NORTH & SOUTH
Gaskell’s classic novel is set in a northern mill town (aptly named Milton) during the industrial revolution. It follows a young woman called Margaret, the daughter of a vicar who gives up his position in the Church of England due to a crisis of conscience, and moves his family to Milton from a small country village south of London in order to find new work as a teacher.
In Milton, Margaret befriends some of the mill workers at a difficult period in time when they are on the verge of striking for higher wages, and she therefore clashes with the mill owners – including Mr. Thornton, who finds himself quite in love with her.
Though it is essentially a romance novel, much of the story’s plot is concerned with class struggle – Margaret, as a gentleman’s daughter, is (despite her relative poverty) considered to be part of Milton’s social elite, who are mainly made up of wealthy mill-owners. The majority of her friends, however, are poor, working-class “hands” (the term that Thornton and his ilk use to describe their employees), and so she regularly finds herself defending their cause among those whom society considers her equals. Gaskell does a wonderful job, however, of helping the reader to understand both sides of the struggle.
My only real problem with the story was with the “Frederick-arc”. Margaret’s brother is alluded to frequently throughout the book, as having been in some kind of mysterious trouble. But when he eventually came into the story properly, I found myself underwhelmed: there was a great deal of build-up to his arrival, and then… nothing, basically. The only real consequence of Frederick’s existence in the story was another (frustrating) misunderstanding between Margaret and Thornton.
Margaret is a devout Christian, and therefore religion colours many of her actions. She can seem a little preachy at times, and in the book, she is often described as “haughty”, which some people may find slightly irritating, but I found that it suited her. She is certainly a very well-rounded and complex character, and (despite the fact that times have changed drastically since the industrial revolution) it is easy to sympathise with her situation.
Mr. Thornton is rather more mysterious, as we read mostly from Margaret’s perspective, and she and Thornton do not often see eye to eye. He is a self-made man, and often appears to be more concerned with money and success than with people, but getting to know Thornton properly is one of the great joys of this book, so I won’t say anything more here.
As for the supporting characters, almost all of them were very likeable, and even the less pleasant ones were at least somewhat relatable. Some of my favourites to read about were: Dixon, Higgins, Mrs. Thornton, and (later on in the book) Mr. Bell.
The romance in North & South is very slow-paced, and filled with miscommunication and misunderstandings. Margaret and Thornton’s relationship was certainly frustrating at times, but I found that I really enjoyed watching them come to know each other, and learn to be more open-minded because of it. Despite the disparity in wealth, and their contrary ideologies, their relationship is truly one of equals.
The writing was excellent, and in a similar style to other 19th-century authors. I’ve knocked off a point (though it’s really more like half a point) because some of the locals’ dialogue was a little difficult to understand at times (from the way the accents transcribed), and because I felt that the story ended too abruptly.
OVERALL IMPRESSION [5/5]
A classic romance that deals with the struggles of the working class! I really, really loved this book, and after a few days of thinking it over (read: obsessing), I even decided that it deserved to be added to my all-time favourites. I have re-read parts of it several times without getting tired of it, and fans of the 2004 BBC mini-series (which I know is hugely popular) should note that (at least in my opinion) the book is even better.
I will leave you with my favourite quote from the book, which, I think, sums up the spirit of it quite nicely:
Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.
Anyone who likes period romances, but particularly Jane Austen fans. Of course, those who have seen and enjoyed the 2004 BBC mini-series should definitely also read the book – it’s different enough to still feel fresh, but similar enough to be like reuniting with an old friend.