I totally binged on North and South last week.
Let me rewind a little bit. I first read a book by Elizabeth Gaskell in university. Mary Barton is a Victorian novel examining the disparities between rich and poor. It also deals with the realities of the working class in an industrial city during the Victorian era. It was grim and sad and difficult to read but it was so great.
Then I read Cranford, another Victorian masterpiece of reality. Mrs. Gaskell doesn’t sugarcoat the future facing unmarried women of a certain age. It’s pretty grim as well.
A few weeks ago, I read Wives and Daughters which I loved. That’s when I realized that actually, I really like books by Elizabeth Gaskell and next time I was in the library, I picked up North and South.
This might be my favourite. I need to own a copy.
Margaret Hale has spent her teenage years living at a fashionable address in London, the playmate of a wealthy cousin. When her cousin gets married, Margaret returns to the parish where her father is the parson. But due to a crisis of conscience, her father leaves the church and moves the family away from their home in Helstone, to the Northern, industrial city of Milton. Here he will tutor the sons of local families while Margaret attempts to overcome her prejudices against Northerners, and especially against self-made men, like Mr. Thornton, who she doesn’t consider gentlemen.
Margaret forms an unlikely friendship with Bessy Higgins and her family. Bessy has lung problems from having worked in the mills for so long. Her father, Nicholas, is a Union man, bent on organizing a mill strike to get better wages.
So much happens in this book. That’s a bare bones assessment. People die, people travel, there’s a strike that boils over, a mutiny at sea, a cast of characters that includes a disapproving mother, an insipid aunt and a potential benefactor.
But can we just take a moment to talk about Margaret and Mr. Thornton? North and South was published in 1855, a full 42 years after Pride and Prejudice (here we go with the Jane Austen again) but while the subject matter, the customs, and definitely the setting, are all completely different, in Margaret and Mr. Thornton we find some semblance of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
Which is awesome.
Beautiful Margaret Hale is a young woman used to going her own way. Although women of her class didn’t tend to mix with working class men like Nicholas Higgins, Margaret goes out of her way to visit and befriend him, learning a lot about life in Milton. Mr. Thornton is also used to getting his own way and rigidly adheres to the customs and codes of life to which is he is accustomed. He can be quick to make judgements and when his idea of Margaret as pure and noble is challenged, he has a hard time moving past it.
These two spend the whole book clashing until finally realizing that actually, they love each other. A lot.
When I finished (it does end kind of abruptly owing, no doubt, to the fact that North and South was serialized originally and needed to be wrapped up in a certain number of installments) I wasn’t ready to let it go. So I went to Netflix and binged on the 2004 BBC miniseries. If you have four hours, I would recommend you do the same. Here’s a little taste to wet your appetite.