Jane Austen wrote beautifully about the south of England in such masterpieces as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion but did she ever wonder about the north of England and what life in Yorkshire and Manchester was like? She must have wondered but it would have been difficult for Austen during her lifetime to visit these regions.
But by the mid 19th century England had changed. Trains were transporting people regularly from the rural and agricultural south of England of land owners where class and one's family mattered to the grittier industrialized north of England, a population not as intimidated by class or even by the mill owners for whom they worked. Both regions had harsh views of each other and in North and South, published in 1855, Elizabeth Gaskell set out to bridge the gap by creating two formidable characters, Margaret Hale and John Thornton.
Margaret Hale is a beautiful, intelligent, spirited young woman from Helstone in the south of England. John Thornton is a cotton mill owner from Milton in the north of England who after his father's death, when he was a young boy, worked long hours in factories to rescue his mother and sister from poverty. Normally these two would never have met but Margaret Hale's father due to a downturn in his finances moves his family to Milton so he can accept a position as a private tutor.
Margaret is not happy about the move. She loves her home in Helstone but she moves with her parents to Milton. Her eyes will open to a new world not only her growing attraction to John Thornton but also to the conflict between the Masters (mill owners) and their employees. Eighteen months later, Margaret is back in the south of England. Alot has changed in her life during her year and a half in Milton and she has experienced tragedy as well. As Margaret sits in her wealthy cousin Edith's home she reflects:
"But all the rest of the family were in the full business of the London season, and Margaret was left alone. Then her thoughts went back to Milton, with a strange sense of the contrast between her life there, and here. She was getting surfeited of the eventless ease in which no struggle or endeavor was required She was afraid lest she should even become sleepily deadened into forgetfullness of anything beyond the life that was lapping her round with luxury. There might be toilers and moilers there in London, but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears, they only seemed to start into existance when some want or whim of their master or mistress needed them".
I began this review by writing about Jane Austen parly because North and South has been compared to Pride and Prejudice, two characters ((Margaret Hale and John Thornton) meant to be together but their pride and prejudice getting in the way. And also because the one criticism I've had about Austen's novels (at least from the two books of hers I've read) is she stayed very close to home, the landed gentry and the world surrounding them of balls and ball gowns, horse drawn carriages, summers at their country homes, witty drawing room conversation and of course happy endings. The lives of anyone from the lower classes, as Gaskell writes about above, left firmly off stage.
But here is the thing. I enjoyed North and South a good deal and Gaskell is to be commended for taking on such important issues as the Industrial Revolution. She has created a complex and admirable mill owner in John Thornton and Margaret Hale is an attractive and good hearted heroine. North and South is a great novel included for example in the literary critic Harold Bloom's book on the Western Cannon. However, now that I have finished North and South I am reminded that Jane Austen is in a class by herself. Gaskell is a great writer but Austen is simply greater. So if you have read Pride and Prejudice I think you will enjoy North and South (and the BBC miniseries of North and South now on netflix is very good). But if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice, what in the world are you waiting for?