North and South is the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman who spent a sheltered childhood in Helstone, a beautiful country village whose parson is Mr Hale, Margaret’s father. Margaret comes back to Helstone after spending several years with her aunt and her cousin Edith in London. Edith gets married to a Captain, and is about to move to Corfu.

As Margaret comes back to Helstone, she rejoices about resuming her long walks in the countryside. She spends her days visiting the poor and bringing any help and comfort she can. Soon, Margaret refuses a proposal from the captain’s brother, Henry Lennox, whom she considered a close friend but does not love. However, she cannot dwell long about the embarrassment of the situation, as her father soon announces his resignation from the Church of England, because of doubts. The family will move to Milton, an industrial town, and Mr. Hale will be a personal tutor to manufacturers who wish to pursue an education they had to give up too early.

Mrs. Hale, who used to complain that Helstone lacked good society, is horrified by the idea of moving to Milton. She and her daughter have many prejudices about trades-people. They found the town grey and depressing, the air unhealthy, and the people always busy and very proud. While Mrs. Hale keeps on complaining and is soon seriously ailing, Margaret is learning to shed her prejudices progressively. She soon befriends Bessy, a young woman who got lungs disease from working in a factory, and her father, a worker whose strong belief in the Union will make him one of the leaders of a strike to come.

Margaret also meets John Thornton, a mill-owner who becomes the favorite pupil of her father. Margaret and John’s ideas clash, and each has for the other a mixture of respect and annoyance. The dynamics between the two main characters reminds strongly of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Margaret, who is very sensitive to the cause of workers, because of her friendship with Bessy and her father, reproaches Thornton with his paternalistic views. He considers his men as “hands” better kept in ignorance from laws of the market. On the other hand, if he expects complete obedience during working hours (he believes that “despotism is the best kind of government for them”), he shows no interest in what they make of their lives outside working hours. Margaret thinks that masters and workers should have more interaction, that a master is also responsible for his men beyond working hours, and, comparing masters to parents and workers to infants, that the previous should “humour[] the desire for independent action, so as to become the friend and adviser when the absolute rule shall cease.” If Thornton’s experience (a difficult strike) and Margaret’s unacknowledged but strong influence will drive him to join her views and become closer to his workers (going so far as becoming friends with Higgins), Margaret herself will come to admire the self-made man for his strength of character, his strong will, justice and honesty.

Towards the middle of the novel, after Margaret, in the midst of the strike, protects Thornton from a thrown stone which injures her, Thornton proposes Margaret, because seeing her injured makes him realize he loves her, and also because his mother seems sure that he will not be refused, that her act can be viewed as a admission of love. At this point, Margaret refuses, in part probably because she thinks Thornton wants to save her for the shame of having betrayed feelings in public (which she of course denies feeling). Recently, I have seen the BBC version of North and South, and there is an important scene in it that is not in the novel. I wondered at the beginning why they should have added it. I refer to the scene where Thornton beats a man, who was risking the safety of the mill by smoking a cigarette. Why make him pass for a violent man, when it is obvious from the book he is not? Hot-blooded, impulsive, certainly, but not violent. Then, I understood that they needed to add this in order to make the viewer understand why Margaret should refuse him and be so prejudiced against him. In the novel, her second refusal, as much as her first refusal (Henry Lennox), and even, her backing away form the whole idea of marriage, must be viewed, in my opinion, in light of the other couples around her. Growing up, this very perceptive and analytic girl has two couples set as examples: On the one side Mrs. Shaw and her husband, a much older man, a marriage of interests rather than love, and on the other side her parents, a marriage of love but shadowed by the laments of Mrs. Hale, who pines after a wealthier life, in higher circles. So, for Margaret, marriage equals dissatisfaction and regrets. No wonder she refuses two worthy men without a second thought, until she realizes she is deeply in love with one of them of course…

What is puzzling in this novel is indeed Margaret’s complex character. Margaret is very mature, proud, holds herself like a queen, which make people think she is disdainful. Margaret also strikes the reader by her spirit of independence. Unlike the two other young women in the novel (Edith and Fanny), who are shallow pretty things (Edith only advantage on Fanny is that she fancies her cousin while Fanny dislikes her, otherwise they are equally fluffy), Margaret is observant, curious, and empathic. But when it comes to her love life, she is a bit of a riddle, since, as I said, it is never clearly explained why she refuses first Henry Lennox (she does not love him, but used to share an intimacy with him that explains why he should have felt comfortable to ask), and what exactly makes her change her mind about Thornton, if not the simple fact that she thinks she has lost him. Margaret is a pretty secret character. Since we are never completely explained what she does not want to admit to herself, it is a bit of a guesswork. As I said before, I think the example of two uneasy relationships accounts a lot for her reluctance to make a commitment to any man. Maybe another reason is that her sense of independence is so strong that she cannot imagine herself tied to somebody. When she comes back to her aunt after her father’s death, Margaret rebels against her aunt’s authority, and obtains to be able to go on her good deeds in the lesser districts of London. Perhaps she does not want to be dependent on a man like Edith, who has to follow her captain to Corfu. When she finally accepts Thornton, she is not dependant anymore, she is a wealthy and powerful woman whose money is about to prevent the closing of Thornton’s mill.  What, in my opinion, remains unexplainable in Margaret’s behavior is her lingering reluctance to tell the truth to Thornton about her brother Frederick. Frederick has been disgraced from the navy after taking part in a mutiny against an unjust and violent captain. He has flown to Spain and risks being put to death if he ever comes back to England. On Mrs. Hale insistence, he comes back to see her before she dies, and his visit is kept an utmost secret. When Margaret walks to the station with him, at night, he is recognized by a man, a drunkard, who falls from the platform after he shoves him aside. Hours afterward, the man dies, and Frederick is searched as the man who pushed him, while there is no direct cause established between the fall and the death. Questioned about her whereabouts, Margaret lies, because she does not want to compromise her brother’s safety before knowing he is out of the country. Unfortunately, Thornton happened to pass that night and saw Margaret and Frederick, his jealousy making him think them lovers. Thornton happens to be a magistrate in the inquest, and stops the investigation, underlining the lack of connection between the fall and the death. But he knows about Margaret’s lie and she is afraid of loosing his good opinion. After Frederick is safely back to Spain, she admits that she could have told the truth to the policeman who came to question her about her whereabouts. Why not then, not tell it to Thornton and dismiss his doubts, instead of torturing herself about what he is thinking of her? Pride? In my opinion, Gaskell simply needed to add further delay before admittance of love on both parts…

North and South might not be the most remarkable Victorian novel. As a “love story”, Pride and Prejudice is far better, with all the banter and extravagant characters, while North and South is practically devoid of humor, unless maybe through the Higgins character. As a social novel, it is much less potent than, for instance, Germinal, by Emile Zola. Maybe the more remarkable aspect of the story is, in my opinion, the character of Mrs. Thornton, a formidable woman, for whom the reader cannot help but feel a mixture of dislike and deep sympathy. Mrs. Thornton worships her son, and her love and admiration for him has no boundaries. She is as uncritical of him as she is ashamed of her daughter. In appearance however, she is more tender with her daughter (whose faults she is never blind to) than with her son, to whom she shows an apparent coldness. But her son knows what her feelings are, and the bond between the two is very strong. As a prospective mother-in-law however, Mrs. Thornton is a fierce dragon, ready to find faults with anyone approaching her son. At first she has very ambiguous feelings towards Margaret. She admires her strength but sees her as a “threat” to her son. When John Thornton answers, once queried about her, that she would probably not have him, she becomes furious, deeming her unworthy (as she would deem any woman who could “steal” her son). However, after Margaret throws herself in front of him to prevent him being hurt, Mrs. Thornton views her in another light, suddenly thinking her worthy, sure that her son is being loved as strongly as her own mother loves him. However, when Margaret refuses him, causing him despair, Mrs. Thornton starts hating her for the pain she causes her son. She opposes the love of a girl and the love of a mother: “Mother’s love is given by God, John. It holds fast ever and ever. A girl’s love is like a puff of smoke – it changes with every wind.” Mrs. Thornton’s attachment to her son is a fierce, unconditional love, and for this she attracts admiration. Before everything takes a turn for the best, in the end, she laments the fate of her son: “Here is my boy – good son, just man, tender heart – and he fails in all he sets his mind upon: he finds a woman to love, and she cares no more for his affections than if he had been any common man; he labours, and his labours comes to nought.” And later she adds: “God has seen fit to be very hard on you, very.” Mrs. Thornton is her son’s champion, in every situation. It is also remarkable that the closing line of the book is about her, when Margaret imagines Mrs. Thornton, hearing about she and her son finally together, she mentions “[his] mother indignant tone as she says: “That woman!”. It is anyone’s guess to imagine how the three of them will get on once Margaret and John get married… However, despite her haughtiness and meanness to Margaret, Mrs. Thornton is a much better woman than Mrs. Hale, whose selfishness causes Margaret to mother her instead of the opposite, and Frederick to risk his own life in order to grant her her last wish. One thing is sure: Mrs. Thornton, for all her flaws, would sooner have died without seeing her own beloved son rather than making him take any risk for her sake…

Finally, North and South is a very interesting novel. If the plot drags on a little and has some flaws, the characters (I have only focused on a couple of them here) are very interesting and complex, and deserve a close look, for anybody studying Gaskell’s work.

Rating: 4/5