Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South often reminded me of one of my all-time favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice. At the same time, Gaskell did something more with her novel than Austen’s. North and South is more than just a novel of manners and romance. The depictions of an industrialized manufacturing town in England highlight the difficult conditions of their working class citizens but also managed to judiciously portray the mill owners as humans with their own reasonable concerns for their businesses. Gaskell manages to represent both sides without resorting to glorifying or demonizing either side at the expense of the other.
Margaret Hale thought she would simply return home to her father’s parsonage at Helstone after her cousin’s marriage. But after just a short while back at home, her father moves the family from the quiet countryside to the bustling manufacturing town of Milton. Margaret must adjust her expectations and overcome her own prejudices as she sees firsthand the interdependent relationship between the mill owners and their workers. Able to sympathize with both sides, the relationships Margaret develops with mill-owner John Thornton and the family of Nicholas Higgins, one of the leaders of the local mill workers’ union, help Margaret to cope with the numerous personal tragedies she experiences throughout the course of the novel.
It may sound odd that I couldn’t help recalling Pride and Prejudice as I read this novel, which is far more serious and was designed to address relevant social issues. The exchanges between Margaret and Mr. Thornton may not have the same charming wit as those provided by Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, but they have the same quick paced give and take that originate in divergent opinions and that later grow to mutual respect.
Darker and deeper characters and subjects make Gaskell’s writing an endearing and enduring combination that somehow mixes the best of Austen with Dickens. Jumping to mind almost as frequently as Austen, were the descriptions and social awareness present in Dickens’ novels. The depiction of the mills and working conditions were as vivid as any of Dickens’ passages describing the grime of London and the sweat of those hard at work for trivial wages.
North and South has a certain choppiness that disrupts the novel’s flow, perhaps a symptom of its having been published in installments. Though the issues presented by Gaskell are captivating, much of the plot itself feels sloppy. Death runs rampant with plenty of foreshadowing but little reason. It could have been done to demonstrate universality between the characters, but it felt more like a simple solution to keep things moving towards the final scenes Gaskell had in mind. After reading and enjoying Wives and Daughters so much, I wasn’t expecting something so depressing as this novel could become, though an effort was made to balance those tragic moments with optimism for the futures of the remaining characters.
Written as skillfully as the unfinished Wives and Daughters, Gaskell’s North and South is a darker and more politically charged novel that manages to survive its own tedious tendencies to leave the reader with a moderately hopeful, bittersweet, but still happy ending.