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North and South

By: Elizabeth Gaskell

Mrs. Gaskell as she was popularly known, had a hard and lonely childhood, spent with various aunts and relatives after her mother died and her father left her. The young Elizabeth met and married a clergyman and moved to Manchester with him. It was here that she developed her strong sense of social justice and the themes which form the basis of her writing. Her biography of her dear friend Charlotte Bronte is considered a classic and provides a wonderfully human picture of the Yorkshire genius and her equally talented, tragic family. North and South is set in a fictional town called Milton and located north of England. The heroine Margaret Hale arrives here, having suffered a series of unfortunate events. Her father, a wealthy churchman who lives in the idyllic English countryside suddenly finds himself losing the faith that has sustained him all these years. He leaves the church and moves his family to this preindustrial, ugly and uninspiring city, where poverty, crime and hopelessness dominate. Margaret soon encounters the handsome, but materialistic, cotton mill owner and tycoon, John Thornton. Their values and philosophies are poles apart, leading to an inevitable clash, which forms the basis of the title of the novel, North and South. The book traces the advent of the Industrial Revolution in England, the pathetic condition of workers and the callous, greedy attitude of the mill owners who formed the bedrock of the new rich in the country. She also wrote several very popular ghost stories which were regularly published by Dickens in his magazine, Household Words. However, Mrs. Gaskell's works, though immensely popular in her lifetime, soon faded into obscurity. Today, her works are known chiefly through television adaptations of her novels like Cranford and North and South. Her enduring themes of tradition verses modernity, feminism, the changing nature of relationships and the falsity of first impressions all resonate with the interests of readers today.

Nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale has lived for almost 10 years in London with her cousin Edith and her wealthy Aunt Shaw, but when Edith marries Captain Lennox, Margaret happily returns home to the southern village of Helstone. Margaret has refused an offer of marriage from the captain's brother Henry, an up-and-coming barrister. Her life is turned upside down when her father, the local pastor, leaves the Church of England and the rectory of Helstone as a matter of conscience; his intellectual honesty has made him a dissenter. At the suggestion of Mr. Bell, his old friend from Oxford, he settles with his wife and daughter in Milton-Northern (where Mr. Bell was born and owns the property). The industrial town in Darkshire (a textile-producing region) manufactures cotton and is in the middle of the Industrial Revolution; masters and workers are clashing in the first organized strikes.

Margaret initially finds the bustling, smoky town of Milton harsh and strange, and she is upset by its poverty. Mr. Hale (in reduced financial circumstances) works as a tutor; one of his pupils is the wealthy and influential manufacturer John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills. From the outset, Margaret and Thornton are at odds with each other; she sees him as coarse and unfeeling, and he sees her as haughty. He is attracted to her beauty and self-assurance, however, and she begins to admire how he has risen from poverty.

During the 18 months she spends in Milton, Margaret gradually learns to appreciate the city and its hard-working people, especially Nicholas Higgins (a union representative) and his daughter Bessy, whom she befriends. Bessy is ill with byssinosis from inhaling cotton dust, which eventually kills her.

A workers' strike ensues. An outraged mob of workers breaks into Thornton's compound, where he has his home and his factory, after he imports Irish workers as replacements. Thornton sends for soldiers, but before they arrive, Margaret begs him to talk to the mob to try to avoid bloodshed. When he appears to be in danger, Margaret rushes out and shields him; she is struck by a stone. The mob disperses, and Thornton carries the unconscious Margaret indoors.

Thornton proposes; Margaret declines, unprepared for his unexpected declaration of love and offended by assumptions that her action in front of the mob meant that she cares for him. Thornton's mother, wary of Margaret's haughty ways, is galled by Margaret's rejection of her son.

Margaret's Brother Frederick (who lives in exile as he is wanted for his part in a naval mutiny) secretly visits their dying mother. Thornton sees Margaret and Frederick together and assumes that he is her lover. Leonards, Frederick's shipmate, later recognizes Frederick at the train station. They argue; Frederick pushes Leonards away, and Leonards dies shortly afterward. When the police question Margaret about the scuffle she lies and says she was not present. Thornton knows that Margaret lied, but in his capacity as magistrate declares the case closed to save her from possible perjury. Margaret is humbled by his deed on her behalf; she no longer only looks down on Thornton as a hard master and begins to recognize the depth of his character.

Nicholas, at Margaret's prodding, approaches Thornton for a job and eventually obtains one. Thornton and Higgins learn to appreciate and understand each other.

Mr. Hale visits his oldest friend, Mr. Bell, in Oxford. He dies there, and Margaret returns to live in London with Aunt Shaw. She visits Helstone with Mr. Bell and asks him to tell Thornton about Frederick, but Mr. Bell dies before he can do so. He leaves Margaret a legacy which includes Marlborough Mills and the Thornton house.

Thornton faces bankruptcy due to market fluctuations and the strike. He learns the truth about Margaret's brother from Nicholas Higgins and comes to London to settle his business affairs with Margaret, his new landlord. When Margaret offers Thornton the loan of her money, he realizes that her feelings toward him have changed, and he again proposes marriage. Since she has learned to love him, she accepts.

 

Book Details

Language

English

Original Language

English

Published In

1854

Author

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell , often referred to as Mrs Gaskell, was an English novelist, biographer and short story writer. Her novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of Victorian...

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