This was one of the rare occasions on which I saw the movie (in this case miniseries) before I read the book. And though it’s always a different experience to read a story when you already
mostly sort of know the ending, this book’s value wasn’t much diminished by an advance knowledge of the plot.
What does that mean, exactly? I think it means that the prose is worth reading, even if you already have some idea of what’s going to happen next. Not every novel can say that of itself, so good on Elizabeth Gaskell.
North and South is, in a nutshell, a street-smart Pride and Prejudice. Like Austen’s whole volume of work, North and South captures the delicacy and intricacy of family and social life in Regency England. However, unlike Austen’s six novels, North and South also has the nerve to address the rampant social inequality of the time. Imagine what would happen if you dropped one of Austen’s heroines in the midst of a Dickens novel, and you’ll have a pretty solid idea of what Margaret Hale’s few years in Milton are like.
If that premise doesn’t intrigue you, we probably shouldn’t be friends.
So, yes, there is of course the draw of that sweeping, romantic style that we all know and love (which somehow, never gets tiresome). But let’s talk about the prose and the plot. Gaskell’s writing is formal, as was the habit of the time, but in that formality she has a truly remarkable way of conveying feeling without being overly presentational about it (if Austen or Regency authors in general had a fault, that was it). Her narration is real and honest, occasionally profound, and in places simply striking.
The plot, of course, is not without its small inconsistencies and peculiarities. The most curious point of misalignment, I found, was in the narration of two different characters [spoiler alert] falling love. While Mr. Thornton’s infatuation with Margaret hits him all at once, like a ton of bricks, her feelings for him emerge much more slowly, and in much more obtuse manner. While Thornton declares his love immediately after realizing it, never does she use the word ‘love’ in reference to him; rather, the reader gradually begins to assume she does love him, based on her greatly heightened awareness of his presence, her sense of distress at his disapproval, and so on and so forth. While the former realization feels almost clumsy in its suddenness, the latter is more convincing but never, it seems, fully realized. It is an interesting paradox, to be sure, and perhaps intended to give greater insight to the difference in their characters.
There are smaller quarrels to be had with the author, to be sure; for instance, descriptions of Margaret’s physical appearance vary greatly. It is interesting to note that the other women in the novel quickly dismiss her as ‘plain,’ while the men unanimously find her beautiful. Whether this is an error on Gaskell’s part or something unclear but deliberate is difficult to say. Another small point of contention lies in the ending, which is strangely abrupt. After over a year of circling around one another at a distance, Thornton and Margaret’s whole turbulent relationship is resolved (which remarkably little actual conversation) in less than three pages, and finalized with only “some time of delicious silence.” Entrancing and intriguing as the apparent simplicity of that line is, the ending feels strangely incomplete – and there are undoubtedly a few loose ends which are never tied up.
More than all of these things, however, is Gaskell’s uncanny ability to capture the quivering ferocity of human emotion – we are paralyzed by uncertainty one moment, hot with indignation the next. Here is where her command of language most excels, and rather than attempt to describe it, I will let it speak for itself.
The most striking passage to me of the entire novel is that which follows Thornton’s declaration of love, and Margaret’s tumultuous feelings about it. Gaskell’s explanation was perfect, complete, real – it captured the shock, the anger, the sting of a vulnerable nerve exposed, that might follow such an encounter:
“Yet, even before he left the room, – and certainly, not five minutes after, the clear conviction dawned upon her, shined bright upon her, that he did love her; that he had loved her; that he would love her. And she shrank and shuddered as under the fascination of some great power, repugnant to her whole previous life. She crept away, and hid from his idea. But it was of no use. To parody a line out of Fairfax’s Tasso -
‘His strong idea wandered through her thought.’
She disliked him more for having mastered her inner will. How dared he say that he would love her still, even though she shook him off with contempt? She wished she had spoken more – stronger. Sharp, decisive speeches came thronging to her mind, now that it was too late to utter them. The deep impression made by the interview was like that of a horror in a dream; that will not leave the room although we waken up, and rub our eyes, and force a stiff rigid smile upon our lips. It is there – there, cowering and gibbering, with fixed ghastly eyes, in some corner of the chamber, listening to hear whether we dare to breathe of its presence to anyone. And we dare not; poor cowards that we are!”
My only thought upon reading this passage was, “Yes.”
Pages like these are half the reason to read this entire book. Gaskell possessed a deep understanding of humanity itself and was able, as only a handful of authors really are, to convey that troubled reality perfectly and beautifully. This is a book that anyone who has been or ever hopes to be in love should read, a book that should be read by anyone who has ever struggled to love an imperfect parent or a sibling, a book that should be studied by anyone who has ever endeavoured to understand or justify their particular lot in life.
As far as I can tell, that’s pretty much everyone.