Sunday, March 6, 2016

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South
Elizabeth Gaskell
Published 1854

I have a confession to make: I gave North and South three stars on Goodreads.  Three stars means "I liked it," which is to say that I liked parts of it, but I did not love it entirely. This result is a disappointment, too, because I fell in love with the 2004 TV mini-series, which is why I was inspired to read the book and had high expectations.

Set in England, North and South contrasts people, places, and ideas.   For example, Margaret, the main character, is a strong woman, extremely empathetic towards the plight of others, while Mr. John Thornton, a wealthy factory owner who falls in love with Margaret, seems hard-hearted and impassive.  The South, where Margaret is from, is spacious, tranquil, and unblemished, but the North, where Mr. Thornton works, is crowded, boisterous, and polluted.  And love, just one idea from the story, shouldn't be so difficult to grasp; however, for some people, like Margaret, she is so distracted by "loving others" that she doesn't know how to be loved herself.  

Gaskell takes those examples and twists them.  However wonderful you may think Margaret appears to you, Reader, she is also protective of her pride.  I wondered why Margaret irritated me for most of the story, until the near end when I suddenly warmed to her.  She was overwhelmingly imperious, at times, and somewhat snobby.  I did not understand why Thornton was attracted to her.  Yet, that was my initial opinion of her.  At the same time, the cold-hearted Mr. Thornton, later revealed a softer, compassionate side.  He proved himself to be a good man, worthy of his importance and honor.  

In addition, places were found to have opposite sides, as well.  While the South seemed perfect, Margaret noticed it was also detrimental to the state of one's potential.  People moved slower, and their senses and abilities were dulled and wasted; and yet, while the North proved to be a hazard to one's health and life, it was also extremely necessary to provide work and goods for the people.  The North forced people to think and solve problems.

And as for love, well, Margaret needed to relax; she needed to step outside herself to see that it was good to be loved.  She softened the tough exterior and made herself vulnerable, experiencing someone else's love and care for once.  It was not so bad after all.  

Elizabeth Gaskell is clever for turning these things (people, places, and ideas) or situations inside out to juxtapose differences, not only between opposites, but also to contrast itself with...itself, if that makes sense.  Isn't that how life truly is? Isn't that how people are, too?  Everything has a good side and a bad side.

Mr. John Thornton


Having said all of that, it took me two months to read this book, and my experience of it was spoiled by my own personal prejudices.  I was in a struggle for survival in my own marriage; I was not in the mood for love, darn it!  This caused me to contemptuously reject that Mr. Thornton was easily enamored of Margaret.  "MEN ARE NOT LIKE THAT!" my experienced-self declared.  I missed what great deed Margaret performed that captivated him, because I only remember every time she walked into a room, he fell over himself.  She must have been a hot chick.  OK, she did place herself between him and the strikers, taking a blow to the temple. (It should have been the other way around, but she was quite overbearing.)  And he was certain she must love him.

After that event, Gaskell used some strong words to describe Thornton's weakness for Margaret.
But in truth, he was afraid of himself.  His heart beat thick at the though of her coming. He could not forget the touch of her arms around his neck.
... he was on the verge now; he would not speak in the haste of his hot passion...
... to one whom I love, as I do not believe man ever loved woman before.  
He panted as he listened for what should come.
He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain.
He turned away and stood leaning his head against the mantelpiece, tears forcing themselves into his manly eyes.
... almost sick with longing for that one half-hour - that one brief space of time when she clung to him, and her heart beat against his - to come once again. 
This goes on and on throughout the story to describe Thornton's inflated emotions for this woman, even though he was portrayed as the heartless one.  His faintness for Margaret was not convincing to me because my judgment was clouded, full of bitterness, and determined that men are really selfish, self-centered creatures, only in love with themselves. Even in marriage, it's really themselves they admire and tend to first.  A married man forgets his obligation to others and becomes complacent, and often needs to be reminded of his duty, I was learning.  (The more married women I speak to, the more I find our experiences the same.)

Look, Ladies, there are no Mr. Thorntons or Mr. Darcys.  Those men do not exist! Furthermore, women authors devised them.  Who else could have written the best love letter in lit history?  Captain Wentworth?  No!  He was the creation of Jane Austen!



As for my feelings about Margie - I did not like her.  I rebelled against her character.  If Mrs. Thornton, John Thornton's mother, whom he lived with  (which was part of his manly problem, if you ask me), was not such a jerk, I may have shared in her total disdain of Margaret.  She was snooty and superior, and I could not reconcile how a rude girl could easily attract and win the admiration of another.  Obviously, Mr. Thornton was a sucker!


All is not lost because the end of the novel was a turning point for me, as well as for Margaret and John Thornton.  There were two truths that Gaskell highlighted.  The first was of conviction.  Due to a complicated situation involving her brother, Margaret was untruthful, leaving her reputation vulnerable. But it was conviction that caused her to negate her pride and pray never to lie again.

The other truth was empathy. When people interact with each other, regardless of class or circumstance, they come to understand one another.  It’s like walking in someone else’s shoes.  Mr. Thornton discovered, "Such intercourse is the very breath of life." 

He said, "...and becoming acquainted with each other’s characters and persons, and even tricks of temper and modes of speech.  We should understand each other better, and I’ll venture to say we should like each other more."

Everything changed, including my sarcastic feelings about Margaret and John Thornton, and I ended on a good note.  I realize I will need to reread North and South someday, but only when I have fewer burdens on my heart.  

Mr. Thornton checking out Margaret


Anonymous said...

I loved North and South and I loved it more because I had not seen the miniseries and while I had a disastrous heartbreak, time had done the healing and I could read the novel, unlike you without the burden of the heart! But I agree, Mr. Thorntons and Mr. Darcys are fictive characters and do not unfortunately come in flesh and blood. Back to the book - I struggled initially to warm up to Margaret, but I did warm up to her and I like the fact that she was so human - she had her prejudices and she had to struggle to overcome them. I found the empathy and the balanced view that Gaskell shows about both the sides - the mill owners and the workers, painting neither in black or while, but in a complexity of good and bad. I completely agree with you that she showcased the fact the when there is interaction, people come to understand each other! I loved the book and now I must look up the miniseries. I sincerely hope that your troubles melt away soon, leaving your heart free to laugh and love!

Ruth said...

I totally blame my blindness for not being able to appreciate this, but I am glad it ended on a good note. I really was grateful for the ending. And the writing was wonderful (which I didn't mention in my post).

My struggles at home have payed off. Things are definitely improved. Sometimes we just have to fight for what we believe in - even in marriage. Married men need a little prodding b/c they get lazy.

P.S. You'll enjoy the miniseries, but I think I remember it was missing a significant amount of info from the book. At least that is how I felt when I was reading it.

Heidi’sbooks said...

I think when young people first fall in love they have these pains and emotions. I see it in my young adults who don't understand yet that is not all always going to be that way. Of course marriage is another story. Those passions cannot be sustained over decades. Obviously it becomes a more mature love if we are willing to work. And yes all of us have major disappointments in our husbands and they have in us. We work hard through those times to get to the other side.

I love this book. But I wonder sometimes how to communicate the real nature of mature love to my 20 somethings.

Jean said...

Right with you, sister. <3

Ruth said...

This is definitely true. A true love will blossom and grow and develop into a totally different kind of love - a mature, selfless LOVE that is the glue that keeps people together until they leave this world. BUT IT TAKES SO MUCH WORK, and if you have a good man, he just needs a little reminding of his duties in the relationship; otherwise, he will just do what comes naturally, like focus on his own needs. Then the relationship falls apart, and people think they can just find love somewhere else.

As for our children, we can only set the example and teach them the truth. Then pray.

I hope I get to reread this again and love it, too.

Ruth said...

Well, thank you, Jean. : )

Cleo said...

So often mood can influence our enjoyment of books. With this one, while the personalities of the characters didn't necessarily whisk me away into the story, I really appreciated Gaskell portraying them as a palette of north and south England, through them highlighting the differences and challenges each faced. They were very real and ...... as Madcaphat said, their very humanness shone through.

It can be problematic to watch a series before reading a book. I watched Wives and Daughters and loved it but now I'm terrified to read the book in case it doesn't live up to expectations. Usually the movie doesn't live up to the book, so I should just keep telling myself that, shouldn't I? ;-)

Ruth said...

After the smoked has cleared, I admit that I also found Gaskell's writing well done. She did a superb job telling her story.

I think the miniseries is very well done, too. I think you will enjoy it anyway.

The other two movies I fell in love with first - Doctor Zhivago and Far From the Madding Crowd - I still have to read the books. And I'm a little apprehensive, too. But I know for sure my displeasure of N & S was not b/c I watched the miniseries first. It was personal. So hopefully I won't have that problem again.

Ashley said...

There is just so much in this book! I love the contrast in this book. It's so stark and well done! I never really thought about Margaret being so busy loving others she didn't know how to be loved! It's kind of a Mary/Martha situation. I loved when Margaret finally realized that every place has its pros and cons! It was such a turning point!
Yeah, the whole why does John even love her thing was confusing.
Oh the end is so good!
I really enjoyed reading your perspective! There is just so much in here!