November 7, 2010

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell

For some reason, this is one of the classics that I never got around to reading before now. I love Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy; some of what the Brontë sisters wrote (love Jane Eyre, dislike Wuthering Heights, neutral on some of the others); and have even slogged through and enjoyed some of Dickens' works. (As a side note, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë were apparently good friends.)

I approached this book with some trepidation, as it had been enthusiastically recommended by the same friend who recommended Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Wide Sargasso Sea. Well, I can happily report that she has finally recommended a book that I loved!

I was already familiar with the plot of this book, from the lovely BBC production (featuring the lovely Richard Armitage), and having now read the book, I can say that the plot of the film was quite faithful to the book with only minor changes. Basically, Margaret is 18 years old and transplanted from the pastoral south of England up to the manufacturing north (Milton, in Darkshire being a stand-in for Manchester in Lancashire) in the later years of the Industrial Revolution. She gradually adjusts to the different ways of thinking and acting, as well as the differences in how the social classes are defined.

Overall, it is a social commentary in novel form. England at the time was a very class-conscious society, yet Margaret tends to straddle all of the classes. Though her family has very little money, their roots are in the gentry, yet when they move to Milton, Margaret makes friends with, and socializes with both the factory workers and the factory owners. My favourite part of the book came when she is able to initiate a friendship of sorts between a factory owner and a factory worker. The differences between life in the "south" and life in the "north" are compared and contrasted (sometimes rather clumsily and pedantically, but at other times very subtly); as are the differences in values and class structure. The difficulties of the lives of the impoverished factory workers is highlighted, but the difficulties faced by the factory owners are also presented.

I loved Margaret as the heroine of this novel. She is such a human character - not perfect and not afraid to face her faults. She does grow and develop over the course of the novel - the only somewhat unbelievable aspect of her character is her age - she seems very mature in her thoughts and opinions for 18 years old. I could relate very strongly to her, and fancy several comparisons between Margaret and me:
- compassion for the poor
- working practically for social justice
- independent - not relying on anyone else
- not beautiful
- crashing through social barriers
- stubborn in our opinions

Anyways, it was a great book all around, and I'm sorry that I didn't discover it earlier. I've now borrowed the DVD of the BBC production from a friend, so having finished the book, I now have an excuse to sit down and watch Richard Armitage again!


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