Saturday, August 06, 2011

Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South

Rejuvenating lemonade!
It has been a hot summer.  Beautiful, but hot.  And I've been rushing around, traveling back and forth between two towns (again and again and again), trying to combine home life in one city with the obligations to an ill relative in another. I discovered there are not two of me, as you could have told me. 

Pop lit saved me this summer. It's easy to rush out for 10 minutes for a gasp of contemporary "lite" fiction on a "break."  But now everything is organized, and I am home again.

So I've turned to a relaxing Victorian novel--a rejuvenating novelistic "cocktail," which I "drink" along with fresh lemonade.
Rejuvenating Victorian novel!
Elizabeth Gaskell is a marvelous writer, who, like Mrs. Oliphant, was very popular in her day but is neglected now. Some readers dismiss her as sentimental and middlebrow, but her novel North and South shows she was as concerned about class as she was about mores and morals.  North and South, first published 1854-55 as a serial in Dickens's Household Words, seems to me to be a hybrid: part romance, part portrait of a dutiful daughter, and part chronicle of the politics of factories in the industrial north of England.  Gaskell's sketches of the striking workers are vividly drawn and haunting.

The novel does not begin with politics.   Margaret Hale, the 19-year-old heroine, is happy in the beautiful rural village where her father is a clergyman.  After Mr. Hale has a crisis of belief, he resigns from the Church of England.  The family moves to Milton, an industrial town, where Mr. Hale works as a tutor to Mr. Thornton, the owner of a cotton mill who wants to learn Greek and Latin.

The North is smoky and gritty, and there are no trees.  No one is happy, but Margaret must manage the household because her mother is very ill.  A relationship develops between Margaret and Mr. Thornton--he falls in love with her, but she considers him rough.  A strike brings the two both closer together and farther apart.  Though Margaret knows a striking worker's family, and thus sympathizes with the men, she believes the Union is wrong.  When the men throw rocks at Mr. Thorntons for hiring Irishmen, she runs out and stands in front of him, putting her arms around him to protect him, not because she likes him but because it is the right thing to do.  She is hit by a rock.

Mr. Thornton and his mother interprets her action as love, and when Margaret refuses his proposal he is upset and his mother thoroughly annoyed.  Margaret grows to respect Mr. Thornton.

There are also other subplots, but let me say that the factory politics and the relationship between Margaret and Mr. Thornton are the most interesting (so far).

I admire North and South, but Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's masterpiece.


Ellen said...

After last year reading Gaskell's short fiction and on and off these past years either reading her novels or listening to them (last year I listened to Juliet Stevenson reading North and South), she is tremendously high in my estimation.

We need more people in the world like her.

Frisbee said...

She's very, very good. I did read Lady Ludlow on your recommendations but haven't read her other short fiction. Something to look forward to.