First published in twenty weekly episodes in Dickens' Household Words in 1854, this was Gaskell's second 'industrial' novel. Perhaps it was this connection with Dickens that led me to expect something, well, more Dickensian. North and South appeared in the periodical directly after Dickens' Hard Times. Both novels, set in the industrial north, deal with the conditions of workers and strikers in the cotton industry.
My first mistake, I think, was to think that any other writer could be like Dickens. Who could imitate his theatrical style, grand scope and memorable characters? I've yet to read Hard Times, but North and South surprised me by being as much a romance as it is a social commentary.
"With such an expression of resolution and power, no face, however plain in feature, could be either vulgar or common. I should not like to have to bargain with him; he looks very inflexible. Altogether a man who seems made for his niche, mamma; sagacious, and strong, as becomes a great tradesman."It is the 'tradesman' part that Margaret looks down on, for despite her own reduced circumstances, she considers herself of a higher class and better educated than he. For his part, Thornton finds Margaret haughty and proud though, as is the way with these stories, he finds herself attracted to her nonetheless.
There is more to the conflict between Margaret and Thornton than just perceived differences in class. Margaret dislikes Thornton's authoritarian attitude to his workers, whilst he considers her naive in her views on worker/master relations. It is only through the strike and Margaret's friendship with the poor Higgins family that the two begin to reconcile their views. Margaret's own family difficulties lead her into a compromising position and she discovers that she doesn't own the moral high ground after all.
Elizabeth Gaskell was in a good position to understand the hardships of the cotton workers. Having grown up, like Margaret, in the countryside, she married the minister William Gaskell and settled in Manchester where William was Minister at the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel. In addition to her writing career, she worked hard to improve the lives of the people living in the slums of Manchester.
The book considers the differences between lives of the workers in the industrial north and those living in the rural south. Margaret comes to appreciate that one is not intrinsically better than the other:
'I suppose each mode of life produces its own trials and its own temptations. The dweller in towns must find it as difficult to be patient and calm, as the country-bred man must find it to be active, and equal to unwonted emergencies. Both must find it hard to realize a future of any kind; the one because the present is so living and hurrying close around him; the other because his life tempts him to revel in the mere sense of animal existence, not knowing of, and consequently not caring for any pungency of pleasure for the attainment of which he can plan, and deny himself and look forward.'North and South is interesting too for the way in which it explores masculine and feminine roles in Victorian society. For the most part, the female characters are limp and ineffective. There's Edith, Margaret's beautiful but spoilt cousin. She is a shallow, frivolous creature who has no sense of the world beyond her own privileged home. Margaret's mother never overcomes the shock of the move to the industrial north. Through all the adversities heaped on the Hale family, it is Margaret that holds the family together. Guided by her own sense of right and wrong, she steps beyond the conventional boundaries of the 'feminine' sphere, first to defend Thornton against the striking workers and later in support of the cotton worker Higgins. She deals too with matters legal, working in defence of her brother who is exiled overseas. Thornton's mother is the only other strong female character, but she is fierce and judgemental. It is only Margaret who combines strength of character with real compassion for her fellow man and woman. As a modern woman reading this book, its easy to underestimate Margaret's remarkable achievements.
To be sure, despite the pride and prejudices of the two central characters, Thornton is not a romantic hero in the mould of Darcy, and nor does Gaskell's writing have the acuity and wit of Austen. Yet the more I reflect on North and South, the more I appreciate the scope of book that has so much to say about life in Victorian England.