Updated: Aug 22, 2021
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Publication Date: 1854
Genre: Classic Fiction
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.
Almost immediately upon starting this book, I felt extremely nostalgic. The odd thing is, I normally only get this feeling during a re-read and I’ve never read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell before. My only reasoning was that the writing evoked the same kind of feeling I get when reading Jane Austen and they both published in the first half of the 1800s - not super scientific but anything that brings me back to the first time I read Jane Austen is fine by me.
Considering the brief synopsis, this book has SO much depth and so much going on that the synopsis seems a bit deceptive but still covers the basis of the plot. Gaskell weaves an amazing story of a young woman from a small little hamlet in the South who has to move to a Northern industrial town which is very much out of her comfort zone. The truly great thing about Margaret Hale is that no matter what she has to face, she does so with grace and dignity along with a heck of a lot of gumption. She is a character who is far beyond her time in terms of social politics and business-sense but also for her gender. It isn’t often that I come across such a strong female character who comes by this attribute so honestly and naturally while also being open to seeing every side of a situation - even if she can be a bit stubborn about it at times.
The relationship between Margaret and Mr. Thornton has so many layers to it and I appreciated that we could get a glimpse into the thoughts of both characters surrounding their interactions but this really isn’t the main theme or point to the story. North and South really is a commentary on the way of life in both places and how there are pros and cons but also a need to adapt to change and to do better than those before us. To think critically and see all side of an issue. I feel that even though this was written in the 1800s, it’s themes are still applicable today.
The biggest plot point within the story is by far the topic of the impending strike and the relationship between master and worker. What I find most impactive about this aspect of the plot is that Gaskell is able to masterfully write a debate between Margaret and Mr. Thornton on the topic in which the outcome was very hard for me to pick a side on! Both views were so well-thought out and were so honestly written that I couldn’t help but be amazed. This really is where Gaskell shines in her writing. You can really tell that she led a similar life in the fact of her moving from the South to the North and she understood the workings of the society to a T.
I absolutely adore literature from this time period and most of the books that I have read from it were ones I read when I was between the ages of 8 and 13. It has been a very long time since I have been able to discover something ‘new’ from this period but I am so happy to have found Elizabeth Gaskell and I will gladly pick up her other works.