A Classic Written by a Woman
‘Edith!’ said Margaret, gently, ‘Edith!’
But, as Margaret half suspected, Edith had fallen asleep. She lay curled up on the sofa in the back drawing-room in Harley Street, looking very lovely in her white muslin and blue ribbons. If Titania had ever been dressed in white muslin and blue ribbons, and had fallen asleep on a crimson damask sofa in a back drawing-room, Edith might have been taken for her. Margaret was struck afresh by her cousin’s beauty.
I was somewhat nervous to read this novel, but I suppose I have been with all of the books on this list so far – that’s why they’re on the list! I had heard a lot of comparing and contrasting of this book with the work of Jane Austen (whom I adore!) and arguments for the various merits of both. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but what I got was extremely satisfying.
Margaret Hale is a young woman who has grown up living with her cousin and acting as a companion towards her. When her cousin gets married, she must return to living with her parents. Upon returning, her father, who is a minister, has a crisis of faith in the church – he disagrees with something (we’re never sure what) that the church is doing and believes it is contrary to his actual religious beliefs. The family moves to a fictional industrial town (based on Manchester) in order to escape any reminder of their former way of life. Here, Mr Hale becomes a tutor, and Margaret must come to terms with the change in her social class and surroundings, particularly when she becomes involved with the local people. These include a poor family who live nearby, and the owner of one of the many factories, Mr Thornton.
This was an excellent study of social class at the time of writing. Its very direct in its addressing these themes, unlike Austen, and doesn’t shy away from some uncomfortable truths about the way people like Margaret (and her extended family later in the book) look, not only at poor people, but at self-made business people. I’m writing this on the day of the birth of another royal baby, and it is clear that this is a divide that still exists in British society, though in a much different way from Gaskell’s time. It’s not just money, it’s how you make it. This aspect of the story can be a little heavy handed but overall I think it’s well addressed for the time, and while I obviously don’t agree with everything or even much of her conclusions, it’s definitely a lot more progressive than I would have expected for its time.
There is, unsurprisingly, a religious vein that runs through the core of this book. I was less happy about this aspect of the book, not because I don’t believe, but because I felt it was extremely clunky and kept taking me out of my immersion in the story. For example, the character of Beth, the pious, poverty-stricken, invalid, is not only a cliche (even for the time) but absolutely vomit inducing. I get the idea Gaskell was going for, but she laid it on far too thickly and I think it could have been done in a more convincing and subtle way (not that much about this book is subtle, but that certainly was a standout!) Margaret’s not-infrequent religious outbursts seemed unnatural and at odds with the otherwise less-than-pious aspects of her character – I thoroughly believed in her belief, as it were, but I didn’t believe in her suddenly, almost unbidden, making these religious pronouncements when that wasn’t even what the conversation was about in the first place.
Then there’s the love story. That was definitely a successful aspect of the book for me. I can see the flaws – she does rather seem to jump from being antagonistic towards Thornton to having more positive feelings about him, but I don’t really care. I also liked that his “rival” wasn’t completely vile and repulsive, just clearly not the right person for Margaret – though I feel that he had the potential to be, which is much more realistic than some of the absolutely terrible potential suitors you find in 19th century literature. The last 100 pages in particular were a joy to me, and I was so glad about the way they came together in the end.
There are a lot of tragic elements in this book. It’s amazing just how many people seem to die around Margaret, to the extent that, if I were Thornton, I would be extremely worried about my mortality! I thought that perhaps her mother’s death was a little long and drawn out; however, in retrospect, that does reflect the reality of having an illness like cancer, so perhaps I was being a little judgmental. Other things that happen later in the book seem perhaps a little convenient in terms of allowing the plot to converge at a certain point, but it’s hard to discuss without spoilers and ultimately it didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the novel.
I’d certainly recommend this to anyone who enjoys 19th century literature. Ultimately, I think it’s only Austen-esque in that it was written by a woman and deals with social class issues in a not dissimilar time period. The prose is great and while it does have some awkward and clunky moments, both thematically and in plot, I don’t see them getting in the way of the riches of character that this has to offer. I give North and South eight and a half out of ten.