I listened to North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell as an audiobook and loved it.
Margaret Hale has been living with her bright and beautiful cousin, Edith, until Edith’s marriage, then Margaret returns home to Halston in southern England. Shortly thereafter her father reveals that he has had a crisis of conscience and must step down from his position as a vicar. It’s not quite clear exactly what this crisis involved (one problem with an audiobook is not being able to flip through pages to reread parts where you might not have picked up on everything). He doesn’t abandon his belief in God entirely, and that is demonstrated later in the book, but he doesn’t feel he can continue as a vicar in his denomination. His close friend, Mr. Bell, has arranged for Mr. Hale to become a tutor in the northern mill town of Milton.
This throws the family into an upheaval in several ways: the loss of position, the reduction of an already small income, the move away from not only all that is dear and familiar, but also the move to a place radically different than where they have lived, chosen purposefully by Mr, Hale so as to hopefully lessen the sorrow of leaving a place he and his daughter loved.
As both Mr. and Mrs. Hale are distressed, it falls to Margaret to support them both and undertake the lion’s share of details involved in the move.
Milton is not only different because it is a busy, smoky mill town as opposed to the peaceful, quiet, rural setting the Hales came from, but the way of life and way of thinking in the North is totally different from that in the South, and thus the Hales’ interactions with people are rife with several misunderstandings on both sides. Their main contact is with a Mr. Thornton, a busy mill owner. In the course of daily life they also become acquainted with a Mr. Higgins, a common laborer, or hand, as they call the workers there, and his very ill daughter, Bessy. Through these two relationships and the tension building up to a strike, they see right and wrong on both sides of the labor issue and try their best to help the two men to understand the view of the other.
In the course of the story, two very different men seek Margaret’s hand in marriage. She is not at all interested in either of them for personal reasons and because her family depends on her so much. One is obvious at the beginning, and the other emerges as a love interest later in the story. I was actually dismayed at first, because the second one, though a decent fellow, wasn’t very likeable. The changes and growth of the characters, particularly Margaret, make the outcome of this aspect of the story a surprise until the ending.
The feel (I don’t know how else to describe it) of this book was very similar to Louisa May Alcott’s books, especially those in which the main characters undergo a reversal of fortune. Gaskell was 22 years older then Alcott, and Alcott was American while Gaskell was British, but their writing seemed very similar to me (and I regard that as a good thing!)
There are some similarities between North and South with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: I saw North and South described somewhere as “Pride and Prejudice with a social conscience.” There are no balls or dances or frantic mothers in North and South, but there is pride and prejudice on many sides that is slowly overcome as the characters interact and come to know each other. Austen lived before Gaskell (Gaskell was seven years old when Austen died). Austen’s writings have more witty barbs and comic moments, but otherwise there are similarities in their writings as well.
Gaskell was a master of conveying human nature in this book. The words, the thoughts, and even the expressions of some of the characters had me thinking, “Yes, I can see that, I understand that exactly.”
I would not call this a Christian book, and I would differ with Gaskell’s Unitarian beliefs, but there are Christian principles through the book, and Margaret in particular offers Biblical advice as well as words of Scripture in her counsel to others.
My only previous experience with Gaskell’s writing was with Cranford (linked to my thoughts) last year, and I had thought of Cranford as “not spell-binding, but pleasant.” North and South was much more than pleasant: it was quite poignant. I wouldn’t call it riveting in the same sense as a who-done-it, but I did carry my iPhone around much more often than usual to listen to it, and I actually said out loud as it ended, “No!!! I don’t want it to end!” That’s the only real complaint: the ending was rather abrupt, but the book was originally written as a serial for Dickens’ magazine Household Words, so I don’t know if that had anything to do with it.
Juliet Stevenson narrated the book and did a marvelous job with the various voices and accents. I don’t always “think in British” when I am reading a British novel, and Juliet’s reading greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book.
There was a BBC production of North and South which I’ve not seen, but I want to now.
I had seen Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters on DVD some years ago and really enjoyed it: I’m thinking that might be my next audiobook.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)