The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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May 15, 2011

North and South

'He is the first specimen of a manufacturer -- of a person engaged in trade -- that I had ever the opportunity of studying, papa. He is my first olive; let me make a face while I swallow it. I know he is good of his kind, and by and by I shall like the kind. I rather think I am already beginning to do so. I was very much interested by what the gentlemen were talking about, although I did not understand half of it.  I was quite sorry when Miss Thornton came to take me to the other end of the room, saying she was sure I should be uncomfortable at being the only lady among so many gentlemen. I had never thought about it, I was so busy listening, and the ladies were so dull, papa -- oh, so dull! Yet I think I was clever too. It reminded me of our old game of having each so many nouns to introduce into a sentence.'
      'What do you mean, child?' asked Mr. Hale.
      'Why, they took nouns that were signs of things which gave evidence of wealth, -- housekeepers, under-gardeners, extent of glass, valuable lace, diamonds, and all such things; and each one formed her speech so as to bring them all in, in the prettiest accidental manner possible.'
       'You will be as proud of your one servant when you get her, if all is true about her that Mrs. Thornton says.'
      'To be sure, I shall. I felt like a great hypocite to-night, sitting there in my white silk gown, with my idle hands before me, when I remembered all the good, thorough house-work they had done to-day. They took me for a fine lady, I'm sure.'
It has been good to read Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South -- now the second novel of hers that I've read, after Cranford -- in the midst of reading Jenny Uglow's biography.  It has been interesting to understand a little more about the social issues and personal experiences that wound their way into the book, and even about Mrs. Gaskell's experiences in publishing the book as a serial, still writing it as the first installments were published, with Charles Dickens as her cranky (and possibly plot-stealing) editor.  Even though I think I love the classics, I struggle to enjoy reading a lot of 19th-century fiction; the style and tone doesn't always resonate with me.  So all of this helps.

The biography tells us that after witnessing the social and labor unrest of the 1830s and writing Mary Barton, 'the idea of another book on Manchester had been simmering in her mind,' as 'friends suggested she should write something to show the masters in a better light.' The atmosphere of unrest in industrial cites was calmer, and Elizabeth was also very aware of scientific and engineering advances and the 'energy and imagination' in cities like Manchester.  

We had also learned, earlier in the biography, that Elizabeth and her brother John were her parents' youngest, oldest and only surviving children, and that when Elizabeth was 18, and their father suffered financial losses, John, 'restless and uncertain of his future,' decided to emigrate to India. Elizabeth's brother was either lost at sea or died soon after; she never learned of his safe arrival or heard from him again. {And yet wrote different stories for other sailor-brothers, here and in Cranford.}

Jenny Uglow mentions that the domestic details that Mrs. Gaskell puts into her novels are always telling:  houses stand in for the characters who live in them. It was fun to look for and notice this as I read:

Mr. Thornton left the house without coming into the dining-room again. He was rather late, and walked rapidly out to Crampton. He was anxious not to slight his new friend by any disrespectful unpunctuality. The church-clock struck half-past seven as he stood at the door awaiting Dixon's slow movements:  always doubly tardy when she had to degrade herself by answering the door-bell. He was ushered into the little drawing-room, and kindly greeted by Mr. Hale, who led him up to his wife, whose pale face and shawl-draped figure made a silent excuse for the cold languor of her greeting. Margaret was lighting the lamp when he entered, for the darkness was coming on. The lamp threw a pretty light into the centre of the dusky room, from which, with country habits, they did not exclude the night-skies, and the outer darkness of air. Somehow, that room contrasted itself with the one he had lately left; handsome, ponderous, with no sign of feminine habitation, except in the one spot where his mother sate, and no conveniences for any other employment than eating and drinking. To be sure, it was a dining-room; his mother preferred to sit in it; and her will was a household law. But the drawing-room was not like this. It was twice -- twenty times as fine; not one quarter as comfortable. Here were no mirrors, not even a scrap of glass to reflect the light, and answer the same purpose as water in a landscape; no gilding; a warm, sober breadth of colouring, well relieved by the dear old Helstone chintz-curtains and chair covers. An open davemport stood in the window opposite the door; in the other there was a stand, with a tall white china vase, from which drooped wreaths of English ivy, pale-green birch, and copper-coloured beach leaves. Pretty baskets of work stood about in different places; and books, not cared for on account of their binding solely, lay on one table, as if recently put down. Behind the door was another table, decked out for tea, with a white tablecloth, on which flourished the cocoa-nut cakes, and a basket piled with oranges and ruddy American apples, heaped on leaves.
North and South was also Mrs. Gaskell's first attempt to write a novel for serialization. After he published the Cranford stories and other pieces in his magazine, Household Words, she sent Charles Dickens an outline for her new book and was immediately concerned that he was stealing her material for his own novel, Hard Times. Dickens published North and South in installments from September 1854 till January 1855, while Elizabeth traveled, visited friends, and furiously tried to finish writing the book.  It was not a success at first; Dickens blamed a drop in the magazine's sales on Elizabeth's 'wearisome novel.'  {I'm fascinated now by Dickens' relationships with Mrs. Gaskell and other authors, so I'm going to look for a biography to read this summer.}

As I said, I think knowing this background added to my enjoyment of the novel. I'm not sure I would have fallen for it, as much, on its own merits. It's undeniably powerful, in places, with plenty of lines to scribble down. {I love the one about the olive.} Margaret Hale is a beautiful, independent, plain-speaking, appealing heroine, and Mrs. Gaskell sets all of the losses that come to her in a 'fatal year' against her strong mind and spirit, but it was hard for me not to draw away from her preachiness and her crisis of conscience over the lies she finds it necessary to tell.  Even though this is (and was meant to be) a different kind of book, I found myself wishing for more of the gentle humor that runs through Cranford, and there was some, in Dixon, in Nicholas Higgins, and in the ending (even though it seemed to rush into itself).  There are good foils in the other characters, from airy Edith, to soul-searching Mr. Hale, to charming Henry Lennox, to dying Bessy and her union-leading father, to Miss Dixon and Mrs. Thornton, who are proud and snobbish in their different ways.

John Thornton. from this distance, is more successful, but more run-of-the-mill {sorry, bad pun}, as a hero; I kept thinking of Mr. Knightley, who is very similar in his intelligence, his aversion to pretentiousness, and his secret longings (which aren't as secret here). 

I'm not sure North and South will end up as one of my favorite novels, but I'm glad I've read it and I did enjoy it. And I've been holding off on borrowing the BBC adaptation, which people have been raving about; now I will, as an end-of-book treat.

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Cristina (Rochester Reader) said...

Great review and with a lot to think about! I would like to read this sometime in the future. I thought the film was wonderful and would be interested in your thoughts on how it compares to the novel.

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

Sounds like the Uglow biography definitely gave you a lot to think about here! I was really interested to hear about Gaskell's brother John - that certainly adds a more personal slant to the story.

Bellezza said...

And I (foolishly) thought, for a moment, that you were going to talk about North and South by John Jakes. Should have known better! You keep introducing me to literature I want to read!

So glad we're reading The Penelopiad together. I can't wait to read it first, talk about it next.

Karen K. said...

So far I've only read Wives & Daughters plus some of the Cranford Chronicles. I'm due to read North & South this summer with a book group so I've also held off on the BBC adaptation of N&S -- it's been so tempting because I have heard so many wonderful things about it!

The biography sounds fascinating, I didn't know Gaskell worried about Dickens stealing her plots. I did read Hard Times and hated it, it is by far Dickens' worst novel in my opinion. He should have just stuck to his own plots!

Vintage Reading said...

Excellent review. Your thoughts echo my own. I very much enjoyed reading this novel but I know I will never re-read it. As you say, it helps to know a little about Victorian literature and culture to put the novel into context.

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