Wednesday, July 18, 2012

North & South: Review

North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell has been on my long Victorian TBR list for quite a while.  But my main reason for picking it up this year was the Getting Lost in a Comfortable Book Challenge hosted by Gina at Book Dragon's Lair.  Somebody (or more than one somebody) out there in Gina's circle considered this book to be one of their top five comfy reads.  A book that they return to again and again.  And since I hadn't read it yet and our directive was to pick five books off the list that we'd never read and give them a test drive...I promptly put it on my list.  I have to say: I just don't get it.  

Not the book.  I get that it's an important book about social concerns of the industrial revolution.  The differences between the mercantile/industrial North and the mixture of the intellectual and rural nature of the South.  The questions of authority and obedience.  But a comfortable book?  Not for me, I'm afraid. (And, I'm quite sure there are those who may not find my choices as cozy as I do...).  I think I'd read all 800 pages of Middlemarch again before tackling a North & South reread. 

I don't find anything comfortable about the class struggles between the mill owners and their workers.  The hardships that both sides face as they try to keep the mills running and keep their families together and fed are very real and very difficult.  I don't find comfort in the characters either.  Margaret Hale is an annoying heroine.  In a time period when women were supposed to be thinking about home and hearth and finding themselves a man, she is "offended" (her word) when two men of her acquaintance make her offers.  She is so shocked by the unexpected proposals that she is at best curt and at her worst rude.  She is stubborn and very self-satisfied in her opinions--and very prickly when Mr. Thornton doesn't agree with her.  Thornton is the more promising character.  He's willing to consider what Margaret says--even when she's being her most stubborn and rude.  And beyond Margaret and Mr. Thornton, the other characters are just kind of.....there.  Dickens is quoted on the back of the Penguin edition as saying: "An admirable story....full of character and power."  If full of character = lots of different characters, then I'm absolutely on board with that statement.  Otherwise, no, I don't think the characters are full of character.

I've seen a lot of comparisons between this book and Austen's Pride & Prejudice.  Austen is the better writer.  She approaches her subjects with humor and gives her characters a zest that is lacking in Gaskell.  Gaskell gives me the feeling of having an IMPORTANT MESSAGE and she doesn't want that to get lost in a lot of appealing characterization and interactions between the characters.  And we certainly wouldn't want any real romance to gum things up.  Thornton spends a great deal of time thinking about Margaret, a few excruciating moments proposing to her, and then there's a lot of frustrating nothing until the final pages.  The best part of the book for me was the first third or so--before the Hales get settled into Milton.  There was a lot of promise in those early chapters that I wish I could say had been fulfilled.

Three stars: for being an "important message book" (I get that, I do), for the promising early chapters, and for the few quotes that I gleaned (especially the "there's nothing like a book" reference).  I'm also making allowance for the fact that I had a preconceived notion that I was settling into a comfy book--and was disappointed.  It's possible that a straight read based on its Victorian classic status might have produced different results.

She had, however, of late settled upon her own health as a source of apprehension; she had a nervous little cough whenever she thought about it; and some complaisant doctor ordered her just what she desired--a winter in Italy. (p. 15)

Of course, as your feelings are so decided, and as the conversation has been so evidently unpleasant to you, it had better not be remembered. That's all very fine in theory, that plan of forgetting whatever is painful, but it will be somewhat difficult for me, at least, to carry it into execution. [Henry Lennox] (p. 31)

But the future must be met, however stern and iron it be. (p. 60)

I dare say, my remark came from the professional feeling of there being nothing like leather. [Mr. Hale--about books; reminding me of my statement that "there is nothing like holding a real book in your hands"] (p. 86)

That's what I call a fine girl....Who would have thought that little hand could have given such a squeeze? Bu the bones were well put together, and that gives immense power.  What a queen she is!...That girl's game to the back-bone. Another, who had gone that deadly colour, could never have come round without either fainting or hysterics. But she wouldn't do either--not she! And the very force of her will brought her round. Such a girl as that would win my heart, if I were thirty years younger. [Dr. Donaldson] (pp. 126-7)


Debbie Rodgers said...

Wow, Bev - I loved this review. Now I'm not sure whether to leave this on my TBR list or not.

All told, was it worth the time it took to read? Should I invest the x days of life in something else?

Bev Hankins said...

Debbie: I'd say it's worth it. But it definitely doesn't stick with me the way Austen does or Eliot's Middlemarch.

Unknown said...

The movie is so good. It's way better than the book. I don't say that about books often.

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

I think part of my love for this book comes from the miniseries with hottie Richard Armitage-I love him so much!

Faith said...

I love North and South. I've read it probably 5 times. I read it even before the BBC mini-series!

I do think if you come at this book with preconceived notions, it might very well throw you off. Gaskell wrote this book after her first novel Mary Barton which was very, very pro labor/worker. It is an excellent book, though it starts very slowly and then speeds up to its gripping finale. In North and South she is responding to comments made to her that she should try to write a book that is sympathetic to both classes, the workers and the mill owners. I think she does a fantastic job with Thornton. I think the story is also about Margaret's growing up. She is very opinionated and parochial and this move to Milton is a very tragic eye-opener. The most annoying character I think is the father! Really, Margaret has to be the parent most of the time; her parents are pretty lame. I think the BBC series does a better job portraying the parents, but it really messes up Mr. Bell and I hate that they made Mr. Thornton beat one of his workers in the movie. Just so out of character for him and so different from the book.

I think people associate P&P with this book because 1) the heroine's opinion changes towards the man who loves and proposes to her and 2) the man does something very noble to help her without any idea of a return. There are more similarities too.

You are write that Austen is much funnier, but she almost completely ignores social concerns. I love that this book gives us a glimpse of the problems of the industrial revolution as they are happening. I like that Gaskell is more engaged with everyone and sees the injustices of the class system. Something Austen never even hints out. Austen's world for all its insight and cleverness is a very insular one.

Anyway, I could go on and on but I'll spare you!