North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (a contemporary of Charles Dickens) is set in Victorian England, and focuses on the huge changes that industrialization had brought to the country, highlighted by the social clashes between the tradesmen who are becoming rich and powerful, and the “old money” gentility. The story is told through three families, the Thorntons (southern tradesmen, the Hales (northern gentility), and the Higginses (southern working class). Margaret Hale, our bold heroine protagonist, moves to Milton, a northern industrial town, with her father, a dissenting clergyman, and her mother. There, she is initially repulsed by the different way of living all around her, and especially by the owners of the various mills and factories, exemplified by Mr. Thornton. She also befriends the Higginses, who work in the mills and give her first-hand accounts of how horrible it can be to work there.
That’s the stage, in a nutshell, but there is a LOT going on in this novel, both on a basic plot level and on a thematic level. The Hales are struggling to adjust to their new life, the Thorntons are struggling with their business and a union strike, the Higginses are involved with the strike, pretty much everyone gets sick at some point, and there’s a mystery involving Margaret’s brother Frederick. There may or may not be a romantic plot as well. ALL of the individuals clash with each other, usually because of misunderstandings because they’re all REALLY defensive toward their own way of life. There are frequent arguments and collisions between the North and South, the rich and poor, the educated and non-educated, and the pride of one character and another.
DID I MENTION THERE IS A LOT GOING ON?
I enjoyed this novel, for the most part. It was very intelligent in the way that all angles of everything were thought out or developed. The different characters were all very well-rounded and the way they constantly misunderstood one another was hilarious, because the writing is thorough enough that the reader understands everyone but none of the characters understand each other. The strike was the most interesting for me of the many plots going on, because it showed all of the issues at stake so clearly. I REALLY loved Margaret. She’s very conscientious of how she behaves, so often other people don’t understand the amount of FEELS she is having because she’s trying to deal with her problems or not burden other people. This makes her come across as haughty and proud very often, when sometimes she’s just shy or feeling sad and covering it up. But she’s very bold and brave when it matters, and she takes care of her family through some really difficult times. Go Marg.
My main complaint is one of pacing. There were several sections that moved very slowly, mostly because a couple of characters would get bogged down in arguing about something, such as the strike, again. I kept willing external events to happen to the characters so that they would have to DEAL with them rather than talk about them. This could also make it feel like the author was just setting up these characters and this situation so she could talk about “Real Issues.”
Overall, I recommend it if you are interested in this time period or enjoy complicated romantic dramas. It’s worth the work.