Thoughts: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Just settled back in at home after a lovely long weekend in Amsterdam with my mam and sister, and I’ve brought back a bit of a backlog with me… I forgot how lovely it is to just read, without always thinking, Should be editing/writing. When I finish this final editing pass of my current work in progress, I’m going to just take a month off and read (while querying argh).

Anyway. I’m sure someone recommended that I read North and South, which is why it ended up on the list, but none of the people who I thought might have recommended it remember doing so. Of course, I’m over a year behind on my reading list, so that could account for it.

North and South is about… a lot of things. I didn’t really lose myself in it – or at least I didn’t feel as though I did, but I kept on sighing frustratedly while reading it and when I tried to explain to Spuggy why I was so frustrated I found myself talking about the characters as though they were real people, so obviously Gaskell was doing something right.

I’m pretty much always and forever here for stories about young ladies wondering who they should marry, and the ladies who have to put up with their ceaseless wondering who they should marry, so at the beginning, when our heroine Margaret is helping her frenemy-cousin (cousemy?) Edith prepare for her wedding to Captain Lennox (even the names are so perfect and stereotypical!) I thought I knew where I stood. When Margaret starts getting on like a house on fire with Mr Lennox, Captain Lennox’s brother, I was sure I knew what was going to happen, even though he told the ladies, who were admiring Edith’s Indian shawl, that their “business” of caring about fripperies like clothes wasn’t anything like the real business of lawyers, which was his business, and super important difficult business to boot. Something about Mr Lennox always sort of rubbed me the wrong way, but hey, if Margaret likes him, I’m not going to stand in her way.

Except she didn’t like him. He confessed his feelings to her and she was almost disgusted. How dare he ruin their friendship by wanting to be her lover! The very idea!

Obviously we weren’t dealing with a normal sort of heroine, then.

Margaret is this weird, intriguing (occasionally frustrating, but like real-person frustrating rather than badly/inconsistently-written frustrating) mixture of helpless and steel-hearted, shy and outgoing, independent and obedient. She’s very aware of her shortcomings (and, thank god, doesn’t put herself in needless danger for drama’s sake or anything like that) but her strengths come out when they have to. When she’s dealing with the awful things life throws at her over the course of the story, she just endures and copes and holds it together until she has a chance to be by herself, without any huge realisation that omg, she’s so strong and brave and noble! that a lesser writer might have been tempted to add in. Of course, other characters end up thinking about how surprisingly brave she is, which could easily get tiring, but eh, Margaret’s generally a good lass beset by idiots (looking at you, Mrs Hale, Mr Hale, Edith and Mrs Shaw).

I didn’t think I’d get on with Margaret at first. After displaying her amazing snobbery against “shoppy people” (i.e., anyone who works in any kind of trade or manufacturing, because furniture and clothes should just grow on trees and be farmed by innocent honest farmers) and then her overreaction to ~the grimness of the North~ (they move to a town in Darkshire. DARKSHIRE!!!) were two big strikes. I’m from the North – North East rather than North West – and I’m not here for village preachers’ daughters badmouthing the North for its industry. And when she asked her father what people in the North could possibly ever want with classics or literature or learning? Oh hell no.

But she learns, and it does admittedly take an endearingly accented family of workers to teach her (not to mention Vulcan cotton-lord Mr Thornton), but the important thing is that she gets there.

I think part of the reason I didn’t really lose myself in it is that it’s full of food for thought. I was constantly measuring up Thornton and Margaret’s arguments and opinions against my own, re: the working class. Gaskell was clearly in favour of treating them like people and understanding that the classes are hopelessly tangled up with each other, too interdependent to ever say one was superior to the other, but in 1855 I suppose it was just too early to go that bit further… They never went quite far enough. Margaret never asked the questions I really wanted her to ask, and Thornton never volunteered the opinions I really wanted him to give. I wanted her to ask him why she thought he was so deserving of his position. I wanted him to tell me why he thought his fortune was equivocal to his workers’ lives. At one point there’s a strike, and Thornton describes himself as the single person most affected by it in the whole town, because they’re his workers. Forget all the literally starving workers, for whom this was their only recourse against unfair wage depression. No no, the important thing is Mr Thornton’s contracts. Margaret never pointed this out either, and I wished she would.

That said, Gaskell is obviously sympathetic to the workers. She does a good job of separating the sensible workers from the ones who ruin it, who turn strikes violent and lose the goodwill of the population (ha, isn’t it funny how we’ve come ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE since 1855). I think it really was just too early to have the language to explain the workers’ side.

This comes across in Mr Higgins’ sections and arguments. His point of view and opinions come across even through his heavy Manchester (I mean Milton-Northern) accent and dialect (and Gaskell obviously knows her stuff there – some great use of dialect: clemming, dree, knobstick…). It’s obvious that he just doesn’t have the words or framework to talk about his experiences or philosophy. It wasn’t there yet. The language hadn’t been invented. But you see it in the canteen episode, when Thornton explains how he suggested to Higgins that they have a canteen for the workers, and Higgins shoots the idea down and goes to the union, only to come back with an almost identical idea, and how from there it works. He never explains his methods or thinking too clearly, but we can see it obliquely through his actions, through reports like these, through the things he doesn’t say. I found it fascinating – not bleeding heart lefty enough for me, but it must have been pretty amazing for the time.

My theory is that the main theme of the book is something to do with living under authority (or social norms maybe?) and how we deal with it. Frederick’s mutiny under the abused authority of a naval captain, the contrast of Edith’s and Margaret’s living under the restrictions of being female in the 1800s (I am ashamed to admit I was so eager to marry her off, when her insistence on waiting until she was really into it is so refreshing and admirable when juxtaposed with the poor choices of every other woman in her family), Mr Hale under the authority of the Church – and leaving when his bizarre, vague, never-explained crisis of faith overwhelms him, Higgins under tyrant masters.

Thornton’s argument that the working class must be treated like children is revealed to be pretty specious, and his determination that everyone should just do what they have to do and stay in their place – as he did and was ‘rewarded’ by his good fortune – is shown to be superstitious nonsense. We see a lot of people in North and South, good people, bad people, obedient people and rebels, and their lives and deaths are not correlated to their morals or intelligence, but to the stacked odds and random chance inherent in the system.

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