During my high school years, I was introduced to Jane Austen and the Brontes but for some reason never Elizabeth Gaskell. She was a contemporary of the Brontes, friend to and biographer of Charlotte, and in her novel North and South she channels both the dark undercurrents of the Brontes and the romance of Austen. Over the years, on social media, I’ve seen references to “ThorntonThursdays” with pictures and video clips but I only recently discovered that they came from the 2004 BBC series North and South. I recently watched it (loved it!) and decided to give the novel a try. I was impressed with the subject matter Gaskell took on in her work. North and South is all about power relationships, abuse within them and the struggle for equality.
North and South takes place in the 1850s in the North, in a town called Milton which I believe is a stand in for Manchester, the industrial heart of England. Our heroine Margaret Hale is 19, and she and her parents have left their beloved, idyllic Helstone in the South for Milton. Mr. Hale had been a minister but has become a Dissenter and left his parish to become a teacher. Margaret, her mother and their servant Dixon have nothing to say in the matter and find their lives turned upside down. Mrs. Hale and Dixon have an especially hard time adjusting to the grime, grayness and fast-paced life of an industrialized town. The toll it takes on Mrs. Hale’s health is immediate and a matter of great concern. Margaret, who adores her father, does her best to adjust to the new life and manages to become friends with a young woman named Bessy who works at Marlborough Mills, the cotton factory owned by the Thorntons. Through Bessy and her father Nicolas Higgins, Margaret and the reader learn about the health hazards of factory work as well as attempts at unionizing and improving pay. Margaret’s sympathies are with the Higginses and other working families. But when John Thornton, the mill owner, becomes a student and friend of Mr. Hale, his ideas and presence in Margaret’s life will challenge her. Thornton’s is a rags to riches story, and he and his mother run their mill in a way that seems brutal and unfair to Margaret. She doesn’t care much for Mr. Thornton, and his mother does not care at all for Margaret. Gaskell shows her readers how much prejudice there is on both sides of this story of industrialization and modernization.
In addition to this conflict between management and labor, and between the industrialized North and traditional South, Gaskell also introduces several other power conflicts. As mentioned above, Mr. Hale has become a Dissenter, one who questions church authority and finds it overbearing. Margaret’s brother Frederick, who joined the navy, lives the life of a fugitive after participating in a mutiny; the ship’s captain was an abusive tyrant and Frederick could not watch the men under him suffer. Frederick, if he returns to England and is caught, will face court martial and execution. Higgins, who bristles under the authority of mill owners, becomes an active union organizer but we see that the union can also behave in tyrannical ways toward workers who have much to lose from a strike and do not follow in lock step with their dictates. Margaret, as a young woman and daughter of a gentleman, finds that her behavior on behalf of her friends and family members puts her at odds with Milton’s power structures and exposes her (unfairly) to scrutiny and criticism.
Gaskell’s portrayal of the struggles of both the working class and the mill owners is remarkable for its fairness. There are clearly forces for good and evil in both realms, and her overall message is that mutual respect and communication are the key to progress. The romance between Margaret and Thornton is quite good; again, each side in that troubled relationship is guilty of prejudice and misunderstanding but ultimately love and respect win the day. Gaskell does not shy away from showing the hard and ugly side of life in Milton; there is violence and more death than I would have expected from a novel of this sort, but it is all well done and serves the plot. My only complaint is that the novel sometimes drags, but it was originally written and presented in a serialized form for Charles Dickens’ journal “Household Words,” so that might be why. Overall North and South is a fine novel that combines social commentary with romance.