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Words of a Bibliophile

"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell

I have been curious about reading Gaskell for a while, and my first novel of hers turned out to be this one that mixes romance with social issues relevant to its time in the mid-19th century. The main character, Margaret Hale, initially seems rather contradictory to me. She is the daughter of a country clergyman with a small living, and her claim to gentility comes simply from the respectability of her father being a man of the cloth, her mother being an adopted daughter of a titled landowner, and herself spending many years living with her rich aunt and cousin in London. While her family can barely afford to hire a new housekeeper when they first move to the industrial town of Milton-Northern, Margaret is proud enough to be condescending towards mill owner Mr. Thornton, looking down on him and his ilk as "shoppy people" because they earn their wealth through manufacturing and trade, yet she also shows charitable feelings towards the poor working class in the industry. I cynically wondered if she would have been more sympathetic to Mr. Thornton had he been a penniless worker; maybe then she could pity him properly.

No less annoying is Margaret's spineless father Mr. Hale who, due to a religious dilemma, gives up his job as a clergyman and intends to move his wife and daughter with him across the country within two weeks, yet doesn't dare to tell his wife about it and asks their daughter to break it to her instead. It was odd for me to see how Margaret, barely out of her teenage years, seems to be relied on by both her parents to have a strong presence of mind and to make decisions for them. Maybe that's why some consider her too good to be true — which she probably is, apart from her pride. Luckily both she and Mr. Thornton redeem themselves by the end of the book, each of them improving as characters and realizing the errors of their ways (class snobbery for her and negative opinion of the labor movement for him). I was definitely rooting for them to be together. There are some slow parts in the novel to plod through especially during the discussions of social issues in the newly industrialized England, but Gaskell makes it up with a sweet treat at the end. I'm going to try Cranford from her next.