As some of you might know, North and South is one of my favourite classics. It ranks up there with Pride and Prejudice in terms of obsessive reading and watching, though I will admit that the Austen is perhaps a little bit more accessible. By the time I knew Pride and Prejudice by heart and I was looking for that next “oh my God, I LOVE it – I can’t stop thinking about it – I must watch/read it again” book, North and South filled that gap perfectly. As Jane Eyre did a few years afterwards.
My most recent reread of North and South was in 2010. I had it all figured out. I was going to post some themed posts, because there’s simply too much to discuss about this book. And then I never wrote them. So now, as I’m participating in the North and South Read Along, I decided to give those themed post a second chance. Except, some of the themes changed of course, and I’m trying to have them fit the current-chapters-read so as to not spoil it for those who are participating in the read along. For others: warning, spoilers up to chapter 14 – though there’s hardly anything spoilerish that occurs up to now.
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In this first part of the novel we follow Margaret Hale as she leaves London, where she’s stayed with her aunt for several years. Margaret returns home to the parsonage at Helstone, where her parents live. Except, once she’s there, she learns that they are to leave her beloved Helstone behind, because her father feels he cannot continue to serve a church he no longer believes in. From then on, they are to live in Milton, an industrial town in the north of the country.
What intrigues me most about the first part of North and South is the manner in which the two main settings are invoked: Helstone and Milton.
From the very first we come to know Helstone as an idyllic, picturesque village, and as Henry Lennox implies, it almost sounds as if it’s a village out of a picture book, as if the perfection Margaret uses to describe it is not quite realistic:
‘Oh, only a hamlet; I don’t think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.’
‘And flowering all the year round, especially at Christmas—make your picture complete,’ said he.
‘No,’ replied Margaret, somewhat annoyed, ‘I am not making a picture. I am trying to describe Helstone as it really is. You should not have said that.’
‘I am penitent,’ he answered. ‘Only it really sounded like a village in a tale rather than in real life.’
‘And so it is,’ replied Margaret, eagerly. ‘All the other places in England that I have seen seem so hard and prosaic-looking, after the New Forest. Helstone is like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson’s poems. But I won’t try and describe it any more. You would only laugh at me if I told you what I think of it—what it really is.’
He later admits to Margaret that she might have been right: “What a perfect life you seem to live here!” & “Just now I feel as if twenty years’ hard study of law would be amply rewarded by one year of such an exquisite serene life as this—such skies!’ looking up—’such crimson and amber foliage, so perfectly motionless as that!’ pointing to some of the great forest trees which shut in the garden as if it were a nest.” But we have to doubt if he wasn’t simply trying to flatter Margaret, to compel her to accept his hand in marriage.
For Margaret, Helstone is like a safe haven. At times I feel it might have been meant as an idyllic picture of heaven – all the more poignant when compared to Margaret’s voice over in the first episode of the BBC miniseries when she sees the factories in Milton “I have seen hell”.
But will Margaret be shown up as having been naive? Part of me thinks so. I think Helstone is meant to be the picture of the “old England”, as we saw it in the Olympic opening ceremony, before the Industrial Revolution. But Gaskell never forgets to remind us that there is pain and suffering even there: Margaret visits the poor and the blind, Mrs Hale is dissatisfied with her husband’s living and is constantly jealous of her sister’s city live with much more luxury, and most of all, the story of Margaret’s brother – unable to come back home – reminds us that there is unbearable sadness for the family, even at such an idyllic place at Helstone.
In contrast, Milton is painted in harsher tones. There’s gray and fog everywhere. And when they settle there, and Margaret aims to retain some of the picturesque by settling in a house with a view of the river, they can hardly see it through the November fogs. Nor is the house cozy, or tastefully decorated. To Margaret, it is almost claustrophobic, and she seems to see the contrast between Helstone and Milton, South and North, everywhere: in her observations on the quiet nature walks vs. the crowdedness of the streets, in the comparison of Mr. Hale with Mr. Thornton, when he visits over tea..
And so in the first few chapters, Helstone and Milton become synonymous with nature vs. industry, with culture vs. business, with gentry vs. middle class, with humanitarian feeling vs. cold business logic. And Margaret is shown to be snobbish:
Oh! I’m glad we don’t visit them. I don’t like shoppy people. I think we are far better off, knowing only cottagers and labourers, and people without pretence.
Margaret resents the pride Mrs. Thornton takes in Milton, nor does she like the way Mr. Thornton was “boasting about Milton, as if there was not such another place in the world”. Of course, Margaret can be blamed for taking the exact same view of Helstone.
I rather wonder if, in this showing of opposites, Gaskell is also showing us a measure of naivety prevalent in the South. In Margaret’s class snobbism when she talks about industrial & “shoppy” people. In the comfort known by Edith, for example: “Edith had rolled herself up into a soft ball of muslin and ribbon, and silken curls, and gone off into a peaceful little after-dinner nap.” Edith is comfortable in her marriage, being what a gentlewoman ought to be, but she’s hardly shown to think or contemplate of others, and of where the wealth she lives in comes from. There’s a reason, I feel, that Margaret is offered the opportunity to live what Edith lives, so early on in the novel, by having Henry Lennox propose to her; she needn’t have to go through all the worries and upheavals she goes through. And so there is a reason why she has Margaret refuse, apart from the fact that she does not love him, because Margaret is meant to take the reader on a journey that will allow them to lose the shells of comfortable safety.
Through reading her story, that “cultured” leisurely activity that people like Mrs. Thornton in Milton despise, Mrs. Gaskell wants the reader to become familiar with the plight of factory workers, which perhaps to Gaskell’s mind, may need a little of the gentleness of the South. But she also aims to show readers, through Margaret’s point of view, that there is beauty and humanity to be found in the factory workers [Bessy Higgins], apart from the obvious ugliness that Gaskell does not shy away from. In this first quarter of the novel, Mr Hale functions as a person who aims to bridge the gap between Helstone and Milton, between Southern and Northern sensibilities. Perhaps Margaret will follow his example after having been set to right in refusing to shake Mr. Thornton’s hand. Because if anything, I feel that through Margaret, Gaskell is asking people to question the comfortable naivety, the willful ignorance, of shutting your eyes and only wanting to return to your former peaceful life. For Margaret, that peaceful former life is united in her image of Helstone. We can only wait and see what Milton will eventually bring her..
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Any themes you’d particularly like me to ramble on about? My current list of things I’m contemplating looks like this:
- Class and industrialisation (I’m a little reluctant about this one)
- Mr. Thornton [and the echoes of Pride & Prejudice, as well as the byronic heroes of the Brontës]
- Margaret Hale and a woman’s sensibilities/place