Throwback Thursday is a meme created by Renee at It’s Book Talk to share old favourite books rather than just the new shiny ones. This is a great idea to bring back to life some much-loved books. Please feel free to join in.
This week’s pick is North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.
What I thought:
This book has it all: class conflict, politics, religion, women’s rights and passion! It makes you think, it makes you reflect on what was and it makes you ponder how we got from there to where we are now. We smile with them, we cry with them.
North and South (originally called Margaret Hale, after the principal character, until Charles Dickens made Gaskell change it) starts with a little rose-covered cottage in the countryside in the south of England where Margaret Hale lives with her Pastor Father, her mother, and their servants. Margaret loves the outdoors; she loves to sketch nature and spends a carefree and idyllic youth milling around the land and helping neighbours with various acts of charity. Towards the end of Margaret’s teens, her father announces that he has abandoned the church and because of this the whole family is uprooted to Milton-Northern (apparently based on Gaskell’s hometown of Manchester) to start again.
Milton is an industrial town in the north of England and not only is the landscape the polar opposite of Margaret’s hometown of Helstone, with factories, smoke, noise, and pollution, but also the townsfolk are quite different from those she is used to. I found this very interesting, and this is why I think Dickens was absolutely right to make Gaskell change the title: there is still a divide even today between the north and the south in England, although not on the same scale as back in the Victorian era, no doubt. I am from the north of England (Yorkshire) and northerners, even today, have a reputation for speaking their mind and being somewhat brash. We are also known for being friendly and open, whereas southerners are thought of as being unfriendly (even rude) and looking down their noses at northerners. These are all stereotypes, you understand, but there is no smoke without fire, as they say.
The story centres around the town of Milton and, in my opinion, the actual town is the protagonist, rather than Margaret Hale. Margaret is the voice of the book and it is through her eyes that we see this new world that she inhabits; we see her eyes open to the poverty and suffering of her townsfolk, the difference between those who have and those who have not, but it is Milton who is the largest character.
Margaret quickly befriends a local man, Nicholas Higgins, who is a mill worker and struggling to bring up his two daughters, Betsy and Mary, after his wife’s death. Bessy is gravely ill from “fluff” which Margaret discovers is a result of working in one of the factories and she is appalled by the conditions that this family and others around the Higgins’ have to live in. She takes it out on John Thornton, a self-made businessman and mill owner and who is also a pupil of her father (he is studying literature with him) and when the workers start to revolt and strike against the mill-owners she believes that Mr. Thornton has done wrong by his workers. Mr. Thornton is a proud man, and although he is in love with Margaret, he knows that he will never be good enough for her and he is aware of Margaret’s dislike and contempt for him and his ways but he cannot help falling passionately in love with her. When the riots occur at the factory Margaret shields him with her own body when they start to throw things at him and afterwards he confesses his love for Margaret which horrifies her as she has acted upon charity and would have done the same for anyone.
The move to Milton and change of scenery and circumstances affect the whole family very badly, especially Margaret’s mother, Mrs. Hale, whose health is continuously failing her. Margaret, knowing that her mother doesn’t have long left to live, gets in touch with her brother Frederic (who is a family secret as Frederic is a former officer of the Navy and is in hiding and wanted for having been the ringleader of a mutiny). His return would cost him his life, but Margaret takes the risk for her mother’s sake and writes him a letter begging him to return as soon as possible. Frederic arrives and spends some time with his beloved family, but has to leave almost immediately as he is terrified of being discovered. Mr. Thornton sees him & his sister saying their goodbyes at the station and takes them for lovers. That is the first time that Margaret realizes she cares about the possible loss of his good opinion of her and fears that she is now falling in love with him just at the time when she believes that he is falling out of love with her.
Another sad and unforeseen event takes Margaret back to London to stay with her cousin Edith and her family, but she doesn’t relalise that Mr. Thornton is going through a financial crisis that is about to change his world too. Now you need to read it yourself to find out what happens!
I believe this book to be vitally important to understanding how far we have come today in such a short period of time; after all it was only written 160 years ago. But more than that, for me, it is also a fantastic psychological study of human nature and behaviour and shows us how little that changes over the years: we still have strikes, rebellion, politics change very little, people still love and despair and are proud and passionate – that doesn’t change.
For anyone who loves Victorian novels, social commentary, history in the making and love stories – this is for you!
Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?