As Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South opens, Margaret Hale appears to be a girl who is waiting for her life to start. She follows all the rules set for her and lives up to the expectations everyone has for her. Her silly cousin, Edith, is getting married and the house is a whirl. Margaret patiently helps, getting no thanks for her pains. You’d think it would be a relief when she returns home to Helstone to her parents. But Margaret has to help her parents as much as she had to help her silly cousin and aunt in London. She is relieved to be home, at least until her father reveals that he is giving up his living to move the family to a mill town and a man she doesn’t love proposes to her all on one very bad day.
Margaret tries to put a good face on life in Milton, but her mother’s health begins to fail because of the pollution and their reduced living conditions. It’s a wonder that Margaret doesn’t explode with anger at her father for uprooting them this way. I certainly would have. People as good as Margaret only exist in fiction, because instead of being justifiably furious with her father, she sets about doing good and being helpful. The only thing she can’t do is be nice to her father’s new pupil, Mr. John Thornton. Thornton is a self-made man who now owns a mill. Every time the two meet, Margaret and John strike sparks. Thornton believes in the absolute right of mill owners to run their mills the way they see fit. Margaret argues that the living conditions of the workers are a disgrace. As I read their arguments, I was struck by the fact that American society is still having this very argument–almost down to the original wording.
It isn’t long before tensions in Milton reach a boiling point. The mill workers go on strike for a pay raise. Thornton hired Irish workers to take their place. Infuriated, the workers riot. Margaret needles Thornton into trying to face down the mob. She knows the men in that crowd and she is convinced that they won’t hurt anyone. When she realizes how very, very wrong she is, Margaret rushes out to protect Thornton. He is so moved by her action that he proposes to her the next day. This does not go well. Margaret and Thornton go back to sparing as Margaret’s life shrinks around her. Her mother dies. Her friend, Bessy Higgins, dies. John Boucher of the mob dies. Her father dies. Then her benefactor dies. All this happens within two short years.
Margaret does her best to bear up under the repeated deaths. Her luck does turn, just as Thornton’s luck goes bad. By the time they meet again, both are wiser. Margaret has learned to temper her ideals with reality. Thornton has learned there’s more to life than making money. North and South then ends on a note of hilarity, as Margaret and Thornton’s engagement brings them back to life enough to joke.
When I set myself the task of reading a classic novel every month, I wasn’t entirely sure what I would read first. I thought I had chosen badly with North and South. Even though the book has been on my radar for a while, Gaskell has a strange turn of phrase when she’s writing exposition that made it hard to get into the story. I was hooked a few chapters later, though, when Gaskell gave up some of her rhetorical flourishes to focus on her characters. Some of the characters remain fairly flat, but Margaret, Thornton, the Higgins family, and other main characters are complex and flawed people.
Great characters would have been enough for me to enjoy North and South, but Gaskell also uses Margaret’s story to highlight the unjustices of the early Industrial Revolution. The early 1850s were a volatile time in England as workers began to organize, Parliament passed laws about pollution, and mill owners made contradictory arguments about independence for everyone except their workers. It’s a testament to Gaskell that North and South is just as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1855. This is what I was looking for when I made my resolution to read more classics.