North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell was first published in England in 1955 and is a bit like a Jane Austen novel (Gaskell called it an industrial rewriting of Pride and Prejudice), but in my opinion more complex; both emotionally and due to its political facets.
Here is the plot description from the back of my Vintage edition:
“Milton is a sooty, noisy northern town centered around the cotton mills that employ most of its inhabitants. Arriving from a rural idyll in the South, Margaret Hale is initially shocked by the social unrest and poverty she finds in her new home town. However, as she begins to befriend her neighbors, n her stormy relationship with the mill-owner John Thornton develops, she starts to see Milton in a different light.”
I enjoyed North and South, but I think I would have liked it much more had I not seen the fantastic 2004 BBC miniseries. As a 550 something pages long book the storyline really dragged on in places, by contrast the BBC adaption was taut, polished and full of sexual tension, while remaining largely faithful to the book. Margaret and Mr Thornton FINALLY getting together was so drawn out in the book that it felt very anticlimactic, but because the series was much faster paced its conclusion didn’t give off that impression. It’s very unusual an adaptation of something would overshadow it so much for me!
I’m not sure I liked Margaret’s character in the book, she had very little insight into her own feelings and into the hearts of those around her for the majority of it. Thornton, on the other hand, was very likeable. He was strong, decisive and steady.
The politics surrounding the mills and the manufacture of cotton were very interesting in places, but could drag on at times. One character, Bessie, was dying from the fluff that got into her lungs while working in a mill. Apparently this was common in the mills in England during this time period. Gaskell mentions how some masters would install fans to prevent this, but some of the workers would complain because the lack of the cotton filling their lungs left them hungrier and meant they would have to spend more money on food. Apparently this was the reality for a lot of mill workers at that time.
The book was first published in serialised form in Charles Dickens’ Household Words magazine. According to the introduction, Gaskell was furious when Dickens wrote Hard Times, also about cotton mills. She felt he was ripping off her work. I thought this was an interesting piece of trivia!
The following are my favourite quotes, the first two show the ongoing motif of hands throughout the book, and all of them show Gaskell’s poetic way of writing.
“She looked as if she was not attending to the conversation, but solely busy with the tea-cups, among which her round ivory hands moved with pretty, noiseless daintiness. She had a bracelet on one taper arm, which would fall down over her round 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!””
“She handed him his cup of tea with the proud air of an unwilling slave; but her eye caught the moment when he was ready for another cup; and he almost longed to ask her to do for him what he saw her compelled to do for her father, who took her little finger and thumb in his masculine hand, and made them serve as sugar tongs.”
“These dinners were delightful; but even here Margaret’s dissatisfaction found her out. Every talent, every feeling, every acquirement; nay, even every tendency towards virtue, was used up as materials for fireworks; the hidden, sacred fire exhausted itself in sparkle and crackle. They talked about art in a merely sensuous way, dwelling on outside effects, instead of allowing themselves to learn what it has to teach. They lashed themselves up into an enthusiasm about high subjects in company, and never thought about them when they were alone; they squandered their capabilities of appreciation into a mere flow of appropriate words.”
In short, enjoyable, worth a read, but encapsulated pretty well in the BBC mini-series.