Two of my all-time favorite books are Victorian classics — Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – and I have been so starved of books in this genre that discovering North and South was like coming across a gem I never even knew existed. I stumbled upon its 2004 BBC adaptation — in the form of a four-part miniseries — on Netflix last week, remembered the recent write-up of the book by Nathalie Dorado-Fields, and started watching it – and couldn’t stop. It made me then get the book which I first obsessively read cover to cover, and then went right back and re-read it. It was simply that good.
As with most Victorian classics, North and South is, at its heart, a love story, and as with most books like it, the romantic tension between the hero and the heroine is sustained throughout the book, literally right down to the last page. The heroine here is Margaret Hale, the daughter of a clergyman who is forced to move with her family from the idyllic pastoral community in the south of England to the gritty industrial and manufacturing community in the north. The hero is a mill-owner in her new surroundings, John Thornton, who is taken with her right away, but whom she finds too harsh and unfeeling until it is almost too late.
While it would be easy to write North and South off as just another romance, what makes it so much more is how it captures the weighty social issues of that time related to industrialization — the growth in manufacturing, the increase in factories, the economic disparity between the mill owners and the workers employed in them, and the class divide. It provides an unflinching look at the lives of the mill workers, their extreme poverty, and their poor health, attributable in large measure to the unhealthy working conditions and polluted air inside the mills. A large portion of the novel is centered around a strike by the mill workers, and the part played in it by the workers’ union. This was when unionization was first starting, and while the strike didn’t end up benefitting the workers in this case, the perspectives of both the workers and the mill owners are the subject of extensive debate and discussion between the various characters. Also, the book does not shy away from the harsh realities of life at that time — there are quite a few deaths and even a suicide. It reminded me a lot of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which portrayed the brutality of criminals and the pitiful treatment of orphans in mid-19th century London in the same heart-rending vein. You feel like you are there and can viscerally experience the pain.
Usually, novels like this are written entirely from one point of view, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre. But North and South was unique in that respect — it takes you inside the head of both the hero and the heroine. You can feel both of their feelings, their emotions, their reactions to each other, and to the world around them. It made the book so much more richer and the story so much more vivid.
I am thrilled to have discovered a new book to add to my much-loved collection of classic literature as well as another author in this genre that I so much admire. I have already added Elizabeth Gaskell’s other books to my reading pipeline.
North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Original Publisher and Publication Date: Chapman & Hall, 1855
Edition: Norilana Books, Nov 2007
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.