North and South – A Review

Note: In place of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, I am reading/reviewing North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Anyone who has ever read Steinbeck knows his language/subject matter can be a little…rough. Enough said, I hope.

A few months ago, I was reading Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin (review coming soon!) when one of my friends walked into the room. Let me tell you a little something about this friend. She is a die-hard book lady. I’m talking a book collection that puts my little “library” to shame. Anyway, being a very friendly person – the very salt of the earth – she asked me what I was reading. And, since she is a kindred spirit in terms of book-ish-ness, we naturally began discussing literature.

“Have you ever read North and South?” she asked me. “It’s my favorite book. I’ve read it about four times.”

I told her I had never heard of it, and she offered to let me borrow it.

I’ll be quite honest, folks. After she lent me the book a couple of weeks later, I put off reading it…for, like, two months. From the cover, it looked a lot like Pride and Prejudice, a book I forced myself to finish a summer or two ago.

Once I finally started reading North and South, I wanted to smack myself in the head. How many times have I learned the hard way that you can’t judge a book by its cover? Although in this case, I should have known how good it was. Take a look at how loved this book has been:

North and South

Written during the height of England’s Industrial Revolution, North and South follows the life of Margaret Hale, a young lady with high ideals and extreme devotion. After her father, a minister with the Church of England, resigns from his parish position on a matter of conscience, Margaret and her parents leave their beloved home in Helstone (in Southern England) to move to the dirty grime of the Northern manufacturing town of Milton. Mr. Hale earns his income as a private tutor in the booming town, instructing inhabitants like John Thornton, the manager of a manufacturing plant in Milton. Margaret quickly finds herself at odds with Mr. Thornton, whose high-minded attitude she finds disdainful.

In an attempt to make the best of the less-than-desirable move to Milton, Margaret keeps busy in the new town. She befriends a factory worker – Nicholas Higgins – and his dying daughter, Bessy. Nicholas, who works for Mr. Thornton, is a rough man with a heart of gold, but when his Union goes on strike, nothing can force him to give in to the demands of his employers. The situation comes to a head when the strike turns violent and a mob storms the gates of Mr. Thornton’s home. Margaret finds herself in the middle of the whole, ugly mess. She encourages Nicholas to reconsider, since the loss of wages the workers are suffering from the strike is seriously hurting the factory employees’ families.

My friend told me not to be surprised if a lot of people die in this book. So, here’s your fair warning: don’t expect poor Margaret to live a Pollyannish lifestyle. Life knocks this poor girl off her feet so many times over the course of the story, she is figuratively battered and scarred. Her father quits his perfect job and moves them to a scumbag of a town, her mother gets seriously ill, and her fugitive brother sneaks into the country and accidentally kills a man. Yet Margaret never fails to handle situations with strength and decorum. Her grace and dedication catch the eye of Mr. Thornton, and he quickly finds himself in love with Margaret. Yet Margaret is consumed with prejudice. Mr. Thornton is a manufacturer – a position Margaret finds distasteful. She blatantly rejects his proclamation of love. As the story progresses, however, she begins to realize her own feelings towards the self-made factory owner, but perhaps too late.

I am not a Victorian English literature fan. I get lost in a lot of the Dickens-ish language of the time, and some of the stories bore me. But not this book. It has made me reconsider my opinion of classical British literature. The language is accessible and the plot is intriguing, with just the right amount of romance, adventure, and tragedy to accurately portray reality in a manufacturing town. What I liked most about the underlying structure of the book was the characters. Margaret isn’t perfect. She deals with a great deal of prejudice when she comes to Milton. Throughout the story, she holds firm to her pre-established disdain for traders and manufacturers, whom she considers (perhaps unconsciously) to be inferior. Yet, she eventually comes around and sees that the North and the South are not really so different when it comes right down to it. Her friend, Nicholas Higgins, says it best:

“And yet, yo’ see, North and South has both met and made kind o’ friends in this big smoky place.”

This book came highly recommended to me, and I pass on that recommendation to you. This book was definitely one of my favorite classics, and I heartily encourage you to nestle up with a copy this winter and lose yourself in Margaret Hale’s world.

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