I don’t usually feel guilty when I don’t finish a book. But I do when it’s a classic that I know people love, and North and South is one of those. So I was happy to hear about this readalong hosted by Estella’s Revenge and Capricious Reader. Just the kick I needed to pick it back up. This week we’re discussing chapters 1-14.
Here’s a quick overview of the story, which was published in 1855 by Elizabeth Gaskell. Margaret Hale is a young woman living in a country town in Southern England. Her father is the pastor at Helstone, which I find a humorous name because Helstone is this ideal place to live where the birds sing and the flowers bloom.
Margaret’s family, like a lot of Austen families, are of the “gentle” class but still struggle financially. Margaret is smart and cares for her family. She’s not a rule-breaker by any stretch but is definitely her own person. She is disdainful of people in trades or industry, although sailors and farmers are just fine with her because they work off the land.
In the beginning of the book, Gaskell contrasts the busy society life of London with the quiet pastoral life of Helstone. But there’s another contrast in the wings. Mr. Hale makes a decision that forces the family to move north, to the industrial town of Milton. The family is now low on funds, zero on reputation, and forced to live among factory workers (although they are in a four bedroom house with two servants).
Mr. Hale is hired as a personal tutor to Mr. Thornton, the thirty-something factory owner, a self-made man. Sparks fly – or thud – when Margaret meets Mr. Thornton and they have no idea what to say to each other. He thinks her haughty and she sees him as “a tradesman”.
But this is an overly simplistic description, and what’s nice about this book is the complexity of the issues. Clearly Mr. Thornton has merits as a hard-working, honest man. On the other hand, Gaskell is clearly raising issues regarding the abusive conditions of factory work. Margaret isn’t guilty of all the snobbishness that Mr. Thornton perceives – but she’s no saint either.
“I won’t deny that I am proud of belonging to a town – or perhaps I should rather say a district – the necessities of which give birth to such grandeur of conception. I would rather be a man toiling, suffering – nay, failing and successless – here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call more aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease. One may be clogged with honey and unable to rise and fly.”
“You are mistaken,” said Margaret, roused by the aspersion on her beloved South to a fond vehemence of defence, that brought the colour into her cheeks and angry tears into her eyes. “You do not know anything about the South. If there is less adventure or less progress – I suppose I must not say less excitement – from the gambling spirit of trade, which seems requisite to force out these wonderful inventions, there is less suffering also.”
At this point in the story Margaret is really holding her whole family together. She has a brother who is “missing” (we find out more later), and her father and mother are self-absorbed and dependent. Mr. Hale throws the whole family into turmoil yet all he can do is whine and complain about it. He decides the whole family has to move, then waits until the last minute to tell Margaret – and then he makes Margaret tell her mother.
I was kind of feeling sorry for Margaret at this point, but then she meets some of the factory workers, and you realize how little she has to complain about. She lives a pretty idle life when she isn’t propping up her parents, and she doesn’t really try that hard to help the less fortunate.
So far I’m really enjoying the book. I find Gaskell’s style straightforward and easy to read. I especially likes how much attention she pays to conversation, contrasting what the characters are thinking with what the other characters perceive.
That’s part 1 of 4 for the North and South Read-Along. If you’re part of the Read-Along, let me know how you’re liking the book.