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Book Review: North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

31 Jan
North and South

“‘And I too change perpetually– now this, now that– now disappointed and peevish because all is not exactly as I had pictured it, and now suddenly discovering that the reality is far more beautiful than I had imagined it.'”

Genre: classic; romance

Plot Summary: 19 year old Margaret Hale’s life changes abruptly when her father decides to resign from the church and move his family to a Northern manufacturing town to become a teacher.  When Margaret’s mother becomes ill as a result, how will the family bear their misfortunes?  What will happen when the local millworkers begin to strike?  And how will Margaret’s deep dislike for her father’s friend, Mr. Thornton, affect both their lives?

My Book Review: For years I’ve heard many exclamations over the film version of this classic work, by the same author of Cranford and Wives and Daughters.  I continually heard the names of Margaret and Mr. Thornton, repeatedly saw pictures posted on movie fan blogposts, and then my sister got on the bandwagon and insisted I MUST read this so we could watch the movie!  Okay, okay!  And so I’ve finally finished it and am typing out my thoughts (before I watch that movie).

I liked the book.  Maybe not as much as I’d hoped, mainly due to the fact that it lagged in the latter half of the story, but I liked it.  For anyone who has ever had to make a hard move away from a beloved home, this tale is an identifiable one.  The story is chock full of rich, wonderful characters, from Mr. Hale –the cleric with a woman’s heart- to Higgens, working man’s philosopher.

The thing I liked best about it all was the story’s heroine.  Margaret Hale is such an admirable character, one that stands the test of time.  You just don’t see too many heroines like her written back then.  Ranking right up there with Elizabeth Bennett, the girl’s got spunk.  Meaning, she knows her own mind and makes a stand for herself when she needs to, even when confronted by formidable potential mother-in-laws.  She isn’t a shrinking violet.  She knows how to say no when she doesn’t feel compelled to do something (for example, in turning down two marriage proposals).  She shows she knows herself sufficiently well, and is secure enough not to feel she has to say yes.  I loved her dignified manner of conducting herself, which is described to us over and over throughout the story.  “And she swept out of [the room] with the noiseless grace of an offended princess.” Love it!  In the way she handles herself when insulted, when steeling herself up to do a dreaded task, in the way she walks, carries herself, and holds her head up without being ashamed…  Even people who don’t like her are compelled to admire this.

Margaret Hale - North & South

“And she swept out [ the room] with the noiseless grace of an offended princess.”

SPOILER: When Margaret goes away to the seaside to heal after so many losses in her life, she comes back the stronger for it, ready to make some much-needed changes in her life.  She decides to do something worthwhile with her life, to make it count.  And she decides to set boundaries and quit letting people walk over her, even though they are the closest people in her life.  She takes responsibility for herself, and won’t budge when her aunt and cousin try to persuade her to let them choose her clothes and dictate her life plans.  And when the family servant Dixon gets a little too big for her britches and tries to give orders, I love how Margaret refuses to cowl.  Instead, she keeps her head and assumes her proper place as one in charge of her own person.  END OF SPOILER.  Her healthy boundary setting is remarkable, considering her young age and inexperience.  After Margaret confesses a sin to her friend, Mr. Bell, he tries to convince her she has nothing to repent over.  But I love what Margaret says in response:

“What other people may think of the rightness or wrongness is nothing in comparison to my own deep knowledge, my innate conviction that it was wrong.”

What self possession!  She isn’t wavering back and forth and polling people, trying to gauge their opinion on whether or not she should feel guilty (sigh: like I would do…).  Instead, she decides for herself and once convinced is not easily moved.  She faces the music and lives with the consequences.  Sure, she has a thing or two to learn (which she does during the course of the book), but it’s the fact that she’s not perfect that makes her relatable.  Coming from a quaint country village, Margaret has certain prejudices against the rough and dirty city of Milton.  But it is wonderful to see the changes that take place in her heart, once she gets to know the diamonds in the rough in the lives of people around her.

There are so many good things to say about this character!  Needless to say, I would love to aspire to her, as she makes a great role model.  The main thing is that she is a complete heroine apart and separate from Mr. Thornton.  She doesn’t need him to make her feel like a person.

north and south  Background painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw

“….’A man is to me a higher and a completer being than a gentleman…'”

Oh yes, the famous Mr. Thornton.  He surprised me as not quite fitting the mold of most dark and dashing heroes.  Rather, he is described as being broad, and stocky.  Once you get to know him, this suits his personality exactly.  Like a bulldog, I thought.  Even though he is younger than most of the other manufacturing bosses in the city, he has the respect of all because of his reputation as being a successful, fair-minded business man.  His quiet manner, well thought-out ideas, and masterful presence makes those around him sit up and take notice.

“Margaret’s attention was thus called to her host; his whole manner, as master of the house, and entertainer of his friends, was so straightforward, yet simple and modest, as to be thoroughly dignified…. among his fellows, there was no uncertainty as to his position.  He was regarded by them as a man of great force of character; of power in many ways.  There was no need to struggle for their respect.  He had it, and he knew it; and the security of this gave a fine grand quietness to his voice and ways….”

Mr. Thornton is not your perfect hero.  Refreshing, really.  In fact, I don’t think I often liked him.  The guy was too tied to his mother’s apron string to impress me much.  But he is on a personal journey, too, even though he doesn’t realize it.  SPOILER: He comes to see that the people around him are humans with hearts and should be treated as such, instead of as machines.  END OF SPOILER.

There are lots of other wonderful characters, including Mr. Bell, who becomes a kind of father figure to Margaret, and sickly Bessy, who holds onto truth despite her doubts.

This is also a story where lots of people die.  It actually began to be a little repetitious and I wondered if Mrs. Gaskell liked her heroine.  But there is an interesting theme amidst all of the sad deaths.  Time and again, we see characters gleaning healing from helping others in their grief.  Margaret helps the Higgens family, and Higgens helps Mr. Hale in turn.  Where Mr. Hale was unable to convince proud Higgens of spiritual truths, orphaned children seem to soften his heart and set Higgens on the right path.

Unfortunately, I felt a little dissatisfied with the ending.  I wanted to know what happened to the characters.  SPOILER: I’m sure Margaret and Mr. Thornton were married, but where did they live?  What did they do?  I felt anxious worrying over how Margaret would get along with Mrs. Thornton.  What happened to Higgens?  I felt he got dropped through the cracks.  END OF SPOILER.

Despite some of its drawbacks, I was glad to have read this and have included it on booklearner’s Recommended Reading List.  It certainly is a classic worth it’s praise and something we can all learn from.  This is the second I’ve read by Elizabeth Gaskell (loved Wives and Daughters), and it won’t be the last!

Movie Review soon to follow.

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Posted by on January 31, 2015 in Book Reviews

 

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