I shall always remember ‘North and South’ as one of the last books that my mother and I discovered together. She loved books all her life, and even when her short term memory and her ability to follow a story faded she still appreciated lovely prose, being told about the books I was reading, and watching costume dramas on television. She loved the BBC adaptation of ‘Cranford’, and was able to recall studying the book and school and talk about how what she watched and heard compared with what she had read decades earlier.
When we talked about Mrs Gaskell and her work she said that she had never read ‘North and South’, and I recalled that it had been adapted for television too, and that that adaptation had been much praised and much loved. And so I ordered a book and a DVD so that my mother could watch and I could both watch and read.
We were both smitten, but I couldn’t help feeling that I had rushed the book a little, to match the pace of the dramatization. And so I came back to the book, to read it again at a steadier pace.
It has a wonderful cast of characters, richly and deeply drawn, utterly believable, and so very engaging.
I was very taken with Margaret Hale, who coped so well when she returned from the London home where she had been raised and educated with her cousin Edith, after Edith’s marriage, to live again with her mother and father in his country parish. She was prepared for a life there but she was tipped into a very different life, because her father had a crisis of faith, gave up his parish, and moved his family from the south to the north, where he believed he would be able to support them by working as a tutor.
It fell to Margaret to manage everything, as her mother was fragile, and her upbringing in a family much better placed than her husband’s left her ill prepared for the future she was facing. That Margaret understood her parents so well, that she loved them both so dearly, and that she was exactly he daughter she needed to be did her great credit. That she became involved with the lives and concerns of the mill workers of her new home town, in the same way that she might have been involved with the lives of her father’s poorer parishioners, did her yet more credit
But Margaret could be proud and haughty, she looked down on the mill owners, and she failed to see their side of any argument. In particular she looked down on John Thornton, who worked hard to support his mother and his sister, and who studied with her father; believing him to be arrogant and uncaring. He realised that she looked down on him, but he found much in Margaret to admire ….
The story grows quite naturally out of these characters, their lives, their families and their times. There is poverty and there is industrial unrest in the industrial north. And the Hales have a son who is in exile as he is wanted – unjustly – for naval mutiny. His mother’s dearest wish was to see him again before she died ….
Mrs Gaskell constructed her plot very cleverly, drawing in all of her character in the north and in the south. It is in a large part driven by familiar devices – a misunderstanding and an inheritance – but they are woven in so well, every thing that happens, every character, every relationship, every interaction, rings completely true.
On my second journey through ‘North and South’ what struck me was the wonderful depth of everything: character, plot, time and place. The has things to say about people, families and communities that are timeless; and it speaks equally well about its period, about the consequences of industrialisation; about the social history of a particular time and place.
You might say that it was the book with everything: class conflict, politics, religion, family, women’s rights, social responsibility, and maybe love ….
I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Mrs Gaskell knew and cared deeply about everything in this particular story. I wondered if she had known a maid as strong and as devoted as Dixon; if she had known a matriarch as proud and as loyal as Mrs Thornton; if she knew a couple who were as different from each other and who loved each other as well and Mr and Mrs Hale.
There’s a wealth of detail woven in – details of character, description, dialogue – and that really enriches the story.
The moments of drama, the confontations, the dialogues, were particularly well handled. The pace was wonderfully controlled; almost, but not quite stately.
I remembered much of the story, of course I remembered the final outcome, and yet the story held both my head and my heart from the first page to the last.
And now I know that I love the book both for its own sake and for its associations.