Tuesday, February 3, 2009

North and South

Throughout history, mankind has always existed in a sort of hierarchy. There have always been masters and slaves, aristocrats and commoners, gentlemen and rogues. Everyone has their "place" in society and those in higher places often work tirelessly to keep the "lower" ones in theirs. But there is something that binds all of us together, something that makes us all equal, something that is often forgotten when it comes to dealing with those outside of our own sphere: our humanity. In September of 1854, writer Elizabeth Gaskell began writing a serial novel in Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words that would explore this very issue, and open her reader's eyes to the miseries and the beauties of the industrial north of England.

The Plot:
When young Margaret Hale leaves her aunt's posh London home where she had spent most of her life, she is looking forward to returning to a quiet life with her father (a minister) and mother in their idyllic country home of Helstone in southern England. But her world is turned upside down when her father breaks with the Church of England and moves the family to the industrial town of Milton in the north. The change is a great shock both to Margaret and her mother. Her father makes a scant living as a private tutor and the family finds it hard to keep up appearances.

As Margaret grows used to her new surroundings, she begins to sympathise more with the mill workers than with the mill owners. She especially comes into conflict with John Thornton, a cotton mill owner and one of her father's pupils. Thornton raised himself out of poverty and everyone in Milton (especially his mother) sees him as a successful and highly desirable man. Everyone, that is, except Margaret. She sees him as an unfair "master" who views his workers simply as hired hands, and thinks that he should play a greater role in their welfare. But as unions form and Milton is threatened with a strike, Margaret begins to see that every problem has two sides, and that John Thornton may not be as undesirable as she had originally thought.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers!):
I was not familiar with any Elizabeth Gaskell's works until Masterpiece's adaptation of her novel Cranford. She tends to be outshined (like many authors of the period) by her editor Charles Dickens. But North and South, though new to me, still seemed a familiar story. Critics often consider Gaskell to be a mixture of Austen, Dickens and Bronte, and I agree with them. Many readers find North and South to be very similar to Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but I wouldn't compare them too much, as the overall tone and point of the books are different.

The heart of Gaskell's novel is its portrayal of the conflicts found in industrial societies all over the world. We, the privileged readers, are allowed to see both sides of the conflict. Like Margaret we are outsiders looking in on a world that most of us don't understand. We find men of similar temperaments, who see each other simply as enemies in the ultimate struggle for power. It is this struggle that is the downfall of men like Boucher, the everyday man who only wants to feed his family.

In Margaret, Gaskell created a character that was not often seen in the literature of the period: a strong, yet feminine woman. Margaret's strength is a hallmark of her character. She is obviously the one her parents look to for support, she walks all over Milton by herself, she speaks her mind even to men, and she puts herself between an angry mob and John Thornton. But Margaret's strength can also be a hindrance. Throughout the story, Margaret is taking care of everyone and trying to accomplish everything by herself. She comes to realize that even she is not strong enough to face life on her own. "'I begin to understand now what heaven must be--and, oh! the grandeur and repose of the words--"The same yesterday, to-day, and for ever." Everlasting! "From everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God." That sky above me looks as though it could not change, and yet it will. I am so tired--so tired of being whirled on through all these phases of my life, in which nothing abides by me, no creature, no place; it is like the circle in which the victims of earthly passion eddy continually.'"

Unlike the works of Austen, in North and South we are given just as much insight into the hero's feelings as the heroine's. John Thornton is a strong-willed, ambitious, pull yourself up by your bootstraps man. He has not only provided for his mother and sister, but has raised himself from poverty to a well-respected manufacturer. His mother is extremely proud of him and is constantly telling him what a fine man he is. This is understandable (he is a great guy), but unfortunately, this leads him to rely on his own strength (just like Margaret). Thornton views his workers as people who don't have the energy or the drive to make something better of themselves. "Architect of his own fortunes, he attributed this to no special merit or qualities of his own, but to the power, which he believed that commerce gave to every brave, honest, and persevering man, to raise himself to a level from which he might see and read the great game of worldly success, and honestly, by such far-sightedness, command more power and influence than in any other mode of life. Far away, in the East and in the West, where his person would never be known, his name was to be regarded, and his wishes to be fulfilled, and his word pass like gold. That was the idea of merchant-life with which Mr. Thornton had started." What he fails to realize is that circumstances often play a part in a man's status. It is only after his mill fails and he is once again brought down that he realizes that he is no better than the other men. He also finds that his own strength will not be enough to see him through the difficult times. "'Mother!' said he, holding her gently in his arms, 'who has sent me my lot in life, both of good and of evil?' She shook her head. She would have nothing to do with religion just then. "'Mother,' he went on, seeing that she would not speak, 'I, too,have been rebellious; but I am striving to be so no longer. Help me, as you helped me when I was a child. Then you said many good words--when my father died, and we were sometimes sorely short of comforts--which we shall never be now; you said brave, noble, trustful words then, mother, which I have never forgotten, though they may have lain dormant. Speak to me again in the old way, mother. Do not let us have to think that the world has too much hardened our hearts. If you would say the old good words, it would make me feel something of the pious simplicity of my childhood. I say them to myself, but they would come differently from you, remembering all the cares and trials you have had to bear.'

Though North and South lacks the sophistication of the great novels of the time, it is nonetheless a must read for anyone who likes Victorian literature. It shows us that we can relate to others best when we see them, not as enemies or "lower-class" citizens, but as human beings. There are so many other aspects of this novel that I could discuss, but that would lead to a intolerably long post. Suffice it to say that this is the first novel in a long time that I have absolutely fallen head over heels for. It has even earned a spot on my Top 10 list.

The Movie:
The BBC has produced 2 versions of this story. The first was in 1975 starring Rosalie Shanks as Margaret and Patrick Stewart as John Thornton.

The second is the acclaimed 2004 version starring Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret and Richard Armitage as John Thornton. When it comes to costume dramas, this is one of the best. Though there are a few liberties taken with the story, the overall production quality more than makes up for that. First off, the acting is simply incredible. Daniela pulls off both Margaret's strength and femininity very well. Sinead Cusack rocked as the proud, overbearing (yet human) Mrs. Thornton. And what can I say about Richard Armitage other than he is absolutely superb in this? His portrayal of Thornton is slightly different from the book, but he makes the character his own and gives a stunning performance. In addition, everything else from the set to the script to the music was perfect. This definitely ranks as one of the best BBC adaptations ever. I'm telling you to beg, borrow, do anything short of steal to see this film. You won't be disappointed.

Trivia: Tim Pigott-Smith was in BOTH versions of North and South. In 1975 he played Frederick Hale and in 2004 he played Mr. Richard Hale.


Lepidoptera said...

I was unfamiliar with Gaskell before "Cranford" too. When I first heard of "North and South", I thought it referred to the books based on the American Civil War. Only later did I learn that it was another story altogether.

Thanks for the comment! I enjoy your blog immensely and look forward to your postings. God bless you in all your endeavors.

bookwormans said...


I have found that to be a common mistake for most people. Whenever someone asked me what I was reading, I always had to say "I'm reading North and South, and no, it's not about the American Civil War".

However, I must say that there are some rather interesting parallels between "North and South" and the Civil War, like how differently the industrial northeners saw the more genteel southerners.

Hermine said...

I love North & South. I love the book. I love the miniseries, which definitely deserved its sixth place in IMDb's miniseries top 50. I thank God for the BBC, haha.