Thursday, August 16, 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Another of the well-known novels I've somehow failed to read till now is Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, despite it being recommended to me at regular intervals over the last few years.

And I'm so glad I finally made the plunge, because it was lots of fun. It's a tale of the clash between the agrarian South of England and the manufacturing North at the time of the Industrial Revolution, respectively embodied in Margaret Hale, the seemingly haughty young heroine, and John Thornton, a young entrepreneur and manufacturer. The Hale family (minus Margaret's brother, Frederick, who is living abroad to escape a court-martial and certain death for his role in a naval mutiny) move to the manufacturing town of Milton when Mr Hale, previously a clergyman of the Church of England, finds himself no longer able conscientiously able to support all the doctrines of that church. Through a likeminded friend, Mr Bell, they are referred to Mr Thornton, one of the great cotton-manufacturers of Milton. Mr Thornton becomes a pupil of Mr Hale's and his closest friend in the strange, dirty new town. But Margaret instantly dislikes Mr Thornton--his humble origins, his high-handed treatment and cool exploitation of his workers, and his very status as a heartless money-grubbing member of Milton's elite all cause her to shrink from him.

Meanwhile she makes the acquaintance of some of the Milton workers: young Bessy Higgins, dying of the cotton fluff that she breathed in while working at one of the mills; her father Nicholas Higgins, a simpleminded labourer at the head of the workers' union; Boucher, their neighbour, who begins to find the union a worse tyrant than the masters themselves. As the "war" between the workers (who are starving) and the masters (who are stuggling to stay in business) intensifies, the workers begin to threaten a strike. Mrs Hale falls ill. And of course Mr Thornton finds himself struggling with a growing attraction to Margaret.

There was a lot to enjoy about North and South. On the most superficial level, it was as sensational and melodramatic as anyone might wish--or, indeed, more so than one might wish. Like Wives and Daughters, North and South soon reaches an almost unbearable emotional intensity and never lets go till the last page. Margaret gets three proposals of marriage. No fewer than six characters die. Mr Thornton spends most of the book being quietly tormented. Mrs Gaskell never omits a chance to complicate the relationship by making Margaret say exactly the wrong thing at moments that she doesn't realise Mr Thornton is behind her (I felt myself longing to advise her to check behind the sofa before saying anything she wouldn't want him to hear). In short, no opportunity was missed to extract maximum sensation from this plotline.

While I do have a weakness for melodrama and loved North and South for just that reason, that same melodrama became a flaw. Thinking it over now, the thing that I disliked about Wives and Daughters was the way the emotional tension remained at such a high pitch, unresolved, for the whole book. The same flaw is evident in North and South. While Wives and Daughters is unfinished, North and South does have a resolution. But because the intensity of the plot is mostly unrelieved, very little in the way of a climax is possible: there is nowhere else for the book to go beyond one final turn of the screw and then everything resolving on the last page. For this reason, one actually enjoys the book more halfway through than five minutes after finishing it; which is unusual. Quite different to the novels of GK Chesterton, for example, which tend to be a bewildering puzzle unlocked by the final chapter.

While, having only just read this book for the first time, I don't feel competent to fully unpack the worldview presented herein, I do have some observations. Mrs Gaskell herself was, as we all know, Unitarian, and I think one of the best ways to learn about an alien worldview is to study how it emerges from the stories told by its adherents. Of course, nobody reading North and South should feel compelled to turn Unitarian. While Mr Hale retires from the Church of England for conscience's sake, the exact doctrinal points are not mentioned. But a couple of clues are left in the text. For example, Mr Hale is called a "dissenter"- a term usually used in the 1800s to refer to "Rational Dissenters" - Unitarians. In addition, when Mr Hale turns dissenter he is helped by his sympathetic friend Mr Bell, who introduces him to Mr Thornton, who is mentioned to have religious differences with the C-of-E Margaret. Quite likely, all three--Hale, Bell, and Thornton--are intended to be Unitarian characters, as as we'll see, Margaret herself behaves rather like a Unitarian throughout the book.

That aside, we should expect to see certain Unitarian influences and themes in a book by a Unitarian author. I found an interesting article--The Concept of Unity in Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South".
A key insight into Mr. Hale’s reasoning is found during his discussion with Margaret and Higgins, when he states that “your Union in itself would be beautiful, glorious, —it would be Christianity in itself—if it were but for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another”. This statement directly mirrors the sentiment of Unitarian theology of the 19th century as primarily defined by 18th century scientist and philosopher Joseph Priestley, who famously described the Trinity as foremost of the corruptions of Christianity.
The author goes on to claim that "The implication of equality despite class and doctrinal differences is a clear refutation of the Trinity as perceived by Unitarian theologians." Throughout the novel, the solution to the turmoil between the classes, the sexes, and the sects is presented in terms of either standing aloof or bringing both together in unity and harmony. Throughout the book, conflict itself is the enemy.

If you read North and South trying to decide which side you are intended to be on, as I did, you will end up confused as to what the author is trying to say. The book came out in 1855, with the revolutions of 1848 still fresh in the memories of its readers. These had birthed the Communist Manifesto, and Marx and Engels were both hard at work - Engels financing his anti-capitalist war and his friend Marx with the proceeds of his own capitalist factory. Various characters in Milton describe class relations as a "war" between the masters and the men. As the Hale family interacts with first the master and then the men, they see injustices, grievances, and misunderstandings on both sides. If the masters are harsh, the men are unreasonable. While the rhetoric of the Milton residents sounds almost Communist in its vocabulary of class struggle and warfare, this is not the view that triumphs in the end.

Meanwhile the conflict between Margaret and Thornton, South and North, is the conflict between a traditional, hierarchical, agrarian way of life in the South (Margaret, bursting with noblesse oblige, is surprised when her offer to visit the Higgins family like a good aristocratic Lady Bountiful is met with disdain) and the modernist, self-made, industrial life of the North (where a draper's assistant--a shopman, a man in trade, can be part of the elite). But neither view is accepted. As the heroine who facilitates most of the peacemaking that occurs in the novel, Margaret's more caring attitude to the workers is compared favourably to Mr Thornton's coolness. Yet the South is not Mrs Gaskell's ideal society either. To begin with, it is too dependant on hierarchy and social standing: Margaret's oblige is praised, but her noblesse is not. Neither the ancien regime of covenantal, Trinitarian Christendom nor the new world of belligerent class conflict and base money-grubbing is affirmed in this novel.

Most readers would come away from the novel thinking that Mrs Gaskell has simply tried to paint a fair picture of both masters and men, North and South. But even to avoid taking sides is to state an ideological position. Throughout North and South, peace is brought when people set aside their differences for the sake of unity. The fault lies in taking sides at all; resolution comes in pursuit of unity as the ultimate principle--a unity for unity's sake; a unity of tolerance and mutual respect, a unity that repudiates the hierarchy of master and men and even, to some extent, that of parents and children. This is a can't-we-all-just-get-along faith, similar but counterfeit to the Christian doctrine that calls us to love friends and enemies both, but never to confuse the two.

This said--and if you have read this far, I want to thank you for having patience while I dug a bit deeper into the worldview ramifications of Mrs Gaskell's Unitarianism--the book is by no means a tract for that heresy; it is simply, unavoidably, influenced by it. All that aside, I loved North and South--an exciting, melodramatic tale from one of the great nineteenth-century novelists.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording (take care--they spoil the whole plot at the top of the page!)
The Concept of Unity in Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South" - essay

I have seen the 2004 BBC miniseries of North and South. Compared to some, this is a fairly loose adaptation of the source material--the same characters enact the same basic plot, but many of the events occur quite differently than in the book. Many of my literary friends prefer the miniseries, but I found many of the changes unnecessary, while diluting the (admittedly overdone) melodrama of the book. Still, it's perfectly enjoyable on its own terms.


Lady Bibliophile said...

"there is nowhere else for the book to go beyond one final turn of the screw and then everything resolving on the last page. For this reason, one actually enjoys the book more halfway through than five minutes after finishing it; which is unusual."

Precisely. Exactly what I felt.

I bought this book for my mom one Christmas years before I was old enough to read it. :) I loved vintage novels even then. :)

Anonymous said...

A very fair assessment. I did enjoy it though.

Suzannah said...

Oh, yes, I enjoyed the socks off it as well :).

Anonymous said...

Such a fun blog that I have stumbled upon! Thank you.

I recall hearing in a university course that the author jokingly noted that she should title her work "Death and Dying," rather than "N. and S."

I also recall that the author felt rushed when writing this work, which may account for the pacing of the numerous deaths and general plot.

As much a I treasure this novel, I always find the ending unsatisfying. After such an emotional exercise, I need a "cool-down," a longer resolution.


Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoy the blog!

Have you read Wives and Daughters? I find it interesting to note how little that book suffers from having no ending (Gaskell died before she could finish it). It has a similar emotional intensity and I suspect would have had a similarly abrupt ending. It suggests that the main point of the book is the emotional tension, which is why I would class it as a guilty pleasure ;).


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