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Book Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Updated on September 8, 2021

A Romantic, Forgotten Tale of the Older Times of Conflict, Suffering & Endurance

Given the widest array of concepts used in Elizabeth Gaskell’s third, and perhaps finest novel, North and South; the best way to summarize the book is in one of the verses used by the author herself.

There's iron, they say, in all our blood,

And a grain or two perhaps is good;

But his, he makes me harshly feel,

Has got a little too much of steel.'


Initially published in 20-weekly episodes, in Charles Dickens’ family magazine “Household Words”, North and South (1854) is the most popular novel written by the English author, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

Originally to be named “Margret Hale” after the main protagonist, Mrs. Gaskell changed it to North and South at Mr. Dickens’ suggestion. And what a true name it turned out to be, as there are contrasts, merging and colliding everywhere in the book.

Mrs. Gaskell

The book revolves around the main character Margret Hale, the daughter of a clergyman from the southern England. She was uprooted from her quite country-living and made to move to a fictional industrial town by the name of Milton (Inspired by Manchester), where she meets the local, self-made textile manufacturer, John Thornton.

Appalled at the way of life in north and nostalgic of the life she left behind, Margret Hale muddles through new surroundings until she make new friends who belong to the workers set. Sympathetic to the worker’s cause and not a little misguided towards the conviction of the mill owners, Margret has trouble understanding the mindset of the resolute mill owners, the likes of Mr. Thornton. The battle of wills and self-rediscovery continues, until a terrible strike and heartbreaking familial conditions force Margret to closely scrutinize both sides of the picture.

BBC Mini Series Adaption Cover

Although a social novel, North and South has also been labelled a romance novel (perhaps to minimize damage done to an issue as serious as industrial revolution by a woman!). Nevertheless, in spite of having quite a powerful love story, this book is more about contrast between socioeconomic conditions than any other thing. You can see the antagonistic patterns throughout the book whether they be between geographical settings of novel, the relationships between masters and workers, the bonds of servants and landlords,

“Do you give your servants reasons for your expenditure, or your economy in the use of your own money? We, the owners of capital, have a right to choose what we will do with it”

, and sometimes, even between religion and atheism.

The genre of the book is perhaps most fascinating thing to recommend it. As it deals with several concern before fixing onto social realism. The characters of the book have a strong, well defined form which is so real that they are brought to life when you are reading them.

You can actually SEE the regal composure of Margret Hale:

“He almost said to himself that he did not like her, before their conversation ended; he tried so hard to compensate himself for the mortified feeling, that while he looked upon her with an admiration he could not repress, she looked at him with proud indifference, taking him, he thought, for what, in his irritation, he told himself - was a great fellow, with not a grace or a refinement about him.”

Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale

The unforgiving resoluteness of Mr. Thornton (who takes mama’s boy to a whole new level by the way):

"I believe that this suffering […] is but the natural punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure, at some former period of their lives"

Richard Armitage as John Thornton

The aloof dignity and absolute faith of Mrs. Thornton in her son’s capability:

“I am the mother that bore you, and your sorrow is my agony; and if you don't hate her, I do”


“Only you're right in saying she's too good an opinion of herself to think of you. The saucy jade! I should like to know where she'd find a better!”

The unquestioning loyalty of Dickson, the mid-life crises haunting Mr. & Mrs. Hale, the intense hope of salvation in Bessy Higgins and the fight in Nicholas Higgins.

Social and industrial problems is a theme that you can consistently find in Mrs. Gaskell works who relatively lived a modern women’s life, even in Victorian Age. She only took up writing, as a way to cope with the death of her son.

North and South, much like her other books, brought on harshest critique comments; who felt that Mrs. Gaskell, being a lady, should have avoided masculine subjects of industrialism and class conflict. Even after her death she was epitomized by critiques like Lord David Cecil, whose assessment declared that, she was "all woman" and "makes a creditable effort to overcome her natural deficiencies but all in vain".

A century later, this beautiful piece of literature is all but forgotten by history. It endures because of its class-consciousness and its interest in labor issues which perhaps are not relevant anymore. Now and then, people who are inspired by the BBC’s miniseries television adaptation by the same name, pick it up and realize what a gem it is. But if you are a classics’ fan, then this book should be a prize for you, as it had been for myself.

Would you read North & South based on this article?

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