More Than A Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and SouthNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has been languishing in my Goodreads queue for over a year, waiting for me to finally sit down and write a review.  Forgive  me though, if my memory is hazy, as I’ve read other books since finishing this one.  However, I am due for a re-read, and a chapter by chapter low-down on my blog (that would be the plan at least).  After I read this book, I did research Elizabeth Gaskell’s life and biography and wrote about it here.  It explains just why I love North and South so much, for she wrote what she knew, and most of all, she wrote of a world I am more familiar with than with any other classic.

North and South was serialized in the weekly literary magazine, Household Words, which was edited by Charles Dickens in the 1850’s.  The book begins with this brief introduction (from Project Gutenberg, where you can read the book for free):

First published in serial form in _Household Words_ in 1854-1855 and in volume form in 1855.

On its appearance in ‘Household Words,’ this tale was obliged to conform to the conditions imposed by the requirements of a weekly publication, and likewise to confine itself within certain advertised limits, in order that faith might be kept with the public. Although these conditions were made as light as they well could be, the author found it impossible to develope the story in the manner originally intended, and, more especially, was compelled to hurry on events with an improbable rapidity towards the close. In some degree to remedy this obvious defect, various short passages have been inserted, and several new chapters added. With this brief explanation, the tale is commended to the kindness of the reader;

‘Beseking hym lowly, of mercy and pite,
Of its rude makyng to have compassion.’

Given the editorial limitations placed upon her by Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell was still able to depict raw emotions between two much-loved protagonists amidst the harsh backdrop of industrial England. It was a world that Gaskell knew by heart, and  in North and South, she depicts both sides of that world from the view of someone who’s lived there – from the “masters” who owned the mills in Milton, to the workers who had to work 12 hour days just to get by, and from the newcomer to the North, used to London society as well as the tranquility of the English countryside of Helstone, where her father worked as the minister.

One of the things that struck me is that children as young as five had to work at this time (maybe not depicted specifically in the book, but the character of Bessy Higgins, at nineteen, seems so old because of the work she’s had to do since she was a child).  Equally hard to imagine is that children worked up to 12 hours a day alongside the adults, and even with reforms, their work hours were reduced to eight hours. Eight hours!

Although hours varied from trade to trade and family to family, children usually worked twelve hours per day with time out for meals and tea. These hours, moreover, were not regular over the year or consistent from day-to-day. The weather and family events affected the number of hours in a month children worked. This form of child labor was not viewed by society as cruel or abusive but was accepted as necessary for the survival of the family and development of the child.

….Charles Dickens called these places of work the “dark satanic mills” and E. P. Thompson described them as “places of sexual license, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents, and alien manners”.

– Via Child Labor During the British Industrial Revolution,

Just as Jane Austen wrote about the world she knew, Gaskell wrote about industrial England because she bore witness to the struggles of the poor working class whom her husband, a Unitarian minister, served.  Mary Barton, which was also titled A Tale of Manchester Life, was Gaskell’s first novel, and in it, she tells the story of the difficulties faced by a family of the Victorian lower class.

‘I had always felt a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want[…] The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulsed this dumb people.’

– Gaskell, ELizabeth. ‘Preface.’ Mary Barton. London: Chapman and Hall, 1850. v-vii.

In North and South, we learn about two stubborn characters from both sides – the naive yet headstrong Margaret Hale, daughter of an ex-parson turned private tutor who has spent at least ten years living in London’s high society with her wealthy aunt Shaw, and John Thornton, master of Malbrough Mills, a self-made man who earns the ire of Margaret because of who and what he is – basically an industrialist, nouveau riche, if you will – and of his views on industrialization and its benefits to the world – and his initial view of those who find themselves in poverty. Through their attraction for each other, they learn of the others’ struggles, especially of the poor working class as depicted by Higgins and his family – and Boucher – as well as their struggles further exacerbated by the workers’ strike over higher wages.


I saw Thornton as a man riding the wave of modernization that hit England at the time, yet able to see beyond the bottom line as best he could, even investing in expensive machinery to benefit his workers, while Margaret was just a tad too sheltered and idealistic with her views.

Having lived with the Shaws in London, and the quaint town of Helstone with her parents, one can’t really blame Margaret for seeing life through rose-colored glasses in the beginning.  It is through her naivete that gives us, the reader, a chance to learn more about industrialized England through her eyes, from the fluff that clogs the lungs of many workers, including Bessy Higgins, who suffers from consumption or ‘waste’ as Bessy calls it, to Margaret’s assumption that the “lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon” signified rain when it was actually “unparliamentary smoke” from the mills’ chimneys.

But they both redeem themselves quite well throughout the book as they both fall in love with each other, and learn of the world that they once viewed so differently.  I love the passages that Gaskell writes to illustrate John’s love for Margaret, beginning with his observation of her bracelet falling down her wrist,

Mr. Thornton watched the replacing of this troublesome ornament with far more attention than he listened to her father. It seemed as if it fascinated him to see her push it up impatiently, until it tightened her soft flesh; and then to mark the loosening—the fall. He could almost have exclaimed—’There it goes, again!’

Gaskell, Elizabeth (2004-07-01). North and South [with Biographical Introduction] (Kindle Locations 1739-1741). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

his feelings when she is unable to see him for reasons he is not privy to at the time,

Although he hated Margaret at times, when he thought of that gentle familiar attitude and all the attendant circumstances, he had a restless desire to renew her picture in his mind—a longing for the very atmosphere she breathed. He was in the Charybdis of passion, and must perforce circle and circle ever nearer round the fatal centre.

Gaskell, Elizabeth (2004-07-01). North and South [with Biographical Introduction] (Kindle Locations 6302-6304). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

his desire to protect her, despite what he perceives as Margaret’s indifference for him,

Miss Hale might love another—was indifferent and contemptuous to him—but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.

Gaskell, Elizabeth (2004-07-01). North and South [with Biographical Introduction] (Kindle Locations 6529-6532). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

and Margaret’s agonized thoughts for Mr. Thornton’s opinion of her after a perceived indiscretion

Why do I care what he thinks, beyond the mere loss of his good opinion as regards my telling the truth or not? I cannot tell. But I am very miserable! ….But it is hard to feel how completely he must misunderstand me. What has happened to make me so morbid to-day? I do not know. I only know I cannot help it. I must give way sometimes. No, I will not, though,’ said she, springing to her feet. ‘I will not—I will not think of myself and my own position. I won’t examine into my own feelings. It would be of no use now. Some time, if I live to be an old woman, I may sit over the fire, and, looking into the embers, see the life that might have been.’

….’I dare say, there’s many a woman makes as sad a mistake as I have done, and only finds it out too late. And how proudly and impertinently I spoke to him that day! But I did not know then. It has come upon me little by little, and I don’t know where it began. Now I won’t give way. I shall find it difficult to behave in the same way to him, with this miserable consciousness upon me; but I will be very calm and very quiet, and say very little. But, to be sure, I may not see him; he keeps out of our way evidently. That would be worse than all. And yet no wonder that he avoids me, believing what he must about me.’

Gaskell, Elizabeth (2004-07-01). North and South [with Biographical Introduction] (Kindle Locations 7578-7586). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

Their trials and tribulations go beyond just the two of them, as there is the subplot of Margaret’s brother, who is wanted for his involvement in a mutiny at sea, and whose return can risk  his life should he be discovered on English soil.  There is also the story of the Higgins family, who befriends Margaret and affords her a glimpse into the life of the Victorian lower class first-hand.

ns4-237I also love the relationship between John and his mother, Mrs. Thornton, even though she is vilified by many – though I suspect it has more to do with Sinead Cusack’s amazing portrayal of Hannah Thornton in the 2004 BBC Mini-series and thus ends up having her character further maligned – poor thing – in fan fiction and sequels. There’s nothing like a mother’s love and I suspect that as much as we might hate women like Mrs. Thornton, when faced with the care and well-being of our own sons and daughters, we might just as well be her – though we are not aware of it.  This exchange between them occurs just as the strikers enter the mill yard and Thornton tells everyone to go to the back rooms where they will be safer.

Mother! hadn’t you better go into the back rooms? I’m not sure whether they may not have made their way from Pinner’s Lane into the stable-yard; but if not, you will be safer there than here. Go Jane!’ continued he, addressing the upper-servant. And she went, followed by the others.

‘I stop here!’ said his mother. ‘Where you are, there I stay.’

Gaskell, Elizabeth (2004-07-01). North and South [with Biographical Introduction] (Kindle Locations 4055-4058). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

Many people believe that because of creative differences between Gaskell and Charles Dickens – and boy, were there differences between them, with Dickens even blaming Gaskell for the decline in readership of Household Words when he himself upstaged North and South with the publication of his own Hard Times –  the ending for North and South was rushed. And maybe it was, but when Gaskell turned the serialized novel into a book, she didn’t really change the ending that much, if at all.  You can even see a copy of ending of the actual novel later on in the post.

Sunday [?17 December 1854]

My dear Sir,

I was very much gratified by your note the other day; very much indeed. I dare say I shall like my story, when I ant a little further from it; at present I can only feel depressed about it, I meant it to have been so much better. I send what I am afraid you will think too large a batch {o} of it by this post. What Mr Wills has got already fills up the No for January 13, leaving me only two / more / numbers, Janry 20, & Janry 27th so what I send today is meant to be crammed & stuffed into Janry 20th; & I’m afraid I’ve nearly as much more for Jany 27.

It is 33 pages of my writing that I send today. I have tried to shorten & compress it, both because it was a dull piece, & to get it into reasonable length, but there were [sic] a whole catalogue of events to be got over: and what I want to tell you now is this, Mr Gaskell has looked this piece well over, so I don’t think there will be any carelessnesses left in it, & so there ought not to be any misprints; therefore I never wish to see it’s face again; but, if you will keep the MS for me, & shorten it as you think best for HW. I shall be very glad. Shortened I see it must be.

I think a better title than N. & S. would have been ‘Death & Variations’. There are 5 deaths, each beautifully suited to the character of the individual…

Via Letters of Mrs. Gaskell to Charles Dickens, The Gaskell Web

Charles Dickens sent off his reply less than a month later.

TAVISTOCK HOUSE, January 27th, 1855.


Let me congratulate you on the conclusion of your story; not because it is the end of a task to which you had conceived a dislike (for I imagine you to have got the better of that delusion by this time), but because it is the vigorous and powerful accomplishment of an anxious labour. It seems to me that you have felt the ground thoroughly firm under your feet, and have strided on with a force and purpose that MUST now give you pleasure.

You will not, I hope, allow that not-lucid interval of dissatisfaction with yourself (and me?), which beset you for a minute or two once upon a time, to linger in the shape of any disagreeable association with “Household Words.” I shall still look forward to the large sides of paper, and shall soon feel disappointed if they don’t begin to reappear.

– Via Letters of Charles Dickens to Elizabeth Gaskell, The Dickens House

Regardless of how Gaskell chose to end her novel (and I have no qualms at all with the way it ended – to me, it was perfect), the  rest of the story of John and Margaret is up to the viewer.  And as fans of the book – and the BBC mini-series – have seen, the story has spawned countless sequels, prequels and the rewriting of the story itself.

Speaking of the BBC mini-series which starred Daniela Denby Ash as Margaret Hale and Richard Armitage as John Thornton, it’s easy to confuse the events in the book with those depicted in the 2004 adaptation.  No, John did not beat a worker he caught smoking in the book, though the controversial scene provided the right mood for TV viewers to hate him, so soon after seeing him stride into Margaret’s view and up the stairs, and before one could sigh and say, my that’s a handsome man, he turns around and beats someone to a pulp.  Nor did Boucher cast the stone that hit Margaret.  But the mini-series certainly brought renewed attention to Gaskell’s writings – so I’ve got no qualms there.

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-11-09-22-am screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-11-13-54-am

 It also brought Armitage center stage, and I have to admit, as I read the book after seeing the mini-series in one sitting, I saw no one else but him as John Thornton.  Gaskell certainly knew how to write prose from a man’s point of view without it seeming too girlish (if that’s a term) and unbelievable.  And while the ending of Gaskell’s classic is way more chaste, the ending of BBC’s 2004 mini-series, still chaste as romantic scenes go, takes the cake as the best kiss ever.  But hey, don’t take my word for it…

If you’ve ever wondered what Dickens’ Household Words looked like, here is the edition where Gaskell’s novel was serialized in – Volume X, in 1854:

2014-02-13_13-59-31table of contentsand the last page/chapter

theendYou can even purchase the 1854 1st BOUND VOLUME of Charles Dickens’ Household Words Magazines which has the full original serialized novel on eBay here.

A few of the quotes I love from this book:

“She’s not accomplished, mother. She does not play the piano.”
– Fanny Thornton

And this:

“One word more. You look as if you thought it tainted you to be loved by me. You cannot avoid it. Nay, I, if I would, cannot cleanse you from it. But I would not, if I could. I have never loved any woman before: my life has been too busy, my thoughts absorbed with other things. Now I love, and will love. But do not be afraid of too much expression on my part.”
– John Thornton

6 thoughts on “More Than A Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. I don’t know how I missed this, but thanks for putting it all together. I have the book on my iPad and I have read parts of it. I appreciate how you wove the history with your impressions.

  2. What a delightful review! I agree with everything you said. I too, couldn’t read the book without imagining RA as Thornton. And to add those letters between Gaskell and Dickens – what a treat!

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