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1.06.2013

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell


It was just after I finished my master's degree at the University of Edinburgh that I was introduced to North and South, having raided the Rancho Mirage Public Library's impressive collection of BBC adaptations as thoroughly as possible. My flatmate Jess had burned me a copy of the DVD before I left Scotland, but there was something wrong with it, and it wouldn't play. Which was just as well, pirating being illegal and all.

Elizabeth Gaskell's masterpiece, North and South, should never be read before Pride and Prejudice. I would like to get the comparison between these two novels out of the way as quickly as possible, because it's probably the first conversation anyone has about North and South. The premise of both is more or less the same - a man and a woman from two different walks of life meet; he finds himself unwillingly attracted to her and addresses a hasty proposal to her immediate and fiery rebuff; circumstances follow which make her regret her decision, and feel a sort of moral or social shame before him; happy ending. Or, to summarize the universal love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. I hope no one considers this a spoiler.

Beyond these very obvious similarities, though, the books are remarkably different. Perhaps because one is a Regency novel and the other Victorian. I first read North and South after seeing the BBC adaptation with Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe, which is still and perhaps forever one of my favorite costume dramas of all time. I defy you, children, to reach the final scene and not feel flushed with romantic fever. Perhaps you are boys; even still.

The novel is just as romantic, and in some ways even more so. But it is also more religious, more colloquial, and more particular. You will see what I mean.

The main reason that North and South ought to be read after Pride and Prejudice is the difference in economic values. Economic might be the wrong word here, and I'm sure someone more intentional than me has written a well-researched essay on the subject. What I'm stumbling toward is the difference between their understood values in either land or industry. Edward Said's book Culture and Imperialism devotes an entire chapter to Jane Austen, examining the ways in which her narratives establish the English landed gentry as a kind of ideal (granted, one in need of some improvement) in the face of the inexhaustible borders of the empire. He points out the very distinct comparisons Austen makes, intentionally or not, between rural and urban life.

Elizabeth Gaskell makes the same comparisons in North and South with absolute intentionality. One might even suggest that her heroine, Margaret Hale, acts as a placeholder for all the thoughts and feelings of those who felt as Austen did in her day - that the closer one was to the simple and reliable existence of field and forest, the better and more "English" one was. I'm sure I could express this all better if I sat down and reread Culture and Imperialism, but I am not a student anymore. I will leave that to you.

Having exhausted the comparison between Gaskell and Austen, it's worthwhile to point out that I read North and South only a few months after blitzing through a large number of George MacDonald's Scottish novels. The man was none too fond of the city either, and his great city was only wee Aberdeen - a hamlet in comparison with the sweeping urban centers of Manchester and London. MacDonald frequently uses urban life as a literary type for sinfulness, and rural life as the ideal state of the flourishing Christian soul. It's hard to disagree with them, having spent my own brief moments rambling up a sweet Scottish burnie, sipping from fairy springs and looking out across the mysterious dark waters of a rich, haunting loch.

But Gaskell knew Manchester best, and her religious sympathies as well as her experience lay within the harsh hustle and bustle of a manufacturing city. Though both Gaskell and MacDonald shared what was then considered "schismatic opinions" relating to the Church of England, they took slightly different approaches to the religious nature of their fiction. I would suggest Gaskell is more ecclesiastically generous than MacDonald, who himself felt the consequences of removal from the church a bit (though only a bit) more directly than Gaskell.

If Gaskell is more ecclesiastically generous, MacDonald is more spiritually generous. Though I suspect you'd have to read them both to know what I mean. A hint in that direction - and this is my last point, I promise - might be found in that Gaskell's great literary friend was the monumental Charles Dickens, while MacDonald's was Charles Dodgson - better known as Lewis Carroll.

Having said all this, the best of North and South is the most obvious part of it. The love story, though I have minimized it to the point of formula, is better than all its careful arguments about industry and urban life. When I reread the book, it's those portions I read most carefully. Though they are not as crisply and carefully written as Austen's famous Darcy-and-Elizabeth romance, they are somehow more human and unarguably more passionate. 

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