Wednesday, 10 April 2019

It's Grim oop North - North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ve read this one at least twice before - in fact, I have a feeling it was the first book I ever read on my Kindle Keyboard, providing me with the happy knowledge that I *could* manage to read Victorian literature and the problem lay, in part, with the font rather than my ability. Srsly, if you are dyslexic, consider a Kindle. It will change your life. Maybe.

This time I was giving the audiobook version a whirl, read by Juliet Stevenson, who is marvellous. She speaks clearly, she does the voices, she is everything I could want in a reader.

North and South is the story of clergyman’s daughter Margaret Hale. Having been brought up in her aunt’s household, her cousin’s marriage means Margaret is to return home, to Hampshire. Except, her father hides a terrible secret: he is a dissenter who is no longer able to serve the Church of England. He will quit his modest living and they will move north, to the smoke filled air of Milton, where he will earn money as a tutor thanks to the kindness and connections of an old friend.

Initially it’s difficult to like Margaret. She has an arrogance borne of ignorance - she has things to say about how much she will not be consorting with the men of trade. She dislikes Milton. But she has a tenacity to her - this is her situation and she is going to do what she can to get on with it.

Mr Hale’s student is on Mr John Thornton, a self-made mill owner whom Margaret initially holds in contempt for that unlofty position. But he is a gentleman, and the dance of calls and obligations between the two families bring them into familiarity.

This is a Victorian novel, so there is obviously a deeply boring and preachy bit: Bessie Higgins, the millworker Margaret visits who suffers from Stagnation o’t’Lungs (possibly) is even worse in audio form. Maybe you have more patience than I and will not spend the hours she spends going on about how she is going to die, and how she is looking forward to it, and how fabulous Margaret is, thinking “Jesus, would you throw yourself in a well, already?”. Grit your teeth through these bits, it does improve.

And this is, at its heart a romance. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Thornton will fall for Margaret while she has vowed she will never get married. His declarations, his mother’s reactions, the development of her feelings and the blocks which stand between them feel realistic, as does the way they resolve themselves.

I particularly liked that everybody involved seemed, to my modern ears, to have a bit of a point. Margaret is right to think an employer has a responsibility to his employees, Thornton is right to say it’s none of his business what they do outside their contracted hours, and Higgins, Bessie’s father, is right to value himself and his skills and fight with the union to protect their employment.

It’s an interesting novel to read in these modern times. The questions about wages, the import of cheap labour, the downward race in contracted hours, the power of the unions, are all still extremely pertinent. North and South would lend itself very easily to a modern update.

The thing I most liked is the way everybody feels the consequences of their actions, good and bad. None of them are completely right and none completely wrong. Gaskell has terrific fidelity of character - they change, but what they are remains.

Most people describe North and South as a Northern Pride and Prejudice, which is not an unreasonable comparison, but North and South has far more story, and Margaret Hale far more impetus and independence than Lizzie Bennett (helped greatly by the 50 odd years between them). That said, she also has Bessie Higgins to put up with.

I’m sure there’s a well around here somewhere.

4 stars

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