A historical fiction, North and South was on my reading list for May, but I ended up reading another book and shifted this one to June. I saw the BBC series based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South earlier this year, and it piqued my interest in the book. It is set towards the end of the Industrial Revolution in the fictional English town of Milton.
The story is long; it was 51 chapters in the edition I read. So, I won’t be delving too much into the plot because that will be confusing. The story focuses on Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Margaret Hale has grown up in a beautiful small village Helstone in Southern England. Her father, Richard is a rector, and her mother is Maria. She also has an older brother who is on the run from the Crown, Fredrick. Margaret almost idolizes her life and the village. Her father decides to leave his job, and brokenhearted by the decision, the Hale family ends up in Milton. This is where they are introduced to Mr. John Thornton. He is a mill owner, one of the most prominent members of the society in the city. He is her father’s student.
Mr. Thornton and Margaret often butt heads. She doesn’t like the way he talks about the workers, even when he comes from a humble background. Margaret befriends a working-class father and daughter, Nicholas and Bessy Higgins. There is a divide and discontentment among the workers and the business owners. Margaret is almost like an in-between character for this conflict. She has sympathy for the working-class families because she sees firsthand the effects due to her acquaintance with the Higgins. Slowly, she realizes that Mr. Thornton isn’t as cruel as she would like to think. I think the way Margaret’s character fits into both worlds gives us a comparatively objective picture of the situation.
Margaret is a strong character. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure whether I’ll like her, but I loved the journey her character goes through. Her parents rely on her for emotional support, and she kind of takes responsibility for the household since their move. She faces many difficulties after her move to Milton. Slowly and steadily, she rises above it. Her relationship with John starts off rocky as she believes him to have no empathy. I liked how the relationship developed organically; John falls for Margaret, and she rejects him. The way he acts after that is how anyone would when they are hurt. Margaret realizes her love for John much later.
I haven’t read any other works by Elizabeth Gaskell. North and South was a good start. Although, it was different from the series I had seen, obviously, it does stand on its own. It’s slow, to begin with, and I had to be patient. A few chapters later, I was completely engrossed. There is drama, misunderstandings, romance, and social themes mixed well throughout the story. The characters, the relationship dynamics, and the setting all work perfectly together. Overall, I enjoyed reading it.
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