Book review

A second reading of “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

I decided to start a review as I start reading “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell. It’s one I’ve read before, so I know the story, but sometimes I read to escape without much reflection. I might notice something in passing, but I don’t always delve deeper.

This novel was Gaskell’s third novel that was published in parts in Charles Dickens’ publication, “Household Words” between Sept. 2, 1854 and Jan. 27, 1855. I have the Norton Critical edition that has these letters in the back from Dickens and Gaskell. They’re correspondence made me smile because of Dickens’ role as her editor. His letters indicate he asked Gaskell to cut down her lengthy manuscript, but she didn’t do this. I’m glad I bought that edition on eBay for the letters and added material. When I worked in public affairs, I would write articles for the base newspaper. Our editor, Will Daniel, was known fondly as Capt. Curmudgeon. He did not like it when we would send him lengthy articles for the base newspaper. He even named the act of sending these lengthy pages to him for a coworker’s last name. He would tell us not to give him the full Baker. It wasn’t until I tried my hand at editing and understood: “If it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t print.” Will had much in common then with Dickens.

The novel begins with a wedding, the wedding of Edith, cousin of the main character, Margaret Hale. Margaret is 18 at this point and has been in a sort of cocoon for the last 10 years, living in London with her Aunt Shaw and cousin where she was afforded the opportunity to take lessons with her cousin. She is getting ready to move back to the parsonage in Helstone with her parents, so she’s not only losing her companion, Edith, but also saying goodbye to the variety of life spent in London. She has in mind that her life will be a quiet dish with a helping of sameness. Gaskell plunges her main character into conflict immediately. When she returns to Helstone, she learns 1) a former London friend, Mr. Lennox, had matrimony in mind, and she refuses him, and then that same day, 2) her father doesn’t feel that he can go on as parish priest and wants to give up the living.

Going into this reading of “North and South,” one question I had was: Why does Gaskell focus her attention on Mr. Hale’s belief system at the outset. I read that wanting to break from the Church of England was a dangerous topic, so maybe she wanted to cause a scandal without harming her main character too much. Margaret loves her father dearly and has more of a relationship with him than her mother. When he says he must give up Helstone, he tells her it’s not that he doesn’t believe in God, but the result of conscience. Denominational differences? Possibly. Now his wife complaining often about Helstone might have added to his stress. But then I saw how Margaret’s belief in God takes a hit because her belief in her father takes one. She hears all that must happen next and what she must give up. She resigned herself to giving up the London life. Now she must also give up her beloved Helstone, its people, and her place among them for a manufacturing town in the North — Milton Northern. Her father is the author of all this change; her heavenly Father is even more so. She goes to bed in a dark mood that night:

“She looked out upon the dark-gray lines of the church tower, square and straight in the centre of the view, cutting against the deep blue transparent depths beyond, into which she gazed, and she felt that she might gaze forever, seeing at every moment some farther distance, and yet no sign of God!” (40)

Mr. Hale comes in to find Margaret in this state of mind and asks her to say the Lord’s prayer with him. And it’s then that she is humbled by where she let her thoughts take her.

“God was there, close around them, hearing her father’s whispered words. Her father might be a heretic; but had not she, in her despairing doubts not five minutes before, shown herself a far more utter sceptic?” (41)

I will come back to blog about this novel no doubt because I know there’s more to discover about this cast of characters. Margaret Hale is an uncommon heroine in that she isn’t shy or self-conscious and she has a “keenness of sight” (18) about people in her life. Gaskell shows her as a caring person from the start. Margaret saw the people of Helstone as her people and enjoys meeting their needs when she can. She would have made a great parish priest. When they move to Milton-Northern, Margaret makes her mother’s comfort her first priority. As she adjusts to changes, Margaret finds new ways to help people and affect change in the life of the mill owner and his employees. I recommend this book, but also the 2004 BBC series with dreamy Richard Armitage as John Thornton and Daniela Denby-Ash as Margaret Hale. Brendan Coyle – Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey — plays factory worker, Nicholas Higgins, and Anna Maxwell Martin (Good Omens) plays his daughter, Bessie Higgins, also a factory worker. For more about the series, go to

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.