I came to this novel, as is the case for many readers, through the BBC television adaptation, which I watched for the first time earlier this year. While I had not consciously avoided the novel and its adaptation until now, it's probably the case that I have been unconsciously avoiding Victorian fiction for some years, preferring the less ponderous novels of the earlier 19th century (particularly Austen) and the leaner style of 20th century fiction.
However at the moment I’m in the mood for Victoriana and this novel fits the bill perfectly. There are a lot of words – way more than is needed to simply tell the tale – and the tale itself has its share of sentimentality and melodrama. But I loved every word of the book and every overblown feeling that those words expressed. Having finished it, I will miss the world it took me to and I’m wondering how long it will be before I can visit that world again.
I listened to the novel in audiobook format, narrated by Juliet Stevenson. As is to be expected, the quality of the narration is superb. Stevenson flawlessly brings each character distinctly to life.
At the heart of North and South is the relationship between the two main protagonists: proud ex-parson’s daughter Margaret Hale and equally proud mill owner and industrialist John Thornton. They have different backgrounds, different attitudes and different sensibilities. They represent different worlds – she the world of the gentry from the agrarian and intellectual south of England, he the self-made men of the industrial north. They meet, they clash, they misunderstand each other. For the relationship to ultimately be resolved, they have to find a point of balance, a place of harmony, where the prejudices engendered by their differing backgrounds can give way to a new way of thinking and acting. The difficulties in the relationship of Margaret Hale and John Thornton are played out against the turmoil of 19th century England. Gaskell weaves into the novel the differences in attitude between the north and the south of the country, the conflict between capitalists and labour and the shifts in class and gender relations.
Some readers may find the novel’s discussion of social issues verging on the preachy, but I didn’t. I found it to be a fascinating glimpse not only into what I presume were Gaskell’s political and social views (although I know relatively little about Gaskell), but also into the attitudes of conservative, thoughtful, people towards the social change occurring at that time. This sense of change – change happening very fast, change that has to be coped with in order for the characters to survive – is a thread running through the novel. Margaret Hale in particular experiences extreme changes in her life and in her attitudes over the time span of the novel. John Thornton also experiences changes in his life circumstances and – crucially - in his attitude towards the relationship between employers and employees. Both characters have to deal with the changes in their lives while remaining true to themselves before they can find that place of harmony where they can be together. The resolution of their relationship symbolises the potential for a resolution of the social conflict which Gaskell so clearly describes.
Reviewers of North and South occasionally comment on the difference between the final scene in the novel and the final scene in the television adaptation. I like both. There is something particularly romantic about a public kiss on a railway platform shared by characters who might so easily have missed finding each other. It does not concern me at all that a couple in Victorian times would not have kissed each other in public. After all, what is a film kiss other than shorthand for “And they lived happily ever after”?
However, the novel also ends with a kiss. It’s just that the kiss is not described as one. Mr Thornton shows Margaret some dried roses he has from Helstone and she asks him to give them to her. He says "Very well. Only you must pay me for them!” Margaret then says “How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?” but only does so "after some time of delicious silence". It doesn’t take much imagination to work out what was happening during that “delicious silence”. A private kiss in a drawing room may not be quite as romantic as a public one on a railway platform, but it’s not too shabby either.
There are times when my reader’s soul craves lean, hard prose, stripped of excess adjectives and adverbs, where the action happens quickly and description is kept to a minimum. There are times when I am happy to wallow in lovely long words, with an abundance of description. This is a book for those times. It lacks the sparkle and wit of an Austen novel. Its language does not have the poetry of Hardy’s descriptions of landscape. But it’s a wonderful experience for a patient reader who wants to travel to a different time and place and is in the mood for an interesting tale, well told.