells the story of Margaret Hale as she struggles through personal trials and changes of circumstances during the three-year period covered in the novel. Margaret Hale was born and raised at Helstone parsonage, where her father has a small living. But she spends the latter part of her childhood, up to her early womanhood, in London with her aunt Shaw and cousin Edith, and so she is used to the ways and accoutrements of fashionable society. You might guess as to the combined effect of these influences on the person that is Margaret Hale.

Pitted against Miss Hale is John Thornton, a talented, self-made, and powerful manufacturer in the town of Milton-Northern. She is from the idyllic south, he from the industrial north. She is genteel and well-read, he lacks refinement and a formal education. Superficially, they are as different as the places where they have known comfort. The novel gives Gaskell a platform for giving commentary on social issues relating to the manufacturing trade and industrialization, but she does so with a light hand, painting the issues on a personal scale rather than on a sweeping vista. Here and there in the novel, Miss Hale and Mr. Thornton clash in their discussions of the differences between North and South, and the social issues in Milton, among which is the extent of the social and moral responsibilities of the masters over their workers.

By all accounts, Margaret Hale is a stunning beauty, described by Gaskell as tall, stately, queenly, and eighteen years of age at the start of the story. Here is how Gaskell describes Miss Hale during her first meeting with Mr. Thornton:

She had taken off her shawl, and hung it over the back of her chair. She sat facing him and facing the light; her full beauty met his eye; her round white flexile throat rising out of the full, yet lithe figure; her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve; her eyes, with their soft gloom, meeting his with quiet maiden freedom.

But to turn a good story, one does not rely on external appearances. Beyond her haughty looks and queenly, feminine graces, Miss Hale is a woman of deep and abiding faith, innate courage, with a kind and compassionate heart, and an overbearing conscience. Oh, and she’s smart and sensible, too. In short, she is a person who probably exists only in fiction, or in an earlier century. It is a wonder that Gaskell made the character believable. In one of her moments of self-examination for a sin committed, Margaret finds encouragement even for herself:

‘The way of humility. Ah,’ thought Margaret, ‘that is what I have missed! But courage, little heart. We will turn back, and by God’s help we may find the lost path.’

Gaskell does not shy away from making religion an integral part of the plot. The novel is replete with religious and biblical references. Indeed, faith and morality are core ingredients for the existence of the central characters that are Margaret Hale and her father, Richard Hale.

Neither does Gaskell shy away from the topic of death. There are no fewer than six deaths in this novel, with a scare of a seventh. At least two of the deaths caught me by surprise, the kind of surprise which makes me rouse from my pillow and yell, “No!” But Gaskell is not only adept at sneakily killing off her characters, but equally so at empathizing with her survivors: Gaskell knows how it is to grieve.

and when they came up, Margaret was standing, trying to steady her dizzy self; and when she saw her aunt, she went forward to the arms open to receive her, and first found the passionate relief of tears on her aunt’s shoulder. All thoughts of quiet habitual love, of tenderness for years, of relationship to the dead,—all that inexplicable likeness in look, tone, and gesture, that seem to belong to one family, and which reminded Margaret so forcibly at this moment of her mother,—came in to melt and soften her numbed heart into the overflow of warm tears.

With all these deaths, one would think that the novel has a gloomy and hopeless tone. But this is not so. The tone is on an even keel, even as the plot sails into rough waters. The characters find ways to move on, as real people move on, if not hope. In the end, after all her painful ordeals, but with much of her life before her, the heroine takes control:

But she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.

Indeed, there are parts of the novel which I thought were sweetly funny, as in the exchanges of light banter between Margaret and her sixty-year-old, gouty godfather, Mr. Bell:

‘But—Mr. Bell—have you come from Oxford or from Milton?’

‘From Milton. Don’t you see I’m smoke-dried?’

‘Certainly. But I thought that might be the effect of the antiquities of Oxford.’

Gaskell is known for writing “in the dialect,” that is, writing the way characters of a certain background speak. She does so in this novel in the case of Bessy and Nicholas Higgins, who are daughter and father, poor Milton laborers who are befriended by Miss Hale, and who play central roles in rousing her interest in the plight of the Milton workers.

And what of Mr. Thornton? He is a proud, intense, purposeful, morally upright fellow, who strives to crush any sign of weakness in his character. He strives to be “John Thornton in whatever circumstances; endeavouring to do right, and making great blunders; and then trying to be brave in setting to afresh.” Maybe he and Miss Hale are not so different after all. And, for most of the novel, the poor guy is also sorely in love with Margaret and goes about his existence with wounded pride. To him, Mr. Bell says:

‘I did hope you had had nobleness enough in you to make you pay her the homage of the heart. Though I believe—in fact I know, she would have rejected you, still to have loved her without return would have lifted you higher than all those, be they who they may, that have never known her to love.’

By the end, Margaret’s influence on his way of doing business is also evident:

and it had taken him long silent years to come even to a glimmering of what he might be now, to-day, here in his own town, his own factory, among his own people. He and they had led parallel lives—very close, but never touching—till the accident (or so it seemed) of his acquaintance with Higgins. Once brought face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him, and (take notice) out of the character of master and workman, in the first instance, they had each begun to recognise that ‘we have all of us one human heart.’

Gaskell writes beautifully, and this is a beautiful novel. She particularly excels in transcribing emotions and thoughts into outward, physical manifestations. As far as physical lust can be described in a work of popular fiction at that time, Gaskell did it in this novel, ever so delicately and ever so subtly. So delicately and so subtly that one hardly noticed it.

The ending was masterfully written, and this is a terrific read.

BBC has a TV production of this novel. I heard it’s good (and that’s probably an understatement). After having read the book, I’ll definitely be trying to get my hands on the DVD.

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2 Responses

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  1. bookchronicle said, on May 18, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Lovely as always. I keep trying to talk myself into purchasing one of Gaskell’s novels, but keep forgetting or talking myself out of it.

  2. onlyanovel said, on May 18, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    BC, thank you for reading my post. I’m in a “Gaskell phase” right now. 🙂 I do want to read Cranford. Even before PBS decided to show it, I read good things about it.


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