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Elizabeth Gaskell – North And South

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The industrial revolution shook England up and changed everything, but where is the plot in Gaskell’s book?

Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 547
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-51148-9
First Published: 1855
Date Reviewed: 12th September 2011
Rating: 2.5/5

After Mr Hale decides that he can no longer be a vicar of the Church of England, he takes his family from their home in the New Forest, to Milton in the north. Whereas the New Forest is pretty and problems are hidden, Milton is smoky and full of issues. Margaret, the daughter and the heroine of the novel, learns to live in Milton.

Aside from the uprooting of a family, I could find no real plot to this novel. Discussions on life, yes, but a firm here to there in any theme, no. Gaskell is both humorous and knowledgeable about the subject on which she writes, but in detailing the industrial revolution as she did it she forgot to tell a story. And whilst her characters are okay, they are not interesting enough by themselves to make the plot irrelevant.

Margaret isn’t a heroine to enjoy reading about. She receives proposals of marriage and gets angry about it and her speeches single her out as a self-righteous woman who, while not wanting to demean herself and act like a woman was supposed to, does often cause one to want her to be quiet. When a friend dies she refuses to see the body, and at one time she calls herself a genius – for doing something that the reader will identity as common sense. It’s not said in a humorous manner and is thus difficult to read.

Neither are the other characters particularly readable. Mr Hale comes across as selfish in his desire to leave the church, and the younger men have nothing special to recommend them. A lot of characters are there just because. The class issues are not looked into very well and hardly scratch the surface. Yes, Gaskell tells you what happened, but her whys aren’t particularly compelling.

While it may be the melodramatic nature of Victorian literature, that so many people start dropping like flies doesn’t suit Gaskell’s writing at all. It comes across as fake and convenient. The ending is rather sudden and unbelievable and the conversations go on and on without making any real progress. You get excited about all the possibilities with a character or a relationship and then Gaskell kills them off or makes Margaret stop seeing them.

To be sure the information presented is interesting, if you are in to economics and trade, and the later development of an understanding between those with power and those with none is good to read about, but by and large this reviewer cannot see why North And South proclaimed a classic.

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September 22, 2011, 11:12 am

LOL You should try the BBC adaptation! I watched it first, and when I read the book I was disappointed that all the characters I loved in the movie weren’t so lovable on the page. And there’s a couple very clear plots. :)

Charlie: I’ve been reading reviews at GoodReads that are saying how much better the adaption is. I’ll definitely have to watch it. I wouldn’t mind having a reason to like some of these characters!


September 22, 2011, 9:37 pm

I read North and South earlier this year and found it a bit disappointing, but I think I enjoyed it more than you did! My biggest problem with it was that I didn’t like Margaret at all – her attitude really annoyed me.

Charlie: I was expecting her to be nice (though admittedly because so far bar Wuthering Heights, all the classic females I’ve read have been) but she wasn’t likable in the least. The Higgins girl was good though.


September 23, 2011, 5:52 am

I would definitely encourage you to watch the BBC adaptation as well! I did get a bit obsessed by that show a couple of years ago!

Charlie: I’m really glad that everyone’s recommending the adaptation, it gives me more reason to watch it!


September 24, 2011, 2:30 am

Hmm, forgetting to write the story is no good in a novel! I’ll recategorize this in my mind so that if/when I do pick it up, I won’t be confused and/or disappointed.

Charlie: I think the plot thing is something some agree with, others not. But I’d say as the main point of this book was to show social issues Gaskell wouldn’t have concerntrated on it so much (though she should).


September 24, 2011, 5:36 am

I really have to read this one, because the blogosphere seems divided on it. Half the reviews I read praise it while the other half hate it. I can’t wait to make up my mind about it. :)

Charlie: True, there are less neutral reviews out there. Definitely one to read though even if just to know about what other’s talk about.


September 27, 2011, 1:30 pm

Hmmmm, I’m trying to catch up with the classics as I’ve read so few of them. North and South is one that I’ve downloaded onto my Kindle but I’m now feeling a bit apprehensive. Maybe I’ll stick to my tried and trusted modern books after all.

Charlie: Oh I think it’s worth a read, if to be able to know what others talk about if nothing else, and there are lots of people who did love it. I wouldn’t rule out the classics because of it though, like in every genre there are gems as well as bad books.



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