I barely squeaked by with this book—North and South by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell—within the year allotted. I loved the movie adaptation, so there were high expectations there. Luckily, the book lived up to it. More than lived up to it: surpassed it.
After struggling with his conscience concerning church doctrine, vicar Hale resigns his living in the New Forest and moves his family north to Milton where he can work as a private tutor. Margaret, who loves Helstone—her home—and everything about the New Forest, finds this manufacturing city hard to love, even to like. Even her father’s prize student, a Mr. Thorton and the Marlborough Mill owner, seems rough, proud, and impertinent. The young, clever Margaret with strong opinions and the world-hardened, business genius of Mr. Thorton clash in interesting ways as Margaret tries to make Milton a home. She’ll have to put aside her pride to find where her heart truly belongs.
This book reminded me of Pride and Prejudice with the love-hate relationship between the two main characters, the pride, the misunderstandings, the eventual tenderness. It was fantastic. A lovely classic romance.
Margaret Hale is a strong character with intelligence, conviction, and honor. But she’s young with a very limited perspective of the world, so her strong opinions aren’t always accurate. This flaw makes what would be a too-perfect character perfectly flawed; it makes her likable.
Then there’s Mr. Thorton who is Margaret’s almost exact opposite, except they both share intelligence, conviction, and honor. And pride. They both have a fair share of pride, which gets in the way of deeper understanding . But you can’t help feeling for Mr. Thorton who’s so wise in matters of business and so unsure in matters of the heart. It’s a treat to see his emotional side catch up to his pragmatic side.
There are other characters—Margaret’s parents, the Lennox brothers, Mrs. Shaw and her daughter (Margaret’s aunt and cousin)—but it’s Betsy Higgins and her father and Mr. Bell that I really liked. The Higgins were the salt of the earth, good working folk that gave Margaret a glimpse into a side of life she would’ve never had otherwise. And Mr. Bell was the catalyst for that final, heart-warming scene of the book.
All were well-developed and sympathetic. Even the secondary characters had depth and feeling. It was like I was reading life, not just a book.
I was pleased with the way the plot developed. It started out at the vicarage in the New Forest, but the majority was told at Milton, with jaunts to London. What was fascinating was the brief return to the New Forest. Our eyes—and Margaret’s—saw the differences; they saw the difference between youthful dreams and adult reality. Once you leave the former, you can never return. Margaret learned this to her dismay and then acceptance. She started to understand that home is a feeling, not a place. I was a little disappointed that that final scene developed in a London drawing room instead of a train station between points as in the movie. I thought the movie version was symbolic of life. The only other complaint was the sudden conclusion. I did not have enough closure.
This book had layers of meaning and several themes, another reason I love it so well. There’s the obvious theme, the disparity between the north and the south, the manufacturing towns and the rural forest. Then there’s the disparity between the masters and the hands, which ended up being far less unbridgeable than you were first led to believe. And we can’t forget the biggest clash of all: that between young, emotional woman and older, pragmatic man. As you read, you start to realize that maybe the two are more alike than different, that maybe Margaret isn’t the only emotional one and Mr. Thorton isn’t the only pragmatic one. It’s really a lack of understanding, which Mr. Thorton recognizes right away:
“I know you despise me; allow me to say, it is because you do not understand me.”
In fact, Thorton undergoes such a transformation due to love, that seeing it breaks your heart a bit:
“One word more. You look as if you thought it tainted you to be
loved by me. You cannot avoid it. Nay, I, if I would, cannot
cleanse you from it. But I would not, if I could. I have never
loved any woman before: my life has been too busy, my thoughts
too much absorbed with other things. Now I love, and will love.”
But Mr. Thorton’s not the only one to suffer, which is somehow fitting. The romance in North and South wasn’t as subtle as that in Jane Austen novels, but it was still magnificent.
The book was everything a classic should be: enjoyable, beautiful, and touching. It married sorrow with happiness, showing that life is never one or the other. It is always both.