When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man, John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fuses individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale creates one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.
North and South stands as one of the very few books which I read after watching the adaptation. It’s almost always the other way around, but this time even though North and South had been on my to-read list for a long time, I watched the BBC adaptation first. So instead of critiquing the show by seeing how closely it followed the book, as I was reading I kept on picturing Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe in the main roles and wondering when certain scenes were going to happen. All this made it very difficult for me to consider the book on its own terms.
On its own, North and South is a well woven tapestry of a novel, with finely drawn and kindly treated (by the narrative voice if not by the narrative itself) characters, and an interesting plot examining the conflicts as different personalities, social classes, and schools of thought clash. What stuck with me the most after finishing the book though, was Elizabeth Gaskell’s prose and the very measured, even pacing of the novel. Gaskell was already an established author by this time, which shows in her polished prose, and there are some lovely turns of phrase in this novel.
The even pacing, on the other hand, I found to be a mixed blessing – there weren’t really any parts which dragged, but I never felt that addictive urge to stay up reading just one more chapter. I suspect this is partly due to North and South’s origin as a serial novel. It’s not because nothing is happening either, because starting from the end of Part I major events happen one after the other, but their emotional impact is dampened by how very controlled the writing is. Going into more specific and spoilery territory, this book has an unexpectedly high body count considering its genre, but I never really felt for the characters which suffered these fates. Because of this, North and South is one of those rare cases where I refer the live action adaptation to the book. The BBC series is less complex and finely wrought, but it has more feeling.
• How much I enjoyed it: 7 out of 10
• How good I thought it was: 8 out of 10