Bookstack: North and South Readalong

It’s been a summer of reading historically, so when Andi announced a readalong of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North and South (first published 1855), I decided to jump right in. I’m familiar with Gaskell’s writing through her very definitive biography of Charlotte Bronte, who was not only Gaskell’s  writing contemporary but a personal friend. The biography led me to read two of her other novels Villette, and Wives and Daughters, both of which I enjoyed.

In all honesty, I sometimes find the nineteenth century writing style a hard go. It definitely takes more attention to read, almost like setting your mind to a math problem to figure out the construct and meaning. Gaskell’s work seems more accessible, as if she already had a foot in the 20th century.

North and South is really interesting to me on several fronts. The basic story centers around the conflict between industrialization and gentrification, specifically the Hale family and daughter Margaret, who leave behind the simple life of their country parsonage to take up residence in the industrial city of Milton, where they interact with the Thornton’s, son John, a wealthy (but “unread” mill owner), his mother and sister.

Of course you can see the romantic possibilities coming a mile away -Margaret sets out abhoring these “shoppy’s”, people who make their living manufacturing and selling goods, rather than engaging in intellectual pursuits. But naturally, she finds herself falling in love with John Thornton, despite his bourgeoise class standing. For his part, he is smitten almost immediately, even though he is appalled at Margaret’s obvious disdain for his lifestyle.

It seems to be a tenent of thinking during this time that people who worked in the manufacturing sector couldn’t be educated or well read, which is a fallacy we’ve carried over into our society as well. From the time you enter school, it seems as if you’re either on the college track or the technical track, and after you’ve learned the basics it’s never the twain shall meet. Why should we be surprised that a carpenter paints landscapes, or a welder writes poetry, or an electrician plays classical guitar?  Or that a novelist rides dirt bikes, a painter goes bowling, or a musician moonlights as a handyman?

There are also some very interesting family dynamics going on in North and South, and these are illustrated especially clearly in this week’s reading (chapters 15-27). Mrs. Hale has been diagnosed with a fatal illness, and her dying wish is that she be able to see her son Frederic one last time. But here’s the rub- Frederic is in hiding from the Royal Navy and if he were to show his face in Britain he would likely be captured and executed. But no matter to Mrs. Hale, she is determined Margaret must write and ask him to come to her. And so Margaret does, giving in to a request that seems utterly selfish. Mr. Hale has also preyed upon Margaret’s strength and good nature. When he decides as a matter of conscience that he must leave the Church of England, give up his living in lovely Hampshire and move the family to Milton, he’s hasn’t the guts to tell his wife of this decision. No, he asks Margaret to do it! And, ever the dutiful daughter, she’s the one who breaks the life-altering news to her mother.

Meanwhile, the romance between Margaret and John Thornton is heating up, although she still won’t admit her feelings for the poor man who makes a fool of himself proposing to her and then get utterly crushed in return. Margaret’s playing fast and loose with the man’s feelings, that’s for sure, and even refers to the fact that he’s her “first specimen,” as in the first industrialist/business owner she’s ever met, so she’s trying to figure out what makes him tick and whether he’s worthy of her time and attention.

Not such nice behavior for a clergyman’s daughter.

But Margaret has so much to learn, sheltered as she has been. I try to overlook some of her bad attitude, and she’s beginning to redeem herself  - with her visits to Bessie, one of the millworkers daughters who dies (presumably of consumption) during this week’s reading, and with her behavior during the strike, where she comes down firmly on the side of fairness to the worker but also comes to a better understanding of  the businessman’s (Thornton’s) need.

Reading this Victorian novel reminds me how much we can learn about history from novels, and what a great tool they are for teaching. I don’t often participate in readalongs, but I’m so glad I decided to join in on this one.

How about you? Have any favorite Victorian authors?