Monthly Archives: February 2015

North & South, Elizabeth Gaskell

I’m a northerner living in the south so a book about a southerner going to live in the north should be right up my street really shouldn’t it?

Admittedly there were a couple of hundred years between this book being written and my own journey to the other end of the country. And it’s true that Margaret moved from rural Hampshire to the heart of the Industrial North whereas I moved from one city to another but still I was intrigued by this book’s potential fish-out-of-water storyline and its links to my own part of the world.

Then I started it and realised I’d picked up yet another 19th century romance and I was less impressed (this one’s not even on The List).

Then I read a bit more and got really into it.

As I’ve already alluded to, North & South follows the journey of our heroine, Margaret Hale, as she is forced by family circumstances to move, first from London to the New Forest and from there to Milton (Mill-Town, geddit?) in Darkshire (which is probably Manchester where Gaskell lived).

As a protagonist Margaret is much more interesting than the majority of Victorian leading ladies. Removed from her comfort zone on several occasions she thrives on adversity and is able to develop from a “proper young lady” into a compassionate, political and independent woman. And not once do we have to endure her mooning over some man with a view to validating her own existence by becoming his wife. Go Margaret!

Billed as a love story in the blurb N&S is actually much more of a social commentary and it was one I really understood and could appreciate. Perhaps it’s because, coming from what was once a mill town, I know a reasonable amount about the sort of life Gaskell’s characters led and so I could properly picture the conditions and the difficulties they were up against. Or perhaps it’s because Gaskell didn’t really aim for subtle, through her more outspoken characters she tells us exactly what she thinks of the working conditions and the response to strikes and so on and so forth.

Outside of the mills there are many other strands to this story and while it is true that one of them has a romantic theme, it is far from the main focus of the story and it almost feels as if Gaskell has thrown it into the mix purely because she felt as if she had to. As such the resolution of that particular strand disappointed me slightly although at the same time I appreciate that because of the era we are talking about a woman did have to have a man and of the options presented I feel it went the right way.

So there’s not much left for me to say really other than to reiterate how much N&S surprised and pleased me and how nice it was to read a book set in a time period and place that I feel I know relatively well. It has left me feeling that I should read Hard Times though which I believe will give me an alternative view of that setting. Watch this space…

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On Perseverance

I’m one of those people who hates not finishing a book. Or anything actually (witness the four-year long fight with a thesis which has recently ended), I view the determination to always finish what I started as one of my best qualities but is it always such a good thing?

I’ve just finished reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire which according to my Spreadsheet took me 199 days to get through (a tiny part of me was annoyed that if I’d taken just one more day it would have been a lovely round 200) but did I get anything out of it? No, not really, that’s why it took me 199 days to finish. Having seen and not really enjoyed the stage show I wasn’t expecting much from the book but it was even worse than I anticipated – 406 pages of interesting premise overshadowed by dreary political machinations among almost universally unlikeable characters and with little direction in terms of plot. Yet I couldn’t stop reading. The book would sit, untouched, on my bedside table for large stretches at a time but I’d keep coming back now and then to chip away at the remaining page count until finally I was done.

I think I kept expecting better things, I kept thinking ‘once we’re past all the political stuff there’ll be some action’. ‘Once Dorothy arrives, it’ll all kick off’. ‘SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN SOMETIME RIGHT??’ And I have to admit that towards the end the pace did pick up a little bit and there were sections where I was actually interested in the goings-on it’s just that they were relatively few and far between.

So did finishing it give me a sense of achievement? Was I glad that I saw it through to the end? Not really. I suppose I felt a small sense of success but looking back now I can’t see what would have been so bad about quitting along the way. I know other readers feel like this; allowing yourself to stop reading something you don’t enjoy was on lots of new year’s resolution lists  so I can’t help but wonder why we do it to ourselves.

Maybe it’s so that we get that sense of ‘closure’ that comes from completing an arduous task or maybe it’s so that we can feel justified in our opinion that that is a bad book. I think that part of the problem for me is a ‘what if’ sensation. As in ‘what if I stop reading but the next chapter is really good?’ kind of thing. That and I love being able to have a good moan!

Anyone else out there got any thoughts? Do you stop reading if you don’t enjoy a book or do you force your way through? Why? Are there any books that have got too much for you and you’ve had to give up?