Review contains Spoilers
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell was originally published in 1855. Elizabeth Gaskell is one of the major Victorian authors I haven't read. So to redeem it, I picked it up for the Getting lost into a Comfortable read Challenge. One of the reasons for not reading Gaskell before is that I know her books are Industrial novels -poverty, union, strikes, loss of innocence do not make great escapist reads. Do they?
Margret Hale moves to Industrial Milton North (based on Manchester)from pastoral south of England after her father turns 'dissenter'. Hales aren't exactly rich but the move from a beautiful village to a smoky town in North is not an easy one.
Initially I was miffed with Margret.
"Here, even the necessary accommodation of two sitting-rooms and four bed-rooms seemed unattainable. "
They have to settle for a house with gaudy wall paper and
"three sitting-rooms; don't you remember how we laughed at the number compared with the three bed-rooms?"
Three sitting rooms and three bed-rooms in a city is not really coming down in life, is it? Immediately Margret redeemed herself to me when she creates a bond of friendship with Bessy Higgins. Elizabeth Gaskell is not being judgmental about North, after all it is the place she lived most of her life.
Mr.Thornton's and Margret Hale's love story runs in parallel to Pride and Prejudice. While Margret is proud, Thornton is prejudiced. He misunderstands her simple actions of not shaking hands as pride, while it is mostly cultural difference between North and South. Margret is poor and proud. Thornton is prejudiced. When he finds her with another man, he runs to the conclusion that he is her lover.
Mr.Thornton is rich but he is one of the tradespeople. While Margret is poor, she belongs to the genteel class. In some senses they are equals. But Gaskell creates a change in fortunes of the two protagonists to make them really equal. So it wouldn't appear to anybody that she married him for his money.
At 451 pages it was not an easy read. I took a break at 250 pages and continued it again after a week, which was a good thing because I liked the story better. The love story among Industrial set up is interesting. Gaskell portrays the struggle between the employers and employees, problems of the workers, poverty, occupational hazards, union strikes, hunger, pain and death. She discusses about how employers should treat employees?
I like Margret for her strength and independence. She is not a damsel in distress. When her mother is crushed by the move to the north, she takes care of her and her father. She takes upon herself to hide her mother's illness from her father and suffers alone, because she doesn't want to break him further. She does not blame her father for their move. She never questions him 'Why should he become a dissenter?' She undertands people too. When reduced to poverty, she does not run to her rich relatives.
Interesting book about Industrial problems softend by a love story. I haven't read any Industrial novels. I will be picking up The Hard Times by Dickens which is also based in Manchester very soon.
Whoever wrote the blurb of the 2006 Penguin edition I borrowed from the library did not read the book.