Monday, 3 February 2014

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

3 stars

A Victorian romance dressed up with some social commentary on the class differences between the north and south of the country and between the working and middle class, I'm finding this book rather hard to rate; I think I enjoyed it, while at the same time hating most of the characters and the heavy-handedness with which they were drawn.

Having been brought up by her wealthy relations, on her cousin's marriage Margaret Gale returns to live with her parents in the picturesque village of Helstone. Already quite a drop in circumstances, when Margaret's father leaves his position as parson due to a crisis of conscience, their removal to the northern industrial town of Milton sees their fortunes fall even further, and puts them into contact with the impoverished labourers from the local mills. While Margaret strikes up a condescending friendship with the dying daughter of one of the local Union men, Margaret's father becomes a private tutor to Mr Thornton, one of the mill owners. 

Margaret is the kind of heroine that everyone falls in love with (and I think we're supposed to love her too, although in my opinion she's a snotty little twerp) and Mr Thornton is no exception. Unhappily for him, Margaret has already dismissed him in her mind as a mere tradesman, and reacts to his declaration of love as if somebody had just presented her with a bowl of vomit. But Mr Thornton isn't one to be put off by her scorn and, while his relationship with his employees slowly starts to change as he develops a social conscience, Margaret slowly comes to realise that she might love him back.

Like many of its time, this book was apparently initially serialised - something which probably accounts for its tedious pace, with far too much waffling over the same ground (I felt like I'd heard every iteration possible of Mr Thornton's feelings towards Margaret) to ever feel like we were getting anywhere. 

Its characters had a tendency towards the melodramatic - I was soon sick of Bessy Higgins, the poor, dying waif who spends her time lying around looking waif-like and making sure that she includes the fact that she's dying in every sentence, and didn't find Margaret's parents (especially her poor, fragile father who can barely be told anything without breaking down into anguished sobs) any better. And whilst appreciating that the novel made a focus of the conditions that affected the labouring classes, I was annoyed that most of those we came into contact with (save for Nicholas Higgins) were portrayed as bovine and simple (Mary Higgins) or slovenly and plagued with children, whom they viewed (as in the case of Mrs Boucher) "as incumbrances, even in the midst of her somewhat animal affection for them."

Yet for all that it sounds as though I loathed every second of this book, I still found myself constantly promising myself just one more chapter whenever I ought to have been putting it down and getting on with something else, so I'm giving up and giving it a three.

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