I thought I would love it, and I did love it indeed.
Before proceeding into my praise-adorned and “gushy” review, I must mention that I watched the BBC mini-series first (which is quite great!). The series fuelled my enthusiasm about the novel, and I finally read it! Also, Richard Armitage captures John Thornton’s character really well.
Upon first meeting Margaret Hale, the glorious protagonist of this tale, I immediately fell into amitié with her and her shining personality, proud upturned chin, and somewhat prejudiced outlook on things (which rights itself in time, much like Elizabeth Bennet’s does). I could draw several parallels between Margaret and Elizabeth, and being partial to that type of woman, I found the former a very pleasant, likeable character. When she is forced to relocate to a manufacturing town (“mill town”) of Milton, Margaret does not let her despair take away from her sense. She is the crutch of her family, helpful and hard-working. Margaret doesn’t waste time caring for ribbons or nice dresses, she is more interested in the disparity between masters and hands, as the workers are called. And although she carries herself with pride before the pragmatic mill-owner John Thornton, she doesn’t turn her nose up at associating with a rough worker Nicholas Higgins or taking care of his dying daughter Bessie.
What I love about this novel, and Gaskell herself, is the level of concern for social issues which it contains. The author gives quite detailed descriptions of the workers’ living conditions, the purpose and state of the unions, the attitude of the masters and the sentiment that the hands are disposable (when they go on strike, Thornton simply brings in poorer Irish workers). The history enthusiast in me was glad!
By way of composition, North and South almost reads with a Dickensian quality. Yet, it is undoubtedly more romantic than Dickens ever allowed himself to be. Even (do I dare apply a genre term to a classic novel…) somewhat like a coming-of-age novel as Margaret is only nineteen (or is it YA now?! :)) when she moves from her green Southern village to the smoky Northern factory town. Her journey from a close-minded and idealistic girl to a poised and accepting young lady is also symbolic of the title, fascinating to read and very relatable.
Perhaps it is the bias speaking, but North and South is very very lovely, and Margaret Hale is up there among Elizabeth Bennet in the ranks of my favourite female characters.