With her novel North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens, attempted to take on many of the same themes that he addressed in his own novels. However, if you have tried and found Dickens to be daunting, don’t let that put you off Gaskell. I would class her work as something of a cross between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, although I found her prose somewhat easier to read than Austen’s, and I would call her social philosophizing “Dickens lite”.
The novel is set in 1850s England, originally in the south, both in London, where Margaret Hale was raised with her cousin Edith, and in the quiet country parsonage home of Margaret and her parents, where she returns to live after Edith’s marriage. However, Margaret’s father comes to the decision that he can no longer in good conscience continue as a minister, and so he gives up his living and moves their family to the manufacturing town of Milton, in the north of England. Here the reader is introduced to many new characters on both sides of a clearly written social divide, laborers and masters, as Margaret and her family struggle to adapt to the drastic changes in the viewpoints between the northerners and their own southern way of seeing things, and as the Hale family wrestles with trying to find their own social standing in this new society. As the novel progresses bridges are built, between people of different classes, between men and women, and between a grieving man and his enemy’s children.
Character development was the absolute high point of this novel for me. Characters who began proud and inflexible slowly evolved into something utterly changed, but in such a way that it was completely believable. Other characters remained true to form, and yet that seemed right for them. I felt that Gaskell picked her evolving characters well. I also loved the plot: there was romance, a social message, a couple of legal entanglements, and a great deal of suffering (which was realistic for the era and place). At the end of viewing the mini-series my kids were ticking off on their fingers all the characters who died, and ultimately they decided that given how many of them there were they could put up with the main characters at least getting to kiss in the end! Kids not being into the “kissing parts” you know! :-) Very generous of them.
What cost the book its fifth star was a very slow beginning-it took me almost a hundred pages to get into the story. However, in the book’s defense, it might have been the mood I was in when I read the print version, because when I listened to the audio it did not strike me as being quite as tedious as my initial impression.
In addition to reading this novel in print, I also purchased a copy of the audio book. The Clare Wille narration had come recommended to me, but when I listened to a sample on Audible I found the sound quality to be very poor-rather tinny sounding. Since there was another version available from one of my very favorite narrators, Juliet Stevenson, I unhesitatingly went with that one and can recommend it without reserve to all listeners. Each voice was differentiated; Mrs. Thornton was given a wonderfully in character, lower tone; and the northern accents were spot on and distinctive among the classes.
I also highly recommend the BBC mini-series to all who have read Gaskell’s work. Fine performances are turned in by Daniela Denby-Ashe (Margaret Hale), Sinead Cusack (Mrs. Thornton), and Brendan Coyle (Nicholas Higgins), but Richard Armitage does no less than breathe John Thornton to life out of the pages of the novel-an absolutely masterful performance.
Whether you choose the print or audio, follow this one up with the mini-series; it does take some liberties, but the characters are very true to the novel, and it is just a wonderful way to round out your Gaskell experience. Invite your family to join you-all of my kiddos watched the movie and enjoyed it.