Cast your mind back to the second week of December. That’s what I have to do, if I’m going to be able to write a review of this book! I’ll set the scene: I was über-gaga for Richard Armitage, and since no one was going to buy me the mini-series of North and South, I decided I would read the book and then go from there! As you know if you read my Top 10 books of 2008, North and South surprised and impressed me. I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised, considering that I almost completed Cranford in 2007 and quite enjoyed it.
Elizabeth Gaskell, though she didn’t publish that many books, it’s true, was a professional. In the first scene, it’s wham—bam—and we’re thrust into the story and introduced to our heroine, Margaret Hale, and her cousin, Edith. With an excellent trick of effortless exposition, we learn that Edith looks like Titania and Margaret does not. It’s not a stretch to compare Gaskell’s style to Jane Austen’s, just as no one will be surprised when, later in this review, I compare the structures of the two books. Edith is engaged, and Gaskell delights in telling us that “Mrs Shaw enjoyed the romance of the present engagement rather more than her daughter [did].” There’s a mystery sewn into the seams of North and South, below the surface—as some writers have gone back and written prequels and inter-quels like Wide Sargasso Sea, Wicked, Ahab’s Wife, etc, I’m tempted to write about what really happened to Frederick, Margaret’s brother.
This is where Gaskell resembles Austen, too, as Frederick belongs to Austen’s age, to her bevy of sea-faring brothers: long before the action of the novel, Frederick commits mutiny at sea and is living in Spain to avoid the court-martial that will inevitably ensue should he return to England. But this kind of derring-do belongs in the past; Gaskell is concerned with her present. And the present is bringing into conflict the two “nations” in the title: the genteel, educated south of England, where Margaret and her family live, and the industrialized, provincial north. English readers will no doubt be very familiar with this divide, but I was somewhat surprised that in many ways the split resembles the one between the American north and the American south (at least, pre-Civil War). At first, Margaret, a clergyman’s daughter, has very haughty notions toward northerners: “What in the world do manufacturers want with the classics, or literature, or the accomplishments of a gentleman?”
Circumstances, of course, conspire to challenge Margaret’s views when her father loses his living (for his spiritual beliefs; rather like Rev. Dennis Hassett being sent to Never-Never in Oscar and Lucinda). Mr and Mrs Hale and Margaret are forced to take up a living in the working town of Milton-Northern (supposed to resemble Manchester) where Mr Hale becomes a tutor to northern men who had not time for Oxford or Cambridge in their youths. This is where the POV shifts to that of Mr John Thornton, a Milton mill magnate. This shift is jarring at first but I quickly got used to it—and without it, we’d never know what Thornton or his family were thinking since they are not a particularly expressive tribe.
Everyone who has ever read Pride and Prejudice loves the sexual tension between Lizzy and Mr Darcy, so I’m surprised all those readers have not yet sung the praises of North and South. Because John Thornton falls in love with Margaret Hale almost the moment he meets her, despite her seeming haughtiness. Gaskell can be one sexy writer, as in her detailing the fact Thornton obsesses over Margaret’s bracelets and how she uses her fingers as sugar tongs is far more sensuous prose than I would expect any Victorian woman to write. And I’m convinced, of course, they cast Thornton correctly in the mini-series I will someday watch: “Without being unpleasantly sharp, [his eyes] seemed intent enough to penetrate into the very heart and core of what he was looking at.” Margaret, despite herself, is immediately attracted by his dazzling but seldom seen smile. (Ooooh, Richard!!) And despite his bluff manner, like all good romantic heroes, Thornton has a sympathetic past, and he is not ashamed of revealing, despite his present wealth and authority, his father “died in miserable circumstances”—ie, he committed suicide.
But, like Darcy and Lizzy, Thornton and Margaret are immediately at odds, despite the initial attraction. In my humble opinion, Darcy and Lizzy were simply in a row over wounded pride initially, whereas Gaskell uses her protagonists to illustrate ideological differences that no doubt occurred at the time (and still do). Margaret sees Thornton as the heartless, slave-driving factory foreman—“Cromwell would have made a capital mill-owner, Miss Hale?”—and Thornton defends his capitalistic view as a man who rose from poverty to power. Margaret, of course, starts out snooty, finds out the real conditions of Milton from a neighboring family, and takes a moral stance against Thornton: “as if commerce were everything and humanity nothing!” Thornton, for his part, finds her condescending initially, then naive.
Unfortunately for him, though, he can’t forget about her. With characteristic northern physicality, he tries to shake her hand upon their first meeting, which she finds presumptuous. He spends the next forty pages trying to shake her hand! The gunpowder ignites, therefore, a lot sooner than I expected: during a mill-workers’ strike, Thornton’s life is threatened, and Margaret—without really knowing why—risks hers to protect him from violence. When she’s knocked unconscious, he confesses, “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!” Margaret isn’t dead, by the way, and having heard him, she is embarrassed by his passion. For one, she only saved him because she felt compassion. That’s not how Thornton’s mother sees it, already obsessed with the idea that Margaret is trying to “nab” her son.
As in Pride and Prejudice, Thornton makes up his mind pretty quickly. Having felt her touch briefly before she was knocked out in the mill-yard, he feels “a mixture of joy, of anger, of pride, of glad surprise, of panting doubt . . .” and takes the only sensible way out: he proposes. Margaret, embarrassed for the reasons I pointed out earlier, and feeling degraded by the proposal, heartily rejects him, even claiming the fervour of his feelings offends her! Thornton proves that elusive and fantastic quality of being manly and sensitive at the same time: “I am a man. I claim the right of expressing my feelings.” As is so often the case, though, he can’t make himself hate Margaret. He continues to do good deeds for her family, including buying fruit for her quickly ailing mother. He defends her to his mother, which is quite a feat.
Mrs Thornton is almost as fascinating a character as her son. She is a single parent (Thornton’s younger sister Fanny is a flibbertigibbet of no consequence) who barely had enough food to put on the table while Thornton was growing up. She is proud, economical, but moral. The two share a unique mother-son bond I can’t recall seeing in any other literature of the period; they are almost best friends. He is not really what you would call a momma’s boy, but they do care about each other deeply. You can understand why Mrs Thornton would hate to give him up to Margaret, but she is incensed when the haughty southerner rejects him.
Things, of course, go from bad to worse. The strike stretches on. People die, children starve. Margaret’s mother dies. Margaret spends more time with her neighbors, the Higginses. The youngest daughter is an interesting character, grappling between faith and disbelief as much as she does with pneumonia, finally succumbing. “God help ‘em!” cries Nicholas Higgins, her father. “North and South have each gotten their own troubles.” Frederick Hale makes a daring visit that almost ends in tragedy; unfortunately (and perhaps predictably) Thornton sees him from afar and think he is a suitor ruining Margaret’s reputation (“he lashed himself into an agony of fierce jealousy”). Before you say this is overwrought, I dare you to reflect in your own past, consider your own small bouts of jealousy, whether justified or not (or perhaps you are lucky enough not to have had any). Thornton now has to deliver Margaret from being implicated in a murder investigation as well as believing that she’s “compromised” herself with someone who isn’t him!
Margaret actually had a legitimate suitor at the beginning of the book, the rather shallow brother of her cousin’s husband. He comes back to haunt her later in the book, but for the moment, the strike takes precedent. When Higgins loses his job, Margaret encourages him to go to Thornton. Thornton, of course, hires him once he finds out it was Margaret who sent him. So, Thornton slowly redeems himself in Margaret’s eyes, by helping her in ways small and large. She suffers the death of her father, then removal from Milton-Northern altogether to live in London with her cousin. In the meantime, unbeknownst to her, Thornton visits her hometown in the south which she speaks of so adoringly. He dreams of her (again, surprisingly sexy!). He becomes a more kindly master of his mill because of her. Outwardly, he tries to appear indifferent: “ ‘Do you speak of her as you would of a horse or a dog?’ Mr Thornton’s eyes glowed like red embers.”
This is all very Darcy of him. (There is, in fact, a hilarious script on the Richard Armitage Appreciation Group on Facebook proving just how Darcy.) And nothing more so than his second proposal, which is, of course, accepted. Unfortunately, the novel ends—just like that! A total lack of denouement is the only fault I can find with this keen social commentary and delightful romance. At 520 pages it may seem like a hefty read, but I finished it in a few days—that’s how good it is.