North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South miniseries

“Maybe I could take you seriously if you wore a smaller hat.”

My rating: 3/5 stars

Published in: 1855

Synopsis (via Wikipedia):

Forced to leave her home in the tranquil rural south, Margaret Hale settles with her parents in the industrial town of Milton where she witnesses the harsh brutal world wrought by the industrial revolution and where employers and workers clash in the first organized strikes. Sympathetic to the poor whose courage and tenacity she admires and among whom she makes friends, she clashes with John Thorton, a cotton mill manufacturer who belongs to the nouveaux riche and whose contemptuous attitude to workers Margaret despises. The confrontation between her and Mr Thornton is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, but in the broad context of the harsh industrial North.

North and South is the first classic I read in 2013, and I haven’t been moved to write about it. My 3/5 star rating is a pretty big burn – I expect the 1,001 Books to be at least a 4. Otherwise, I simply don’t agree that I must read it before I die. I can wait till another lifetime to read books that are just “good”.

My main issue is that the plot tended towards the sentimental in some parts, and the heavy-handed social commentary others, and the writing never really transcended all the stuff it was trying to do. It wasn’t all bad though. Gaskell writes a mean female lead, and when it’s possible to draw parallels between classic lit and Billy Madison, I believe that it must be shared. So,  instead of a formal review, here are my brief impressions of North and South:

The Good

I love Margaret. She’s so bad ass. When other girls her age are gossiping and flitting around and dying of consumption, she is taking care of business. While her parents are busy having crises of conscious and hysterical illnesses, she is running the household. When mill owner Mr. Thorton is about to get his ass handed to him by his own workers, she stands by her man, literally:

She only thought how she could save him. She threw her arms around him; she made her body into a shield from the fierce people beyond. Still, with his arms folded, he shook her off.

“Go away,” said he, in his deep voice. “This is no place for you.”

“It is,” said she. “You did not see what I saw.” If she thought her sex would be a protection- if, with shrinking eyes, she had turned away from the terrible anger of these men, in any hope that ere she looked again they would have paused and reflected, and slunk away, and vanished- she was wrong.

Margaret doesn’t even flinch when she flat out lies to the police, a move that could land her in jail, and (seemingly) ends her only chance for true love:

“I was not there,” said Margaret, still keeping her expressionless eyes fixed on his face, with the unconscious look of a sleep-walker.

The inspector bowed but did not speak. The lady standing before him showed no emotion, no fluttering fear, no anxiety, no desire to end the interview… she had not moved any more than if she had been some great Egyptian statue.

The Bad

Apart from my issues with the heavy handedness of the plot, I also have a bunch of petty issues:North and South Elizabeth Gaskell

  •  Gaskell uses the same words to describe Margaret again and again. There are only so many times I can read the word languid before it stops meaning anything, and she describes her limbs as “taper” which is just… weird and I don’t like it. (The magic of Kobo reveals that “languid” is used 24 times, and “taper” six. That’s far fewer than I thought.)
  • The edition I read was just awful. There were a bunch of editions for sale on Kobo, so I just picked the cheapest. I figured that it’s not  a translation, so they should all be the same, but it was full of typos, spacing and layout oddities, and it just didn’t look good on the page. Lesson learned.
  • I realize this is dumb, but, when a conflict relies almost entirely upon some situation that would be instantly solved by cell phones, I get kind of annoyed. I mean, I know, it was 1855. No cell phones. Not to mention there were cultural and class barriers to communication, too. But seriously, how hard would it be for Margaret to text Mr. Thorton: “OMG he’s my brother, chill,” and then they could get married and happily ever after the end.

The LOLs

North and South takes place in a textile factory in a town that’s a thinly veiled portrayal of Manchester. My mind couldn’t help wandering to Coronation Street’s fictional suburb of Manchester, and the poor, put upon workers at the knicker factory. I might have enjoyed the story more if it was about Carla and Mr. Connor.

Liam and Carla Coronation Street

Liam and Carla. Love among the knickers.

The other place my mind couldn’t help but go was 90s comedy Billy Madison. In the academic competition that serves as the film’s climax, Billy explains the parallels between the picture book “The Puppy Who Lost His Way” and the industrial revolution. I felt like I was being hit over the head with the parallels between Margaret and Mr. Thorton’s relationship, and the societal changes brought on by the industrial revolution, though I wouldn’t go so far to say that I’m dumber for having read it.

Has a classic ever fell a little flat for you? 

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10 comments

  1. Miranda

    ha ha ha ha ha! Love that you threw in a reference to Billy Madison. One of my favourite movies. I had no idea where you were going when you mentioned it, but it makes so much sense…..Industrial Revolution! Brilliant!

    • lauratfrey

      No, I’ve been watching it for almost ten years! But I go through phases with it. I PVR’d 80 episodes in 2011… those were the hour long ones… and watched them ALL while I was on short term disability waiting for this baby to be born. I’m like 30 episodes behind again now.

  2. Brie @ Eat Books

    *This book is really on the 1001 books to read list? I hadn’t even heard of it until you had mentioned it in a previous blog post. I enjoyed reading your review and the trip down Billy Madison memory lane, but I can’t see I am *moved* to read this book 😉

    Didn’t Ambur give you this book….or do you, *gasp*, just prefer to read books on your kobo!! 😉

    *Ack, so my comment hadn’t gone through…but here it is haha!

    • lauratfrey

      It is! 1001 is a lot of books, and many of them are obscure. I had no idea this was a book either, even when I watched the miniseries. I think Gaskell might be better known in the UK.

      I can see why it’s on the list. I didn’t emphasize it in my post, but, the fact that Margaret is such a kick-ass heroine is probably more impressive in 1855 than it is today. And I did learn a lot about the social climate during the industrial revolution. The writing just wasn’t quite to my taste.

      Ambur did give me this book! I found the font difficult to read though. I think this is an old-age thing and I need the large print section 🙂 But I did use my paper copy to find quotes for this post, so I did a hybrid… I find myself doing that a lot, actually. Post about that is in the works!

      • Brie @ Eat Books

        Good point – 1001 books *IS* a lot of books! And second good point – you’re right, I have to do this when I read classics – remember WHEN said book was written and think of it (judge it) based on the era it’s from. Which is really hard to do sometimes.

  3. trudystattle

    I love Gaskell – everything – the social messages, the industrial history, the romance, the emotional introspection, the prose. Her star is rising, thanks probably to the BBC great adaptations of her works.
    Half the fun of picking up a classic from another era is immersing yourself in the social confines of the time. Woman had it hard. It’s fruitless to gripe about what Margaret could’ve done in the modern age, when she was stuck in the conventions and moralities of the early Victorian era! 😉
    Yeah, it might have been nice to find a way to let lover-boy know he had no competition, but then we wouldn’t have had the delight of half his angst, which is so poignantly written in this book.
    This book is a favorite of many for all the many aspects the author successfully weaves into a captivating and satisfying love story.
    Glad you gave it a try. Wives & Daughters is also very good, with no industrial setting – more Austeneque.

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