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Before I fell down the rabbit-hole and started reading oh so much fic (thank god for Panorama in Firefox, I have eight million tabs open), I finished North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell!

*presumes you all know the basic plot synopsis*

Margaret Hale, the daughter of Mr and Mrs Hale, is living in a small southern England town when she is told by her father that they must move. Contemporary setting for Gaskell in mid-19th century Britain, quite a long novel. It's not an adventure-novel with the resolution; it's really very character-driven.

It actually took me several attempts to get a quarter way through, and then the novel seized me something fierce and I mainlined the rest of it. (This involved staying up way past my bedtime, but I digress). It opens quite slowly; Margaret talks to her cousin who is going to be married, goes home, spends some pages doing nothing really important, and then Mr Hale tells her he's no longer able to continue in his job and that they must move - north.

Frankly at this point I didn't understand what a huge deal it was; it was written very lightly about. I think Gaskell must have assumed her readers would know. I suppose if I had to explain it, it'd be like a mid-life crisis, but about sprituality/faith, and in that light Mr Hale feels he can't continue to be the vicar, and seeks employment elsewhere.

But then they move to Milton, a fictional town in the North, and things start to move.

Initially as I was reading, I was hit by the incredible similarity between (I know, I know) Gaskell and Austen. But the novel kept progressing, and I revised my opinion. In the beginning, yes, they're quite similar; Margaret only deals with the people round her (similar social status for the most part) and she seems to be the only one with any sort of sense at all. A bit of social satire, too. But in Milton, with her father's profession no longer as respectable as before, her mother's failing health, and their general loss of wealth, she comes into contact with those who are not like her. Here Gaskell really diverges with Austen; the interactions between Thornton & Margaret, Higgins & Margaret - these are all relationships that really are significantly affected by where they're grown up and what they do today. Wikipedia calls it "[Gaskell's] second industrial novel", and Milton is clearly a fictionalized version of a town like Manchester, circa mid-19th century.

It's those conflicts which are really interesting. I twitched at all the mentions of "crebbing babies", but mostly the portrayal seemed even-handed and more importantly, most of the main characters seemed like people. Higgins works in a mill; Thornton is a major mill owner, and Margaret doesn't exactly just fit in right away. The conflicts - there's almost a fundamental incompatibility of world-view. Through Margaret, Thornton and Higgins even become acquainted.

I did find it very dramatic at times. My main objection was that people dropped like flies. Without spoiling the book, a lot of people died. Right and left and center. By the end of it - and I admit, it was late - I was kind of emotional, wondering who else was about to get it, so much that the happy ending was a bit, uh, abrupt. There was a lot of death. If Austen is cool, deft satire, then Gaskell paints a wide, colourful portrait of different places, different classes, different views. (Sorry. I compare everything.) Wait, no, I had one more objection: there was often an infuriating inability to communicate between characters. When Mr Hale announces that they're up and moving to Milton, he can only bear to tell Margaret, his child. Mrs Hale is kept entirely in the dark for days, while he attempts to summon courage to say it (and eventually he dumps the responsibility on Margaret); Mrs Hale isn't exactly insensitive to the tension in the household. Things like this happen all the time, and it drove me nuts during the novel because I wanted them to talk. You can't put off these things forever!

In Gaskell's defense, all the characters have flaws. Mr Hale only seems to have backbone about one thing (moving to Milton), Thornton has some significant blindspots, Mrs Hale ditto, Mrs Thornton (Thornton's mother) has some massive prejudices. The communication thing just drove me mad, though, because I hate that trope used to make tension. My sympathies towards different characters swung back and forth all the time as the characters coped with the things that kept happening.

Other than 'dropping like flies' syndrome (and that ending! That was cruel, to leave us there!) I enjoyed it muchly! I am after Wives and Daughters, once my TBR list gets a little shorter. (Queued up next - it's actually physically present on my bookshelf - is Cinda William Chima's The Crimson Crown, YA fantasy, which is a 180 degree turn. I'm looking forward to it.)

Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/121808.html.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 24th, 2013 03:45 am (UTC)
Hi new friend!

Im actually supposed to start North and South with a friend soon! I love Richard! I cant wait!
Jan. 24th, 2013 04:06 am (UTC)
I hope you like it! There was a part in the middle when I INTENSELY SHIPPED Margaret/Thornton, it was ridiculous especially since nothing particularly romantic happened. *shakes head*

(Armitage, right? I heard that the TV series evokes similarily shippy feelings.)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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