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 skilfully fuses individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale creates one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature. (summary taken from http://www.goodreads.com)
Age when first read – 15
Importance – I fell in love with the BBC adaption of North and South (2004) first. I am a sucker for anything period drama related. I didn’t even realise it was a book until I saw the adaptation. In this instance, I found the adaptation so good that it lead me to the book and continued by love of the story. I remember thinking how awed I was of Margaret Hale, who had no problem standing up for what she felt was right, regardless of whether it was socially acceptable or not. That is not to say that her character isn’t flawed, for I think that Margaret does suffer from thinking that she is the only one who notices the problems and the only one with the right to change them. John Thornton had presented himself in the adaptation, as a strong male lead, a man who could change, a man who could love but a man who was still dangerous and in charge. I was already a little in love with his character from the adaptation and fell further in love with him while reading the book. His character is complex and not, I think, a run-of-the-mill male character from Victorian literature. The characters together are a force of power and change and I remember the smile and the frown that were worn in equal parts while reading this. I remember I had stepped out of my comfort zone to read this book but looking back I can only think of what a wondrous choice that was, for it opened me up to a world of new and old stories that I have since devoured and adored.
What I learnt – Even the most accused have the ability to change and that the world isn’t just black and white but that there are shades of grey all around. This book taught me that there was more than what was being seen on the surface and that just because you are seeing something at face value, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wealth of unknown knowledge behind the scenes making the decisions you see. I learnt that there was room to grow and that you should never put yourself into a box. I learnt more about the social hierarchy of the time and more on the class structure. It reminded me of how lucky I am to be living now, in this day and age, rather than in the time of the book. I don’t think I would have faired as well as Margaret Hale did.
Reading as an adult – I think reading as an adult gave me a more in-depth view of the social structure and social class and just how difficult it was to live in that time and place. Margaret was a terrific character but that type of determination and outspoken behaviour wasn’t common in that time period and it gave me a new respect for her knowing that she behaved the way she did knowing it was frowned upon and knowing it wouldn’t do her any favours. I like to think that there were many real people of that time who were a lot like Margaret and stood up for what they believed in regardless of how they were treated by those around them.
Overall Rating – 8.5. It is a story that I have loved for over ten years and one I think I will continue to love for many years to come. However, I wish I got to read more about John Thornton or indeed their lives after they settled together.