Fiction: “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

north & southOkay – six books (including this one) till the end of 2016. I can do this. Hopefully before the end of 2017. But hey, good news – looks like the Maine government’s going to shut down for a few days over budget talks, so I may be able to wrap this backlog up wicked quick!

My glee is sarcastic, be tee dubs. You do NOT want to get me started about the stupid antics over the budget up in here. Ridiculous.

Anyways … I had originally read this book as part of my 19th Century British Novel class in college. It was kind of a topics course, but not really? It was offered every semester, but depending on the professor it covered different aspects. It certainly wasn’t offered as a topics course – you could only take it once, for example. I don’t know, it was eons ago. But in my class, we read Jane Eyre (the second time in college for me), North and SouthDracula, and Bleak House. I think we were also supposed to read The Mill on the Floss and there were some essays in there as well, but I remember we skipped The Mill on the Floss because we were getting behind.

That was also the semester I was taking like, four English courses? I want to say that was the semester I decided to cram in 19th Century Brit Lit, Shakespeare (the Histories, that semester), Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, and was that the semester I also took the topics course in Women in Detective Fiction? It may have been. So, with all the reading I decided to do, guess how many of those novels above I actually finished?

Jane Eyre and North and South. I didn’t bother to tackle Dracula again, because I felt I had parts of it memorized; Bleak House I got through half (and then ended up watching most of the BBC miniseries starring Gillian Anderson as Lady Deadlock, but stopped watching before Jarndyce proposed to Esther and I was so sad knowing that she’d eventually leave him that I didn’t want to see that).

Oh – we also had Jude the Obscure that semester, and I read like, three pages. I WAS BUSY.

We focused on the difference between “beauty” and “the sublime”. I am dialing it down to what I remember – which is probably incorrect, but guess what, I think I’ve finally paid that semester off, I ain’t going back – but “the sublime” is what people should strive for, because being “sublime” is being better than beautiful. Like, “beauty” is just “pretty”, there’s no substance beneath it. “Sublime” has power and a different energy.

Look, read this Wikipedia article if you’re interested. There’s definitely more to it than what I just said; you can also read the article that I just remember reading (thanks, Wikipedia!), A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful if you’re still intrigued. We spent a lot of time discussing descriptions of rooms and landscapes and trying to figure out if they were “beautiful” or “sublime”, and whether that informed our interpretation of the scene.

Before picking North and South again, I could tell you that it was about a girl whose family moved from the South of England to a manufacturing town in North England, and the culture shock of both the town and the people there that she deals with. Luckily, I was not misremembering the plot. I know we made a big deal about the descriptions of the town (whose name I will look up shortly – the book is in another room and I’m comfortable and on a roll) versus those of the South. But I also remember that I enjoyed the main romance in the novel.

So in keeping with a) the fact that I was still neck-deep in silly little romance novels I was reading through the year and b) it was October, and therefore, time for The Fall Classic (AND BOY OH BOY DO I HAVE STORIES ABOUT THE OTHER, REAL, FALL CLASSIC I LIVED WITH – STAY TUNED FOR A REREAD OF Moneyball WHICH WILL BE ALL IN CAPSLOCK ABOUT THE CHICAGO CUBS), I dragged North and South out of my Classics bookcase and dug in.

The main character is Margaret Hale, who grew up in Helstone with her family; her father was a pastor (or, English version of pastor). At the beginning of the novel, Margaret returns to Helstone after spending some time in London. Her father has had a crisis of conscience, and is leaving the Church of England as a dissenter. Additionally, as there is no place for him in society now, he is moving his family (save Margaret’s brother, Frederick, who has his own shit, being wanted for mutiny) to the industrial town of Milton-Northern, where he will be a tutor and intellectual cornerstone of that town. Margaret accompanies her parents on their trip to the north, as she is unwed and that is literally her only option.

She is struck by the dirtiness of the town – which it would be, because this novel is set in the thick of the Industrial Revolution, and worker’s rights isn’t a thing; neither is being environmentally-conscious. (It’s apparently not a thing now either UNLESS YOU LIVE ANY-THE-FUCK-WHERE ELSE IN THE ENTIRE GODDAMNED WORLD take a breath alaina you’ll be okay YEAH BUT MY HYPOTHETICAL CHILDREN WON’T BUT WHY SHOULD WE CARE WE ELECTED A FUCKING SENTIENT CHEETO DIPPED IN NAPALM WHY WOULD WE take a FUCKING BREATH, ALAINA)

bella slap

thanks – I needed that.

Anyhoodle. One of Margaret’s father’s first students is John Thornton, manager of one of the textile mills in Milton-Northern. He lives with his mother and sister, and takes Greek lessons from Margaret’s father after hours.

(I feel like I should mention: I’m currently watching the BBC version of North and South on Netflix, because it’s been so long since I read yada yada you all know the words by now. I can’t imagine there’s not a lot of difference between this and the book; plus, Thornton is played by Richard Armitage, who played the Great Red Dragon in Hannibal – so, yay!)

The biggest part of the novel is a subtle-at-times social commentary on the different societal norms Margaret has to maneuver through. Not just the different, northern accent and words, but how to act. In Helstone, Margaret would bring baskets of food to new neighbors to get to know them; here, in Milton, her new friend Bess wonders, “why would you bring a basket? We’ve got nothing to put in it!”

(That may not have been in the book. Also, I seriously can’t get over how the actress playing Mrs. Thornton looks a lot like Ian McShane in a dress. So. Weird.)

Thornton feels himself drawn to Margaret, but can’t understand her ways. Margaret, meanwhile, can’t seem to fathom the customs of Thornton’s land.

When Mr Thornton rose up to go away, after shaking hands with Mr and Mrs Hale, he made an advance to Margaret to wish her good-bye in a similar manner. It was the frank familiar custom of the place; but Margaret was not prepared for it. She simply bowed her farewell; although the instant she saw the hand, half put out, quickly drawn back, she was sorry she had not been aware of the intention. Mr Thornton, however, knew nothing of her sorrow, and, drawing himself up to his full height, walked off, muttering as he left the house —

“A more proud, disagreeable girl I never saw. Even her great beauty is blotted out of one’s memory by her scornful ways.” [p. 86]

Look at that – classic miscommunication in action! Two people, having a conversation (this time, using body language) where each means something through their actions but their meaning is misheard by the other party, because the other party doesn’t have the appropriate context in which to place and interpret the message! And the omniscient narrator, right there in the middle of everything, can’t reach out to Thornton and Margaret and bop them on the head to get their shit together, because they’re not real, and also, it’s not the narrator’s job! Oh man – sometimes art imitates life imitates art, amiright?

North and South is a commentary on many different topics, masquerading as a romance between cultures. There’s the disparity between the north and the south, in appearance, in culture, in society, in knowledge; there’s the attempt at reconciling the two, and Margaret learning where she fits — at the end of the novel, Margaret returns to London and finds herself completely bored with her previous life. There are also discussion on labor laws, and labor strikes, and the ability for a worker to attempt to make a better life for himself, in spite of what he’s been given.

And how does this all tie into the discussion I had about “beauty” and “the sublime” up at the top? Well, in her travels and new knowledge, Margaret learns to find the beauty in Milton, where, ostensibly, there wouldn’t be any. The town is filthy, people die of fluff in their lungs left over from the textile mills, smokestacks are constantly belching smoke so much that she is continuously washing the walls of their apartment. But given the opportunity to return to her relatively hoity life in the South, Margaret finds her life lacking. Surrounded by traditional beauty – measured beauty, marked out in perfectly-tended gardens, greens and blues and other colors – she finds herself yearning for the sublime Milton – grey upon grey upon grey, and all shades with a dash of violence, whether it be actual fights between the strikers and the bosses, or just consider the violence found in a smokestack expelling smoke. That’s where she belongs – she prefers the sublime and the rough edges and the different beauty to a more traditional perception.

It’s so nice to see a college course I took didn’t go to waste.

Grade for North and South: 4 stars

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