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North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell,  Juliet Stevenson An easy test of whether you'll like this book is whether you like Gaskell's contemporaries: George Eliot and Charles Dickens are the most obvious, though the plot borrows a bit of Jane Eyre and a bit of Pride and Prejudice. Gaskell writes closer to Eliot's style, but with a bit of Dickens's social consciousness. In the end, North and South ends up a romance, but the romantic obstacle course navigated by the romantic leads is not the most compelling element.

North and South features as the protagonist 19-year-old Margaret Hale, whose father, upon having a crisis of conscience, quits his job as a country parson in idyllic southern England and moves his wife and daughter north to the industrial cotton-mill town of Milton. To say Margaret and her mother don't like their new home is an understatement — they hate it, and Margaret is certainly not enamored of the wealthy industrialist Mr. Thornton, who, undaunted by either her mannerly disdain or his mother's cold mercenary disapproval, is struck with love at first sight. (I felt this was one of the weakest parts of the book, as it's never explained just what made this prissy southern girl so irresistible to him.) He then spends the rest of the novel being in love with her despite resigning himself to not having a chance with her, and Margaret spends the rest of the novel denying that she feels anything but disdain for him, while constantly worrying about what he thinks of her.

This thread winds it way through much more compelling and illustrative social dramas: workers' strikes and grinding poverty, the bustling but harrowing rise of English industry that made many people rich and many more people soot-covered beggars. Here, Gaskell stays more refined and less comical than Dickens; her poor are not grotesque caricatures, but hard and not always sympathetic people.

Margaret is a well-educated country girl, and her mother is a typical upper-class housewife. The Hales aren't used to these northerners who speak bluntly, tell you exactly what they think of you, ask personal questions, and talk openly about money.

Mostly we see Milton and its northern ways through Margaret's eyes, and Gaskell invokes some of the social issues of the time, as when a poor family Margaret befriends gets caught up in a millworkers' strike. At first, Mr. Thornton seems like your basic hard-hearted capitalist oppressing his workers, but Gaskell slowly draws out more nuanced arguments: Thornton is a hard, proud, mercenary man, but he's upright and honorable and he's earned his fortune the hard way. And the millworkers, while legitimately oppressed, are not exactly angels and they believe some really stupid things. The tone swings back and forth between pro-capitalist parochialism and a more humanitarian saga; Gaskell writes about economics and class warfare more convincingly than most of her peers. She doesn't have Dickens's sharp edge, but she isn't writing social satire.

Honestly, I could have done without the obligatory Jane Eyre-ish happy ending altogether. And Margaret Hale, while she certainly has a voice and a personality, was a little too simpering at times (though not as bad as Fanny Price). I thought the social issues and the secondary characters were more interesting than the Lovestruck Capitalist and the almost-perfect protagonist. This was a fine novel - I'm only dinging it a star because Gaskell's writing didn't quite stand out enough to distinguish it from all the other books I've been comparing it to.