North and South

Classics Book Review

Author : Elizabeth Gaskell

Genre : Literary Classic Fiction

Original Publisher : Chapman and Hall

Year of Publication : 1854

Number of Pages : 396

My Rating : 5 out of 5

My most recent read is this gem of a book by Elizabeth Gaskell, based in Victorian England. Margaret Hale is the daughter of a parson. At age nine, her parents sent her away from the sleepy hamlet known as Helstone, where her father serves as the Parish Priest, to go live with her maternal aunt in London’s Harley Street so she could get an education along with her cousin Edith. Nine years later, aged eighteen, she returns to the village home of her parents and is longing for a quiet, peaceful life walking in the forest and spending her days tending to the needs of her father’s congregation.

She took a pride in her forest. Its people were her people. She made hearty friends with them; learned and delighted in using their peculiar words; took up her freedom amongst them; nursed their babies; talked or read with slow distinctness to their old people; carried dainty messes to their sick; resolved before long to teach at the school, where her father went every day as to an appointed task, but she was continually tempted off to go and see some individual friend–man, woman, or child–in some cottage in the green shade of the forest.

When her father suddenly announces that he is moving the family North to the manufacturing town of Milton-Northern, she is shocked and grief stricken and wonders how this change will affect her family, most especially her mother.

Life in Milton is as different as expected – the air is heavy with smoke, the streets are bustling and the people are rough. Margaret tries her best to ease her mother’s worries and anxieties. With time, she gets to meet some of the people of Milton and make friends with them, in spite of the differences in behaviour, customs and mannerisms. She manages to get herself embroilled in the politics of the town and finds herself in the middle of a strike.

She also manages to draw the attention of Mr. Thornton, a mill owner and one of the wealthiest manufacturers in the town, who is also her father’s pupil. John Thornton finds Margaret haughty and thinks she treats him with contempt while Margaret finds him hard and unfeeling and only interested in getting wealthy at the expense of his poor workers. Yet the two are brought together time and time again by fate. Will they be able to overcome their differences and find common ground?

If Mr. Thornton was a fool in the morning, as he assured himself at least twenty times he was, he did not grow much wiser in the afternoon. All that he gained in return for his sixpenny omnibus ride, was a more vivid conviction that there never was, never could be, anyone like Margaret; that she did not love him and never would; but she –no! nor the whole world –should never hinder him from loving her.

This story is engaging and well written. It demonstrates what happens when there is a clash of cultures. Margaret and her family are used to Southern mannerisms and she struggles to understand the industrial town and its people. She has also had a privileged life at the her aunt’s London home which is very different from the life her own family leads.

Through the eyes of the other characters, we get to experience the industrial revolution and the inevitable clashes between the mill owners and their workers as each strives to protect their interests. I loved how the author presented us with different view points of the lives of the people of Milton – that of the owners, workers and outsiders in the form of the Hale family.

After a quiet life in a country parsonage for more than twenty years, there was something dazzling to Mr. Hale in the energy which conquered immense difficulties with ease; the power of the machinery of Milton, the power of the men of Milton, impressed him with a sense of grandeur, which he yielded to without caring to inquire into the details of its exercise.

This was my first Elizabeth Gaskell book to read as part of my 50 classics in 5 years’ challenge. Having gotten used to Jane Austen books where the biggest differences in social class were as a result of inheritance and the sort of family that one came from, it was refreshing to read about self-made characters who were not trapped in the lives that they were born into.


North and South has been adapted for TV three times. I watched the above 2004 BBC adaptation. It was a four episode production featuring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe. I absolutely loved it and found the characters very fitting for their roles, save that the ending was to me a bit too different from the actual ending in the book. I would have loved to see that ending played out here, though I must admit that it did not come out very nicely in the last episode of the 1975 adaptation that I managed to find on YouTube!

I enjoyed every part of this book and recommend it to all lovers of classics. I rate it 5 out of 5.

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