Thursday, May 29, 2008

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

Earlier this year, I was introduced to the awesomeness that is the BBC mini-series version of North and South based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Gaskell. After I had watched the DVD mini-series numerous times it occurred to me that I could, and probably should, read the book that it was based on. In due course, I went and purchased the book, but it then languished on my bookshelf for a while, until I realised that if I was going to lead a book-club discussion of it starting in June, then I really needed to read the darned book! And boy, am I glad that I did!

To give a very brief summary, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable existence as the daughter of country vicar when her father has a crisis of conscience and leaves the church. With no source of income, he moves his family to the northern industrial town of Milton where he is to teach and provide tutoring. One of his first students is mill owner John Thornton.

When Margaret and Thornton meet they tend to antagonise each other, with Margaret in particular being quite vehement in her dislike of Mr Thornton - a man who is not a gentleman in her eyes when she first meets him. Over time though, and through a series of rather dramatic events in the life of young Miss Hale and in the life of the town of Milton itself, she comes to see the very positive characteristics that 'these Milton men' possess. Poor Margaret has to deal with a lot throughout the course of this novel!

In many ways I think that this book was made easier to read by the fact that I had already watched the adaptation, particularly in the sections of the book where Higgins and the other mill-workers were speaking because Gaskell didn't shy away from using dialect that some may have found difficult to understand if they were being exposed to the story for the first time.

It was a real delight to find passages of dialogue that I recognised immediately where it was lifted straight from the pages of the book to the screen, and then it was equally as interesting to then rewatch the series and be able to quite clearly see which parts had been added by the scriptwriters and see what really added something to the story, what just added to the aesthetics because it looked really good, and also what was moved around or amended in the adaptation from word to screen.

One of the changes was in the ending of the book, and I have to say that for sheer romance the mini-series ending was superior, but the ending of the book was special as well, with a glimpse into how the two main characters would be able to share in mutual enjoyment and moments of humour as well as the fact that the ending in the book is probably more true to how a couple would behave at the time the book was set.

What the book was better at portraying than the mini-series was the build up in the emotions between our two principle characters, mainly because in a book you can get to know the inner thoughts and feelings which is much harder to do on screen. It definitely still happened on screen, but it was much more identifiable and palpable in the book.

If you didn't succumb to the North and South crusade that was happening earlier this year, I would encourage you to add the mini-series to your viewing schedule (and then come back and gush about how gorgeous John Thornton is), but if you don't want to watch it, then the book is definitely an entertaining read and is well worth the effort of reading. If I had to choose though, I would have to be honest and say watch the mini-series. The book was good, but the mini-series was superb!

What I have been thinking about since having seen this story in both the book and mini-series formats is what are my favourite scenes. The most obvious answer is the endings, but I must also say that the scene where Mr Thornton realises that 'it was her brother' also ranks right up there for me!

Given that I am talking about the mini-series you know that I really have no choice but to leave you with something to whet your appetite!

Having now read this book, and then rewatched the mini-series, I have now completed the Elizabeth Gaskell mini-challenge that I signed up for some time ago! I did mention a couple of posts ago that I was getting close to completion on some of the challenges that I had signed up for. This was one of those!


  1. Awesome review. I just saw the Cranford Mini Series. I'm trying to decide if I should read Cranford or North and South.

  2. I forgot to say congrats on finishing the challenge!

  3. I read the book after watching the mini-series as well. Loved them both! Nice review.

  4. I really want to see Cranford. I have heard such good things about it, but I haven't seen it advertised as showing on TV at all yet here.

  5. Great review. I am a recent discoverer of Gaskell's books and this sounds like a good one to read next.

  6. The mini series version of North and South is on my top five movie list. Incredible. I started the book, but didn't finish it in time for our book club meeting and then started on a new book without finishing. I really need to finish it up!! We are reading Ruth this month for book club, and have read Wives and Daughters in the past. Great stuff.

  7. Hi dear Marg! I'm about to start to read the book... finally!!! And afterwards I will watch the series.
    Thanks to your enthusiasm with this story, I hope I like it as much as you do.
    Love, Sig XXX