Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell

Yes, I have finally finished reading this.  I started it way back in February, even though I'd meant to finish reading Middlemarch first, but I just couldn't make myself wait.  You see, I first saw the 2004 miniseries in February, and after that, I simply had to get a copy of the book right away and begin reading it.  Because I finally understood the awesomeness that is this story, and I wanted more and more and more.  (I reviewed the miniseries here today too.)

This book focuses on Margaret Hale, a lady whose whole life is entirely disrupted when her minister father leaves his church because he has a crisis of conscience and moves his family from England's pastoral south to the industrial north.  They move to Milton, a town where everyone is entirely consumed with the making of cotton fabric.  A mill owner named John Thornton befriends the family, falls in love with Margaret, and finds his life changed by them as much as theirs have been changed by moving there.

This is the first Elizabeth Gaskell book I've ever read in its entirety -- I did try reading Cousin Phillis and Other Tales a couple of years ago, but never finished it.  I'm not sure I'm exactly a fan of her writing style yet -- she gets melodramatic at times, with more heightened emotions than I generally care for... and yet, there's no denying the power of this story.  She also loves her double-meaning names (Milton = Mill town, Thornton = North town, etc), though she's not as cutesy about them as her friend Charles Dickens, so I don't mind much.

I almost wonder if Gaskell got the idea for this by reading Pride and Prejudice and thinking, "Oh, but that's not how I'd have written it."  I know sometimes I get story ideas that way, and there are some marked similarities here -- a woman who thinks badly of a man because she misunderstands him, a man who loves the woman who continually rebuffs him, a botched proposal scene.  Anyone know if Gaskell ever revealed her inspiration for this?

Anyway, this is not my most coherent book review ever, and I'm sorry about that.  I've got so many things to say, I'm kind of overwhelmed.  I'm also trying not to compare it too much to the 2004 miniseries because I'm doing a review of that too, and I'd rather talk about this on its own merits, but it keeps getting tangled up with the movie in my head.  So maybe I should just go ahead and talk about some things I was expecting from this book after having seen the miniseries first.

I wanted to know more of what was going on in Mr. Thornton's head and heart.  I felt like after the miniseries, I understood Margaret Hale pretty well, but John Thornton was still a bit of a cipher.  Here, I was very happily rewarded -- there's quite a bit of time spent in Mr. Thornton's head, and I was pleased.  

I also wanted more wonderful scenes between Nicholas Higgins and Mr. Thornton.  Here, I was disappointed, because the miniseries actually played that up more than the book does.  Nuts.  Of course, Higgins was wonderful all the way through the book; I just wanted more of him, is all.

However, I was very pleased by how much nicer Mr. Henry Lennox is in the book.  He doesn't creepily sneak up on Margaret while she's napping in the meadow, he doesn't stand around glowering at everyone all the time, and he's generally helpful and nice.  I felt quite sorry for him in the miniseries and wanted to like him better, so I'm glad he's more likable here.

And I was happy that Mrs. Thornton was equally as awesome in the book as the movie.  I love how "she walked proudly among women for his sake" (p. 95).  Some people might think she's a bit oddly devoted to John, but I think it's pretty natural for a mother to be proud of the son who has made up for his father's mistakes and then raised himself up into a position of distinction.  I loved her.  Especially since, well, she's shy.  It says so!  "Mrs. Thornton was shy" (p. 96).  I'm shy too.  And I really liked how straight-forward she was, always speaking the truth even if people didn't want to hear it.  Like when she told Margaret, "If you live in Milton, you must learn to have a brave heart, Miss Hale" (p. 116).  She sees to the core of things and dispenses with the frivolous niceties other people would insist on blanketing truth in.

And I can't forget Mr. Bell!  He cracked me up continually!  He had some of the funniest moments in the whole book, and I wish he could have been in it more.  Same goes for Frederick Hale -- he was sweet and brave and kind and wonderful.  I love how quickly he and Margaret understood each other and became sympatico.

One of the things that fascinates me the most about this book is the way both Margaret and Thornton had to realize they were not just wrong about each other, but that they needed to open their minds and hearts to new ideas and ways of doing things.  But at the same time, they don't become new and different people by the end, they've just improved who they already were.  And the same could be said of Nicholas Higgins -- he went through the same sort of transformation they did, which is quite remarkable for a side character.  Mr. and Mrs. Hale, on the other hand, could or would not open themselves up to change, but tried to remain steadfastly the same, and so were broken.

Basically, I loved the contrast between what we are born versus what we make of ourselves, I guess.

I want to reread this again before too terribly long, maybe later this year, to see what more I glean from it.  And maybe then I could write a better review.  We'll see if I manage either of those or not.

Particularly Good Bits:

But the cloud never comes in that quarter of the horizon from which we watch for it (p. 20).

...Susan Lightfoot had been seen with artificial flowers in her bonnet, thereby giving evidence of a vain and giddy character (p. 34).

As she realized what might have been, she grew thankful for what was (p. 68).

...small, keen, bright little spots of positive enjoyment having come sparkling into the very middle of sorrows (p. 104).

"Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used -- not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless" (p. 109).

Margaret had always dreaded lest her courage should fail her in any emergency, and she should be proved to be, what she dreaded lest she was -- a coward (p. 173).

He had not loved her without gaining that instinctive knowledge of what capabilities were in her.  Her soul would walk in glorious sunlight if any man was worthy, by his power of loving, to win back her love (p. 264).

"I don't want to be more liberal-minded, thank you," said Mr. Bell (p. 323)

He had the greatest mind in the world to get up and go out of the room that very instant, and never set foot in the house again (p. 324).  (For some reason, that line made me slam the book closed and clasp it to my heart, and I couldn't read any more for hours.)

"...I doubt this smart captain is no great man of business.  Nevertheless, his mustachios are splendid" (p. 356).

"I must not think so much of how circumstances affect me myself, but how they affect others, if I wish to have a right judgment, or a hopeful trustful heart" (p. 391).

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for some violence and people dying all the time.

This is my 20th book read and reviewed for The Classics Club.


  1. Well, now you've done it! Another book must be added to my "must read" list. Thank you! Well done! :)

    1. I'd say I'm sorry, RT, but I'm not :-) It's a very good book!

  2. Great review, Hamlette. I know what it's like to be overwhelmed by impressions from a book and not know where to start, but you've given me insights into the characters that I hadn't picked up on my first read. I love Gaskell. I find her style gentler than Eliot's yet her stories and characters are still so rich. I have Wives and Daughter's up next at some point and I'm really looking forward to it.

    1. Thanks, Cleopatra! I'm glad I shared some insights you hadn't found yourself, even though my post feels so helter-skelter to me. I got "Wives and Daughters" for my birthday, so I hope to read that soon too!

  3. Glad to hear you liked it! I enjoyed the miniseries a lot. I'll have to read this one sometime.

    1. Erika! I didn't know you'd seen the miniseries! I gave it to Mom for her birthday, and she liked it so much, we watched part of it twice while I was there. The book is awesome.

  4. - This is one of my favourite books ever. It's such an underrated classic and I'm sooo happy that you enjoyed it. I loved your review and I particularly enjoyed your thoughts on the characters :)

    - You might be interested to know that I've seen Elizabeth Gaskell's house, 84 Plymouth Grove. The first time I read this book back in 2008 I was living in Manchester which is the city that Milton is based on. I found out that her old house wasn't too far away from my university so I went and had a look for it. The house wasn't open to the public back then but I, er, stared at it for a very long time ago and tried to imagine Charlotte Bronte arriving at the doorstep to pay her friend a visit :)

    - I tend to think of Elizabeth Gaskell's writing style as being like a mash-up of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Dickens but I still think that she has a distinct writing style of her very own. If that even makes sense, lol.

    - Mr Thornton is my favourite romantic hero in all of literature. *blushes* It helps massively that Richard Armitage plays him in the 2004 adaptation but I adore Book Thornton as well!

    - Yes, Henry is a far more sympathetic character in the book than he is in the 2004 miniseries. You obviously don't want him to end up with Margaret but you do hope that he finds a nice girl of his own someday. And yet I don't mind the changes to his character in the 2004 version very much because I just really love that scene where he and Thornton are glowering at each other at the Exhibition :D

    - Mrs Thornton is a great character but I wouldn't really want her as my mother-in-law! It's my head canon that Margaret and Mrs Thornton argue a lot during the first year of Margaret and Thornton's marriage with poor John having to settle all of their disputes. I also have a head canon that Thornton took Margaret on a surprise honeymoon to Spain so that Margaret could see Frederick and his wife :)

    1. Hannah, I can see how this would be a favorite! If I read it another time or two, it will likely climb up my list too. I did like her style -- it reminded me more of George Eliot than Austen or Dickens, and of Charlotte Bronte some too.

      That's so completely cool that you've seen her house!!! I would have stood and stared at it too :-)

      Mrs. Thornton would be quite a m-i-l, it's true. I think she and Margaret are a LOT alike, however, so once they realized that, they could maybe find ways to get along better?

      Headcanon accepted! I like it.

    2. I'm glad you said that about the house! Because anyone seeing me stare at it would have probably thought I was very odd so I'm glad I know someone else who would have done the same!

      The real reason why I'm replying to your comment though is because I thought you'd very much appreciate the link below :) Enjoy!


    3. Merciful Zeus! Hannah, that is exquisite. Thanks so much for sharing! (I suspect that will get featured in my "best of June" post...)

  5. I've been nursing this one for a while, too! I think I've read about half. Hopefully I'll finish this year. I LOVE the mini-series!

    1. Corinne, I'm not sad that it took me this long to read, because i was able to savor it, not simply inhale it. Hope you finish it too!

  6. Oh, I simply adored the miniseries and thought Margaret was portrayed just beautifully! Funny I say this, though, as I have yet to read the book:)
    A friend of mine has offered to lend it to me, so as soon as Good Wives is complete, I hope to start reading it!
    Elizabeth Gaskell deals with some interesting subjects and has quite a bit of wisdom to offer...a quote I found from North and South that I particularly liked was about modesty...I actually shared it on my blog I liked it so much!
    And I thought your review great! Definitely motivated me to read the book as I have pictures from the film floating about in my head and I always prefer to form my own images in my mind...it just seems clearer somehow...:)
    Wasn't it Dickens who said he wished Gaskell's characters ''Were a bit more steady on their feet'' or something?? He probably said this after reading Cranford for my goodness! Those characters were just a wee bit crazy and 'unsteady' to be exact!
    Thanks for the review, Hamlette - I enjoyed reaing your thoughts! And you do have such an awesome blog:)

    1. Kelly-Anne, isn't the miniseries AH-MAY-ZEENG!!!!!!! Love it. Which is why I reviewed it today too, on my other blog. Couldn't talk about one without the other.

      Dickens is not a fave of mine, so I'm going to shake my head at him for that quote. So far, I far prefer Gaskell to him!

      I hope you can borrow and read this soon -- I think you will totally dig it.

  7. Oh, it just sounds so good. And it has more perspective from Mr. Thornton?
    I can't wait to read this. :)

    1. Natalie, I know, right? Worth reading just for that!

  8. I've read some letters written to and from Gaskell while writing North and South and can't tell that Pride and Prejudice was a specific inspiration. Given the fact that the story ended up differently than she had planned anyway, I doubt it. She originally published it in Dickens's newsletter, Household Words, and was very rushed to finish it in the time period he required. I think she went back and fixed some things before re-publishing it as a book, but it still wasn't what she had hoped. Which is funny, since the story is so amazing. I wonder if it would have been better or worse had she been given more time to play with it?

    I find it funny that you like Henry better in the book than the movie; I had the opposite reaction. I'm still only halfway through the book, so I'm basing my opinion solely on the proposal at the beginning. In the movie, he's obviously hurt, but civil. In the book, he's a total jerk and makes some additional digs at Margaret's character just to lash out. I see his lingering off to the side in the miniseries more as a reserved shyness than a creepy glowering, but it's all subjective, I suppose. :)

    1. The notes in mine also talked about how she was very rushed with the ending and did add a couple of chapters when it was published as a book. They talked about how Mr. Bell dying so soon after Mr. Hale was much more rushed than she would have liked, but she was pressed for time and space, etc.

      I guess I felt Henry's hurt a lot more in the book. In the movie, he's almost sort of, "Okay, that didn't work, whatever, I'm leaving." Whereas in the book, I really felt that he didn't just think, "Hey, here's a nice girl who seems to think she'd like to marry me, I think I'll propose," and was much more actually in love with her, so much more hurt by her rejection. And lashed out a bit from that rejection.

      I said to a friend that it's not movie-Henry's fault that he's socially awkward and not named Mr. Darcy. I don't really find him creepy at all except when he just shows up at Helstone and startles Margaret when she's napping alone. I think there, I put myself entirely in Margaret's place and imagine that if I was blissfully napping outside in a place I thought secluded and private, and then random guy I know from London just appears and wakes me up? I'd be like, "What are you doing here? You can't just sneak up on people like that! What if I had a gun? I'd have shot you!"

      (Um, yes, if I was Margaret Hale sleeping in a sea of pastoral loveliness, I'd be armed. That's why I'm not Margaret Hale, I expect.)

    2. Jumping in to say that I love your parentheses at the end there, Hamlette. Probably why I'm not Margaret Hale either, because I doubt I'd've acted very respectable or ladylike at that moment either! :D

      Also, I'm between the two of you when it comes to Henry. I didn't like him in the miniseries. He came across too smug and forward for my liking. In the book, it made much more sense that he'd spent a great deal of time with Margaret and did fall in love with her. So I could feel a bit more sympathy for him then. And I did appreciate that he ended up being very helpful at the end. But I still couldn't seem to like him very much. I suppose the miniseries ruined him for me? :)

    3. Smug, huh? I'm not sure I ever got "smug" from Henry in the miniseries. Maybe a little at the wedding dance, but no, he's mostly just kind of... pathetic, honestly. Poor Henry, who misreads people, is unused to doing impetuous things but does them anyway and then feels very awkward about them... I feel very sorry for Henry all the way through the miniseries.

    4. I see your points. I knew Gaskell added some before publishing the book, but I suspect if she had written it all out before publishing it originally, it still would have been longer. Maybe she would have done more to explain Henry's relationship to Margaret? She must have known him pretty well given their proximity in London, though. I don't think I would shoot a friend even if they did surprise me. :) Nice comment on that. It is weird that he didn't leave his suitcase somewhere before finding her, though. I suspect the intention was to convey his eagerness to be near her. Can't blame a guy for trying!

    5. Oh, I didn't mean I'd have shot him because I was mad, lol. I meant it's dangerous to startle someone like that.

      And yes, I think it would have been longer if she'd not been writing it serially that way. But who knows if it would have actually been better?

  9. My grin kept getting broader and broader as I scrolled down here. :) I love it and the die has been cast. I'm now going to have to reread this (time #4 I think!) as soon as I finish at least one of my three current books. I agree about the melodrama in places, but I LOVE how Gaskell incredibly cuts to the heart of things -- of life; starkly yet intangibly -- and in a way quite unlike her "usual" style, reflecting the darkness, hard edges, and intense, shining love of the story itself.

    Yes, that P&P comparison is pretty intriguing. Eowyn also says Charlotte Bronte's Shirley (written earlier) is very similar. And Bronte and Gaskell were also friends, which I find fascinating. But Gaskell does seem to have poured a lot of her own experiences into it as well (possibly working through some things herself at the same time) -- which is another reason I think it feels a bit different from her other work.

    1. Heidi, how are you ever going to bear such an onerous duty like re-reading this? :-D

      That's very interesting that Charlotte Bronte and Gaskell were friends! I sadly must admit that I haven't read anything by CB except Jane Eyre -- something I intend to remedy! One of these days...

      Lots of people keep saying N&S is different from Gaskell's usual style, so now I'm intrigued to see what sorts of things she usually writes. Would you say "Wives and Daughters" or "Cranford" is more like her usual style?

    2. I truly don't know.... *happy sigh* I'll make it through somehow, I expect. ;D

      Stylistically, Cranford and W&D are very similar, so generally those are the two I collectively think of as her "usual" approach. I enjoyed Cranford, but between the two I'd recommend W&D first -- as it has much more excitement and development plot wise. ;)

      (Btw, I'm not a huge fan of the "Cranford" mini-series, but I LOVE "Return to Cranford," so I'll look forward to your thoughts!!)

  10. Yay! I'm so pleased you enjoyed it! And isn't all the time we get to spend in Thornton's head so lovely? I already knew I liked him, but reading the book completely cemented it for me. :D

    I don't think I'd've liked having Mrs. Thornton for a mother in law at all! But Margaret is strong enough to handle her with the right amount of care and concern but not be ridden over top of. If that makes sense. I really couldn't see anyone else having the ability to gain Mrs. Thornton's respect, and I can honestly imagine that with some time, Margaret will be able to do this.

    Book Nicholas or miniseries Nicholas, he's just awesome. Right?! :)

    I totally noticed the similarities to P&P! First in the miniseries, since I watched it before reading the book. But they're still there in the book as well. And I wondered the same. If P&P had any sort of influence on Mrs. Gaskell at all. Wouldn't it be fun to be able to time travel back and ask? I'm so curious!

    Mr. Bell had some of the best lines! And other characters listening to him didn't even realize how awesomely sarcastic he could be at times. That bit cracked me up.

    I'm glad you liked Frederick. I never could seem to come around to liking him in the book. In the miniseries I did, though. In the book, he felt too plot-convenient or something. And very self-focused in his pain. But miniseries Frederick felt much more pleasant and loving to his sister.

    I love one of your last paragraphs where you talk about how Margaret and Thornton change, but not who they intrinsically are inside. So true! They learn how to be more open-minded to different ideas and ways of doing things. That how they've done something may not always be the best. How to try and see things from someone else's perspective. But as you said "they just improved who they are". They become better versions of themselves. I love that!

    Wonderful review. And yay for N&S awesomeness! :D

    1. Kara, yes, I could have done with three times as much of Mr. Thornton's thoughts. All so good!

      I think Mrs. Thornton respects Margaret a great deal by the end of the story. There are a couple places where she says things like she admires how much strength and spirit Margaret has, and could like her a lot if she was a Milton girl, etc. I think once they both realize that they both want to take the best care of John possible, they'll get along pretty well.

      Nicholas. Might be my favorite character, to be honest. If I had to choose one.

      I think book-Frederick is marvelous! I love how he and Margaret understand each other. But I have a very close relationship with my brother too, so that might be affecting my reading :-)

    2. I'm with you on Frederick, Kara. I'm not sure what it is...his relationship with Margaret is very sweet and, like Hamlette, I can understand that. But considered separately from Margaret, I'm just not a big fan of his. Can't put my finger on it.

  11. I enjoyed your review, this book took me ages to read but I truly love it. At the moment, I'm trying a different approach - I'm listening to Juliette Stephenson reading it to me on Audible - this is wonderful, but it too is taking ages - I keep back-tracking (mmmmm).
    You're so right that in the book we do get to spend time in Thornton's head, which makes such a difference- trouble is I don't want to leave! Gaskell is fabulous - some of your best bits quotes are so beautiful. Thi is surely one of the very best love stories I EVER read.

    1. Thanks, Sue! I think when my kids are older (read: less noisy) I will get into audio books more, because they really are delightful.

      So nice to hear from another fan of this book!


What do you think?

Comments on old posts are always welcome! Posts older than 7 days are on moderation to dissuade spambots, so if your comment doesn't show up right away, don't worry -- it will once I approve it.

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)