North and South
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Household Words, September 1854 - January 1855

Chapman and Hall: London, 1855

2 volumes: 320 + 361 pages April 2011


Among women novelists of the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) is not one of the best-known or most widely read. In her own time, she was as well known for her biography of Charlotte Bronte as for any of her fiction. Since then, her fiction has continued to be read, but not by mass audiences. But North and South shows her both as a writer who's still accessible and entertaining, and as one who has more than entertainment for her readers — who knows how to "instruct by pleasing".

In the first place, North and South is a novel of courtship, and of the overcoming of obstacles posed less by social circumstances than by the characters of the couple involved. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice gave striking form to the idea that moral disagreement and even outward hostility may hint at unexpressed attraction — now, of course, a commonplace of novels and films, with its own catchphrase, "unresolved sexual tension". North and South is another memorable early exploration of the theme. Gaskell's manner is quite different from Austen's, lacking much of her irony and wit, but that in itself makes the story more interesting than a close imitation might have been.

This is a novel about social barriers and the difficulty of overcoming them. On one hand, Margaret Hale esteems herself as part of good society, despite her father's limited income; the decline of his fortunes after his conscientious scruples bring his career as a clergyman to an end is a humiliation to her. She's all too ready to look down on John Thornton, one of her father's private students, regarding his ownership of a factory as "commerce", and thus degrading — the traditional aristocratic attitude on the matter. Many turns of the novel's plot involve her encounter with the commercial and industrial North of England, both with masters and with men. She comes to play the role of a mediator, encouraging each side to understand the other better. This part of the story shows how Elizabeth Gaskell came to be regarded as a novelist of social themes.

But Hale isn't a simple catalyst that causes reactions and remains unchanged: Her time in the North changes her as well. This shows up, for example, when Nicholas Higgins, a factory worker and strike leader she has befriended, despairing of finding work in the factories, talks with her about moving to the rural South where she grew up, and she warns him of the hardship and narrowness of the life he would be taking up. For all her initial discomfort with the busy, hard North, she has come to see its virtues.

Thornton himself is a vital source of this insight. Gaskell makes him a spokesman for the values of commerce and industry, and an embodiment of their virtues. If he's less sympathetic to his workers than Hale might wish, it's partly because he himself started out at their level, and his wealth is the product of hard work and frugality. He's not a child of privilege holding himself above people whose hardships he never shared. Indeed, there's a symmetry between his attitude and that of Higgins, who sees a fellow workman driven to suicide by the hardships of the strike, which Higgins himself is prepared to bear.

Thornton's characterization — and this is a point where Gaskell is akin to Austen — emphasizes ethical values; in his case, specifically, the values of commerce. And those values are striking, and attractive in ways that may be unexpected to present-day readers:

  • Early on, discussing the lives of his hands, Thornton tells Hale that when they're in his factory, he expects them to follow orders, because they're there on his terms; but when their work is done, their time is their own, and he won't presume on their independence by meddling with it.
  • Much later, Thornton tells an older man, a friend of the Hales, about the kitchen he has set up for his employees, where their pooled subscriptions buy meat in bulk at better prices than they can get, and hired cooks prepare it more skillfully than they could. Offered a donation of ten pounds, he turns it down, saying that it would turn the kitchen into a charity, which would be bad for men who are proud of paying their own way.
  • Elsewhere, Hale finally speaks out to Thornton of her disdain for commerce as a profession based on dishonesty, only to have him tell her forcefully that he would disdain to engage in fraud, or evade paying his debts; no one, he tells her, actually succeeds in business through such dishonest methods — not in the long run.

In other words, Gaskell gives voice to the distinctive moral ideas of an emerging capitalist society, and shows the ways in which its customs might seem more attractive than many of her contemporaries believed. She clearly believes that Hale has something to contribute to it — not only her inheritance, but her personal qualities, the product of an older education. But she also ends by showing that there is no better place for either of these to be invested than in the emerging commercial order of England. And ultimately, her theme is not one of wealth, commerce, or industry as external circumstances that shape people's lives, but as moral forces within her characters.


© 2011 William H. Stoddard

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