* CONTAINS SPOILERS
I just finished the North and South BBC series from 2004 which had significant differences from the novel and while I probably enjoyed it more (and not just because of Richard Armitage), I give the novel a lot of credit because of the social issues it explored. I had to laugh because one Goodreads reviewer said: “It’s Pride and Prejudice for Socialists.”
Elizabeth Gaskell is a nineteenth century writer whose Victorian era novels and short stories continue to be popular today. She is also noted for writing the first biography on Charlotte Brontë. North and South was first published as a serial between September 1854 and January 1855 in Household Words and edited by Charles Dickens.
Shortly after moving back to her southern home from London, Margaret Hale’s father confesses he is leaving the Church of England and will cease being a pastor. He is also uprooting Margaret and her mother to the northern industrial town of Milton to start a new life. Margaret and her mother find Milton’s smoky environment and impoverished residents depressing and inferior to their previous home, but they begin to make new acquaintances including Mr. John Thornton of Marlborough Mills and his mother and sister. Margaret and Mr. Thornton butt heads immediately on the subject of Milton and the workers in his employ at the mill. But despite their differences, Mr. Thornton falls madly in love with Margaret and proposes, but Margaret rejects him. She is aghast, swearing she can never love a man who thinks as he does. Or can she?
As widely discussed in the read-along discussions I participated in, North and South takes place during a volatile period of change in England due to the industrial revolution and explores many issues that arose during that time, including change in class structure, change in people’s socio-economic position, labour relations and the role of men and women in society. I learned to appreciate the different perspectives presented in the book on these issues by the characters. On top of it, Elizabeth Gaskell gives us an unconventional romance with two characters that are obviously flawed and love each other despite these flaws.
As a serialized story, North and South often felt very long and dragged out even when I was enjoying it.
Although I didn’t love it in the beginning, North and South eventually grew on me mostly because of the themes at the heart of the story. I was critical of Margaret because I thought she was a big mouth and had a superiority complex, but eventually she admits to her bias and I began to respect how much of her speaking out was because of her concern for others. While I know some readers were disappointed with the ending, I really liked it because it seemed like there wasn’t a chance in hell Margaret and Mr. Thornton would get together, but all that antagonism was really just foreplay. Margaret and Mr. Thornton getting together after everything they had been through made the ending so sweet and satisfying for me. With both the book and the movie ending, I wore a big goofy grin and was swept away by these two characters holding hands knowing it meant so much during that time period. Pure bliss.