North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

I know this is a Jane Austen blog, but I am sure I can find a connection between Gaskell and Austen. At the very least Sandy Welch wrote the screen play for the BBC adaptations of North and South and Emma (the one with Romola Garai as Emma) and North and South seems to echo Pride and Prejudice. I like to describe it as a gritty Pride and Predjudice.

Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia

When because of frustratingly unspecified theological doubts–we assume he becomes a Unitarian, like Gaskell’s husband–the Rev. Mr. Hale throws up his living as a Church of England priest, he, his wife, and their daughter Margaret leave the idyllic village of Helstone, in Hampshire, and move to Milton (i.e., Manchester). For most of her youth Margaret, now eighteen or nineteen, has been brought up in London by her wealthy Aunt Shaw, and has rejoined her parents only after the marriage of her vivacious but shallow cousin Edith to Captain Lennox. The captain’s brother Henry, a rising barrister, asks for Margaret’s hand but, regarding him as friend not lover, she respectfully sends him packing.

Settling in smoky Milton, the Hale women are troubled by urban dirt and commercial go-getting. The “Dissenter” Mr. Hale, who has a very small independence, now works as a tutor. His favourite pupil is the important manufacturer, Mr. Thornton. Staying to tea, Thornton debates with–and really instructs–the naive, “humanistic” Hales about the condition of working class, the strikes, the owners–the realities of the marketplace. Margaret sees Thornton as coarse and unfeeling, but also as admirable in the way he’s made his way up from poverty. He sees her as haughty, but also as lovely and intelligent.

Margaret begins to warm up to Milton when she befriends Nicholas Higgins, a factory worker, and his consumptive daughter Bessy, who is about Margaret’s age. She visits the family as often as she can, but her own mother is becoming seriously ill, too. Bessy and Mrs. Hale will soon die.

Although Thornton has tried to get his mother to like and visit the Hales, there is no love lost between them. Mrs. Thornton sees Margaret as even haughtier than her son, toward whom she herself feels exceptionally possessive. When striking workers, now a mob, threaten violence on Thornton and his factory–he has brought in cheap Irish workers to break the strike–Margaret encourages him to go down and appease the mob until soldiers arrive to keep the peace. He does so, but is in great danger. She puts herself herself between Thornton and the mob, and is struck by a hurled stone. The soldiers arrive, the rioters disperse, and Thornton carries Margaret indoors.

Thornton asks her to marry; she declines–insisting that she would have intervened to save any man threatened by a mob. It was nothing personal. When Mrs. Thornton learns that her bold Northern son has been rejected by this young Southern “lady,” she hates her all the more. When the dying Mrs. Hale asks Mrs. Thornton to look after Margaret, that woman slyly promises only to chastise Margaret if she is about to make a mistake.

Meanwhile, Margaret’s brother Frederick, who is wanted for his part in a justified-but-still-illegal mutiny, secretly visits their dying mother. When Margaret takes him to the train station on his way to London, Thornton sees them and–a long-lasting mistake–supposes Frederick to be Margaret’s lover. To complicate things further, on the train platform a certain no-good called Leonards, who served with Frederick but did not mutiny and who now wants to hand him in to get a reward, sees him and makes to hand him in. Frederick pushes him over the platform a few feet onto the tracks, then jumps into the train. Leonards dies shortly after. When Margaret is questioned by the police about the scuffle on the platform, she lies, saying she wasn’t there. As the magistrate overseeing the investigation into Leonards’s death, Thornton knows of Margaret’s lie but, though not understanding what’s behind it, covers up for her. In the course of all this, Margaret begins to realize that she loves him.

Bessy dies. Her father Nicholas gets a job with Thornton, who, mainly to avoid seeing Margaret, has stopped his tutorials with Mr. Hale. In the meantime, Mr. Bell, Thornton’s landlord and an old friend from Oxford, comes to visit the Hales in Milton, and Hale repays the visit by going to Bell in Oxford. There, suddenly, he dies. Margaret and Frederick are now orphans.

Aunt Shaw and Captain Lennox are summoned to take Margaret back to London, where she will lead an easy life with Edith and her children. Shortly after a visit with Margaret to Helstone, Bell also dies–it’s the last of the story’s many fatalities–leaving his considerable property to Margaret.

Thornton meanwhile has suffered grave financial losses: the market fluctuates, and his timing, and luck, have been bad. He comes to London to confer with the lawyer Lennox about his next move. Too, he has found out from Higgins that Margaret had been protecting her brother Frederick, who is now safe back in Spain with his Spanish wife. Margaret didn’t have a “lover” after all.

Finally alone together, Thornton and she can admit their love for one another. This is good, it must be said, for his business, which with the influx of her capital can get back on its feet.

I found this novel very compelling much better than Mary Barton. Gaskell has a much lighter touch in this one. She is still concerned with the plight of the poor, the lack of communication between the workers and the masters and  the moral issues of being a good person. The romance between Margaret and Mr Thornton is deftly handled (very like Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet) but unlike Austen we have Mr Thornton’s point of view as well. Margaret’s family are very disappointing. They all seem so self-involved. Mr Hale has a crisis of conscious and can longer be a clergyman, which involves uprooting his family and placing them in economic hard ship. Mrs Hale  just seems to spend her time complaining – she married beneath her and like the first Mrs Weston …

She had resolution enough to pursue her own will in spite of her brother, but not enough to refrain from unreasonable regrets at that brother’s unreasonable anger, nor from missing the luxuries of her former home. They lived beyond their income, but still it was nothing in comparison of Enscombe: she did not cease to love her husband, but she wanted at once to be the wife of Captain Weston, and Miss Churchill of Enscombe.

Aunt Shaw and Cousin Emily are just vacuous – seeking only pleasure and to display their wealth.

Margaret’s character doesn’t change much, but she does realise that she has misjudged the people of the north (in particular Mr Thornton who at first she considers to be a tradesman and therefore beneath her and by the end she appreciates his innate gentleman like qualities – one might even say she is blinded by her prejudice!).

I think Austen fans will appreciate this novel – the prose style is completely different, but the themes are similar.

Also the BBC adaptation (with Richard Armitage as Mr Thornton) is fabulous.

More reviews … (look I’m not the only Austen fan also enjoying Gaskell!).  (I read this version on my Kindle).  (A whole post comparing Pride and Prejudice and North and South) 


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2 Responses to North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. Deb

    Yes! – I love, love, love this book [not to mention the movie with Richard Armitage!] – and love its connections to P&P…

    Thanks for the mention!
    Deb [at jane austen in vermont]

  2. admin

    Even the music is fabulous.

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