Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell’s compassionate, richly dramatic novel features one of the most original and fully-rounded female characters in Victorian fiction, Margaret Hale. It shows how, forced to move from the country to an industrial town, she develops a passionate sense of social justice, and a turbulent relationship with mill-owner John Thornton.

I have seen the BBC Mini series several times, but for some reason had not tackled the book yet. I guess that I was slightly worried that it wouldn’t measure up to how much I love the series, and would thus disappoint me. I was entirely wrong. This book made me run the gamut of emotions, including a spell of hysterical sobs which made my partner think I’d had some kind of awful news delivered to me!

I loved Margaret Hale, for all her sass and fortitude. She definitely had balls, and wasn’t afraid to tell people where they were wrong. I did become annoyed with her by the end, as she really did make life far more difficult for herself and others the was strictly necessary… I wanted to shake her and say “Come on! Just TELL them!”

Thornton was far mellower than the Prince Broody McBroodypants that Richard Armitage portrays him as in the screen adaptation, and I can see why they made the change. He obviously has his major flaws, but mostly he makes Margaret look a bit bitchy, when you really think about it. Neither of them gave the other a chance though. I found their romance really quite sweet, and liked how Gaskell gave us both sides of the story.

Mostly, I found the contrasts between the South and Milton to be fascinating, and loved how Gaskell slowly makes Margaret understand that farm life isn’t all haystacks and baby alpacas. It was a tough life for farm labourers in the 19th century, and Margaret shows at first an idyllic wilful blindness to what is placed before her, simply because she finds country life so charming. Watching her development from naïve young girl to a much wiser woman was great.

I wish that I hadn’t left reading this for so long… It’s probably going to be in my top reads of 2015 and has influenced how I have read other 9th century women’s fiction (I read The Three Miss Kings immediately afterwards and saw many parallels) as well as how I look back at other novels I’ve read in the past. I’ve seen several critiques of the novel and disagree with most of the criticisms levelled at it, particularly those that believe the book to be a simple mimicry of other writer’s work. Of course, it is similar to others, but I wouldn’t call it mimicry, as every writer has their influences, and it probably didn’t help that Dickens himself edited the work!

North and South is a wonderful, thought provoking novel that isn’t afraid to tread on a few toes. I did find the preaching sections a bit tiresome, but they are an important part of the novel. The gender and sexual politics running throughout the novel are fascinating and give the novel a good dollop of tension, which is very much needed in a novel like this. It’s also far sexier than it is given credit for, with a healthy streak of sexual tension running through the novel.

I wished the ending was a bit more drawn out, ie. I’d have liked to have seen a bit more of the romance. It was cut off very abruptly, which bothered me somewhat… The book is over 500 pages, so surely we should be rewarded for sticking through all that love/hate stuff and get some kisses! I have no idea what Gaskell had to cut out to fit into Dickens’ word limits, but she was suitably annoyed at having to cut her story short, and that is possibly why it is how it is, even with the re-editing to put in missing sections not published in the initial serials.

Overall, this was a 4.5 star read for me, losing half a star only because of the ending feeling so rushed. It takes a very special book to make you truly forget the world around you… Especially when that world involves a noisy television and people trying to talk to you!

4.5/5 stars

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15 thoughts on “Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. I love this book, I’ve been wondering if I should read it again, and I think you’ve tilted me towards thinking ‘yes!’ And I’m intrigued that you compare this with ‘The Three Miss Kings’ as I have that sitting on a shelf unread.

    • Oooh I hope you enjoy it just as much the second time round! Yeah, I was suprised, it may just be since I read them one after the other, but there was quite a lot of social and religious discussion in both of them, and a fair few similar themes. I do hope you like it 🙂

  2. Not one of Gaskell’s book’s I’ve read yet but it sounds really rather marvellous…. If it let you shut out the world around you it must have been good!

    • My mother in law was speaking to me and I accidentally completely ignored her, because it was right at a tense moment! Lucky for me, she’s used to it, since I’m deaf in one ear and constantly don’t hear things!
      I’m keen to get onto Cranford now! 🙂

  3. People think North and South sounds like Dickens? Are they immune to style? I wonder what they mean. There is certainly plenty of Thomas Carlyle in North and South, but his ideas, not his style. Some of the use of Carlyle does come pretty close to mimicry.

    Where are you on the manslaughter and judicial corruption issue? Guilty? Guilty, right? Margaret and Thornton will have a wonderful life together in Australia.

  4. North and South is one of my favourite books! I love how Gaskell works the gender politics of the time into the story as well as the themes of rurality and industrialisation. Every re-read gives new insights into the novel, which is why I really should re-read this soon!

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  6. I love this book, haven’t read it for years either, like some of the earlier posters. So glad you got such a lot out of it – and oh, that’s such a lovely book cover, isn’t it!

  7. I definitely want to read this one! I’ve read part of it and LOVE it. I keep waiting for the perfect moment. December? Maybe. 🙂 I also really want to read Wives & Daughters.

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