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…