This week, I’ve been reading North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskill, in an attempt to actually read all those books I’ve pretended to be an expert on over the years.
This book has been badly served by cover art. North and South deserves a better effort.
North and South was written in the middle of the 19th century and can be lumped in with the Victorian fashion of ‘domestic novels’ of the time. It’s a bit of a doorstopper (all the better for impressing people while reading ostentatiously in coffee shops) and about a young lady from a leafy home counties village being forced, through circumstances beyond her control, to move to the grim and dark… ‘Darkshire’ up North. There, she meets a variety of people who turn her prejudices about working folk on their heads, indulges in a will they/ won’t they love affair with the factory boss, and manages to fall victim to a stupendous set of terrible events. She can definitely be classed as one of life’s victims.
It’s terribly flowery. Frankly, there is altogether too much swooning for my taste, and bowing to women’s heightened sensitivities. It really, and I mean REALLY, annoyed me. And it’s not a product of its time. There’s a full on swoon over a rioting crowd which made me stop reading, look up, and shout ‘Oh COME on!’ at surprised passers by. Plenty of Victorian heroines manage to get through 300 pages without passing their hand to their fevered brow once, and I think Margaret Hale should get her crap together and try to emulate them.
The portraits of the working classes are just a little patronising. They have all turned to the drink, or the consumption, and all talk in what a Victorian gentlewoman would take to be northern dialect, which is as laboured and labouring as much as the characters are at their jobs.
And then, there’s the father. Oh how I wished someone would shake him to his senses. He’s an English country parson that suffers a crisis of faith (it’s never really explained what that crisis entails) which leads to him packing his whole family off to Milton. He’s so mealy mouthed, indecisive, and generally weak minded that it is impossible to share any of the love or sympathy Margaret has for her dad. I would have killed him off at the beginning of the novel and got it over with if I were Mrs Gaskill, but I am not a lady novelist of the nineteenth century, so what would I know. In addition, I would have cut back on some of the religious moralisation that he spouts through key parts of the plot. Again, not necessary and not prevalent in all novels of the time.
And finally, there’s Margaret. Now, I love a good Victorian heroine. My fantasy dinner party would be attended by Jane Eyre, who would tell me to serve the drinks and stop complaining, Becky Sharp, who would be passing me the illegal vodka under the table, Amy March, who would be asking me whether the shape of her nose has come into fashion in the 21st century, and Cathy Earnshaw, who’d be whispering all the gossip about the others to me under her breath.
Not immediately obvious, but this was a Banging Party
In this fantasy dinner party, Margaret Hale would be sighing audibly and getting up herself to serve the tea because, frankly, the hostess isn’t up to her own impeccable standards. She’d then quote relevant sections of the bible (which Cathy Earnshaw would loudly snort at) to save our souls and flounce out in a huff because Becky Sharp has dared to suggest that she’s seen a bit more of real life than Margaret. To summarise, Margaret Hale is a type A personality, and professional do-gooder who needs to loosen up a bit and stop taking everything so terribly seriously. Consequently, she wouldn’t be invited. It’s difficult to like a novel where you are constantly exasperated with the very person you’re meant to sympathise with.
Having said that…..
It’s easy to poke fun at the mannered delivery and series of massively unfortunate events that befall Margaret, but this book was written at the time many of the ideas that form our political views today were being formed. Elizabeth Gaskill looked at England from the middle of the red hot energy of the industrial revolution and posed questions that we are still asking ourselves today: Is a unionised workforce beneficial to managers and workers? When is a strike justified? Can the north and south of Britain ever really understand each other? Can people move from working to upper class?
And I loved Margaret’s godfather. He showed that, under all those stiff crinolines and value systems, Mrs Gaskill was blessed with a good sense of humour and a sharp eye for people’s foibles. I hope that, maybe, after a couple of medicinal sherries, Mrs Gaskill would unlace her judgey pants and grace my fantasy dinner party with witty asides and keen social commentary.
I had a great time imagining my fantasy dinner. In my minds eye, and I’m still giggling over suggestively shaped vegetables with Becky while fighting with my jealousy of her beautiful Indian shawls. Who would you have at yours?