Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Publication date: 1855
Genre: British Literature
Rating: 4.5 Crowns
Margaret Hale's comfortable life in the idyllic village of Helstone is upended when her father resigns as minister and moves his family to the industrialized north of England. Leaving behind her beloved home and the beautiful countryside of southern England is hard enough but Margaret struggles to cope with life in Milton, a cotton manufacturing town that is worlds away from what she is used to. From the moment that she meets cotton manufacturer John Thornton, they are at odds. He represents to Margaret the worst of Milton and she looks down on him as a "tradesman". His initial dislike is replaced by attraction and then love but will he and Margaret be able to move past their differences when she takes sides against him in a mill strike?
If you combined Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with a dash of Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, then you'd have North and South. It reminds me a little of Pride and Prejudice because of the way Margaret Hale and John Thornton initially clash. However there are some differences. The story doesn't just focus on Margaret and John's relationship but instead it also takes a look at the different social classes and the way life in the north is different from the south. The author makes a point of including the views of mill workers as well as the gentry. The importance of the social issues is reminiscent of the works of Dickens. Elizabeth Gaskell was actually a friend of Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. I think their influence is definitely present in her writing.
Margaret as a protagonist is not always likeable. At times she came across as snobby and condescending but she does improve over the course of the novel. Margaret really shows her strength in the way she is there for her family and Bessy Higgins through the hardships they face. I think it is important for us to see how Margaret felt about the people of Milton and to watch how that sense of superiority gave way as she gained understanding and perspective. John Thornton is a much more admirable character from the beginning though he too is not without flaws. He builds up his family's business and brings back their fortune after his father lost everything. He also befriends Mr. Hale and tries to be a friend to Margaret though she treats him with disdain. The romance is satisfying and I particularly liked that the reader is given insight into John Thornton's mind and his feelings about Margaret. That is something that we did not get with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and it only served to make me like Thornton more (and perhaps like Margaret less).
Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe as John Thornton and Margaret Hale
The book has been adapted as a TV movie/miniseries twice with the most recent adaptation in 2004. The 2004 version starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage is the one I watched. It is because of the miniseries that I decided to finally read the book! Both are excellent though there are some differences between the miniseries and the book. In the film version, Mr. Thornton appears to have a violent temper (only directed at careless mill workers that nearly hurt others) but this temper makes him more aloof and gives Margaret a reason to dislike him other than her own prejudices. It also serves to make Margaret a more sympathetic character. There are other differences with the portrayal of secondary and minor characters as well but overall it is pretty faithful to the book.
I think North and South is a book that fans of Jane Austen would enjoy. The writing style is mostly very readable. I did struggle with some of the vocabulary used by the Higgins family but there is a glossary at the back of the book. At times the pace also lagged a little but I am glad I persevered with it. North and South is now one of my favorite classics right along with Jane Eyre and the novels of Jane Austen. The film is also a new favorite of mine and it is a good starting point if you are uncertain about reading the book!