Book Review: ‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

“Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life… My precept is, “Do something, my sister, do good if you can; but, at any rate, do something”.”

― Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South


When we talk about novels set in the Victorian era written by female authors, Jane Austen and Bronte sisters come to mind. We think about the female uptight characters who are governed by English social rules and are usually in distress because of a romantic relationship or family situations. ‘North and South’ is not an exception. Yes, the novel talks about domestic problems and yes, it has some romance. However, the novel stands out for its social theme.

The main character is Margaret Hale, 19-year-old when the story starts. She had lived for 10 years in London with her aunt and cousin, Edith. At the beginning of the book, Edith is getting married and Margaret is going back home to Helstone (a fictional beautiful southern English village inspired by Hampshire). Margaret believes that Helstone is the most beautiful place on earth, and she cannot wait to come back to her old life. But Margaret’s life is turned upside down when her father, the local pastor, leaves the Church of England because of his lack of conscience. This means, their family has to leave Helstone and his father has to find a new job.

Following the advice of Mr Hale’s old friend, Mr Bell, they moved to a northern city Milton (inspired by Manchester) and Mr Hale is to teach in the city. This idea shocked the whole household; Mr Hale, not being courageous enough, asked Margaret to break the news to her mother. And since then on, Margaret’s role as the head of the family is becoming more obvious. She takes care of the moving and making sure her ill mother is feeling comfortable while at the same time dealing with their loyal maid, Dixon (who hates Mr Hale for dragging her respected missus to a miserable life). Later on, we also learned that Margaret’s older brother, Frederick, lives in an exile in Spain for his naval mutiny and if caught in England, would probably be hanged.

Milton, during the Industrial Revolution, is a city where factories are its. Upon her arrival, Margaret quickly realised how Milton people are so different than the South.

To use a Scotch word, every thing looked more ‘purposelike’. The country cars had more iron, and less wood and leather about the horse-gear; the people in the streets, although on pleasure bent, had yet a busy mind. The colours looked grayer – more enduring, not so gay and pretty. There were no smock-frocks, even among the country folk; they retarded motion, and were apt to catch on machinery, and so the habit of wearing them had died out. In such towns in the south of England, Margaret had seen the shopmen, when not employed in their business, lounging a little at their doors, enjoying the fresh air, and the look up and down the street. Here, if they had any leisure from customers, they made themselves business in the shop – even, Margaret fancied, to the unnecessary unrolling and re-rolling ribbons. (p.66)

Margaret then meets Mr John Thornton, one of Mr Hale’s pupils. Mr Thornton is a wealthy and respected manufacturer, the owner of Marlborough Mills. At first, they dislike each other, Mr Thornton thinks Margaret is haughty and Margaret sees him coarse and cold. In one of their conversations, Mr Thornton challenges Margaret in the use of the word ‘gentleman’.

“I take it that “gentleman” is a term that only describes a person in his relation to others; but when we speak of him as “a man” , we consider him not merely with regard to his fellow men, but in relation to himself, – to life – to time – to eternity. A cast-away lonely as Robinson Crusoe- a prisoner immured in a dungeon for life – nay, even a saint in Patmos, has his endurance, his strength, his faith, best described by being spoken of as “a man”. I am rather weary of this word “ gentlemanly” which seems to me to be often inappropriately used, and often too with such exaggerated distortion of meaning, while the full simplicity of the noun “man”, and the adjective “manly” are unacknowledged.”

The first few weeks are hard for Margaret, especially when she sees the poverty and living conditions of the people. She then befriends a working-class and poor family, the Higgins. Mr Nicholas Higgins is a worker in one of the factories and is the representative of the Union. He has two daughters, Bessy and Mary. Bessy is ill with lung disease from the cotton she inhaled when she worked in a factory. Nicholas Higgins with the Union planned a strike because factory owners do not give them a pay rise. In response to this, factory owners decide to imported Irish workers and this leads to riots.

Day by day, Margaret begins to appreciate the hardworking people of Milton and starts to understand both employers and employees way of thinking. Her dialogues with Mr Thornton and Mr Higgins slowly changes her. She is also becoming bolder in her role as a woman in an industrial city, she uses the local words deemed vulgar by her mother, she visited the working-class houses and let them visit her at home, she goes to pay respect to her deceased friend when Dixon told her that is not proper for a lady to see a dead body, and she keeps challenging ideas without being too proud to admit that she is wrong.

The book has several themes, one that stands out for me is challenging the authority. It is illustrated in the strikes, how the working class marched and stood up to what they believe. It is also shown in Frederick’s rebellion because he believed that his captain acted unjustly. Margaret also rebels in ignoring social proprieties and in defending her brother.

“Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used–not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless.”

― Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

We will also see how gender roles are exchanged here. Margaret took care of her family, she steps into her father’s shoes when he is not strong enough to do the role. This including breaking the sad news of the death of a worker to his widow and being the pillars of the family when the men (her father and brother) collapse. We also see that Higgins has a maternal instinct by deciding to take care of his deceased friend’s orphans.

The book received heavy criticism until the 1950s. This was because an assessment written by Lord David Cecils in 1934 who said that Gaskell was “all woman” and “make a creditable effort to overcome her natural deficiencies but in vain.” (I know, what a prick). This changes in the 1950s and 60s when socialist critics started to review her works and realised that her work has given voice to what was the beginning of feminist movements. In early 21st century, her work then “enlisted in contemporary negotiations of nationhood as well as gender and class identities”. Well deserved. This book is important and what male critics then saw as a failure, is the beginning of an important movement!


This edition is published by Penguin, 2012

2 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

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  1. This has been on my list for awhile, and this review makes me even more excited to read it. It’s so surprising to me that people would have criticized this but then there’s many wonderful books that haven’t been accepted for one silly reason or another. She sounds like she is a similar writer to George Eliot. Have you written anything by her? I just read Middlemarch so far, but I appreciate how independent her female heroines are.

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    1. Oh yes!! I’ve read Middlemarch (and well done for you for finishing it – haha such a tomb) and I absolutely love the heroine Dorothea, and I also love Mary Garth! North and South focuses more on the social class and the contrast between industrial city and southern lands. For example, Margaret (before she moved to Milton) always looked down on people who trade. And throughout the book we wonder: what will make her change her mind? Hope you’ll get to read it soon. 🙂

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