I’ve been reading Gaskell’s North and South for a nineteenth-century reading group in my department. It is the first work of Gaskell’s that I have read–I’ve seen the BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters and long ago I tried to read Ruth but ended up being sidetracked by something else. Needless to say, I was very excited to be reading this book.
A little plot outline: N&S was initially written in serial form for Charles Dickens’ family magazine, Household Words. According to the introduction (written by Alan Shelston) in my Norton Critical Edition, Dickens and Gaskell disagreed about any number of issues with the story. Shelston notes that most of “the disputes are about matters of planning and length, but the correspondence between them invariably has a subtext with larger implications” (ix). One such point of contention was the title (which Dickens chose). Gaskell felt that the story’s title should reflect her belief that the novel’s core strength was situated in the main character of Margaret Hale, whereas Dickens’ title is drawn from the mouth of the character Nicholas Higgins, a working man in the novel, who declares: “And yet, yo see, North and South has both met and made kind o’ friends in this big smoky place” (67, Norton ed.). The phrase underscores Dickens’ interest in highlighting the different kinds of contrasts (i.e. polarities in region, class, gender, etc.) that appear throughout.
The novel begins by introducing the reader to Margaret Hale, a young woman who has spent the last nine years living in London with her aunt. Hale is about to return to her home in Helstone, an idyllic (perhaps overly so) hamlet in a southern county in England. Once there, a family crisis strikes, forcing her to move with her parents to a manufacturing town in the north (the crisis in question is her father’s inability to perform his duties as minister in the Church of England due to the fact that he has become a dissenter). The transition is a difficult one–both physically and mentally–as Margaret and her family feel like, and are perceived as, foreigners in a strange land. Underscoring this sense of “foreignness,” are the issues of language, meaning, and understanding that run throughout the story. Moreover, Margaret and her family find themselves in the midst of a town in turmoil, with workers “turning out” (going on strike) in protest against the manufacturers. Margaret finds herself divided: as an outsider, she is in a position to “see” both sides of the story, as she has connections among the working and manufacturing families. And yet, as a character, her ability to see is compromised by her own nascent opinions and general unfamiliarity with the economic and human interests involved in manufacturing. N&S is a novel of social unrest, and Gaskell does an effective job laying out the clashes between classes, regions, and the sexes as they attempt to locate themselves in the world around them.
My take so far: I’m only half-way through the book, but my very initial response was one of disappointment. Perhaps because of the novel’s initial serial format, I felt as if Gaskell had dropped me in the middle of a dining room conversation in which the shadowy outlines of people served as poor substitutes for more complicated, flesh & blood characters. However, by the time I reached the middle of the book, I found myself completely absorbed in the tale. In the beginning of the novel the pace feels rather slow, perhaps reflecting the fact that it begins in the south of England, in a sleepy little hamlet. But once the family moves north, things pick up and the characters really begin to take shape. Margaret is quite complex, and she feels very real to me. She’s often headstrong and opinionated and she seems to be perpetually speaking up just when she shouldn’t and vice versa. Gaskell’s description of Mr. Thornton (the manufacturer) is also compelling and I found myself so entangled with the story that I needed to read the last few pages of the novel in order to set my mind at ease where the plot is concerned. Knowing how how it all ends gives me some (necessary) distance from the plot, and now I feel I can sit back and comfortably enjoy Gaskell’s prose.
So far I highly recommend this novel. Granted, I still have 200 pages to go, so thing could change, but I think not. Gaskell’s hook was a bit long in coming (which seems to be a common issue among Victorian novelists), but now that I’m well into the story I’m thoroughly enjoying it, and I regret having to put it down. But I’ll keep you posted (whether you like it or not, I’m afraid)…