Customer Reviews: North and South
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HALL OF FAMEon September 19, 2006
It'd been a long time (a decade or so) since I read this Elizabeth Gaskell classic before I watched the BBC adaptation on DVD and loved it. Rereading this novel was the best decision I could have made because I hadn't appreciated it then the way I did now. North and South captures the social divide and how the manufacturing and trading industries were revolutionizing in the 1850s. Margaret Hale, the daughter of a respectable clergyman, and her family move from the south of England to the industrialized northern town of Milton after her father leaves the church because of his conscience. Margaret is appalled with Milton and the vulgar, uncouth ways of tradesmen and merchants, whom she also sees as uncivilized and cruel. However, will she change her mind after she meets and gets to know the dashing Mr. John Thornton? There are many twists throughout the novel.

I was able to appreciate the romance and building of tension between Margaret and Mr. Thornton now, especially after having watched the BBC miniseries and the wonderful Richard Armitage playing Thornton. Right now, to me, there are four memorable classic literary heroes -- Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester and now Mr. Thornton. He is gentler and not as brooding here as he is portrayed in the miniseries, but he is as compelling as I had remembered him. The last few pages are my favorite, especially this line: "While she sought for this paper, her very heart-pulse was arrested by the tone in which Mr. Thornton spoke. His voice was hoarse, and trembling with tender passion, as he said: `Margaret.' " What a romantic line and I wish it had been added to the miniseries. The ending at the train station in the miniseries is wonderful (if a bit anachronistic), but it would have been even better if the aforementioned line had been incorporated into the scene. All in all, this is one of my favorite Victorian classics. Elizabeth Gaskell isn't quite as known or as celebrated as Dickens or the Brontes, people who had been big friends of hers, according to her biography, but she was a gifted writer in her own right and her talent shows in this wonderful gem which I will reread again in the not-so-distant future.
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on February 6, 2007
I read the book, like many other reviewers here, after I had watched the brilliant BBC miniseries starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe. I definitely agree with the comments of many reviewers here that you somehow seem to develop a finer appreciation of the nuances of both after doing that.

A lot of reviewers have covered the ground admirably on the story itself, so I won't go into too much detail on that. In addition to the fine development of plot and characters alike, what I found refreshing about the novel were:

a. Unlike a few other writers of her time, Elizabeth Gaskell focuses a lot more on the thought processes and feelings of the male characters in the novel. For example, you don't get to hear a lot of what Darcy or Edward Ferrars are thinking in Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility, except almost tangentially. In sharp contrast, Mrs. Gaskell gives quite a detailed peep into what John Thornton and Richard Hale are thinking, throughout the novel. As someone who is always interested in the differences in thought processes between the sexes, I found this to be refreshingly different from other novels of the time.

b. Being in business, it was quite a new experience to read about John Thornton's evolution first as a business owner and then as a "leader", to use that overused term of today. Mrs. Gaskell appears to have a remarkably sophisticated understanding of both management and labor issues. The examples that stand out in my mind - John Thornton's increasing interest in exploring a better construct for labor-management relations beyond the mere "cash nexus" (towards the end of the novel), and his practice of building what we would call a business case today, as he asks Nicholas Higgins to put some figures together for the new cafeteria.

c. A valuable peep into the mores of the time - for example, despite being fond of Bessy Higgins, Margaret recoils in horror at the thought of visiting her after Bessy's death, a point glossed over in the BBC mini-series, - it gives you a rare insight into things like death and burial customs of the time,.

I must agree with a few other reviewers that the last few chapters seem a little rushed, but from an overall perspective, it is hard to beat this novel for its pure wholesome enjoyment value - more serious and deep than a Pride and Prejudice, and still light enough for people like me who cannot take Thomas Hardy. A definite five stars!
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on February 4, 2004
I agree with a lot that is written in the previous reviews here. Yes, there is a very slow start to this novel. I wonder whether that's because it was first serialized by Dickens, and Mrs. Gaskell was paid by the word. And, yes, the ending is rather abrupt, especially preceded by the last few slow chapters. Maybe Dickens lost his patience.
In so many ways, though, this novel is a treasure. It's not easy to write a political novel with a strong love story and good characterizations. Gaskell takes on quite a bit and mostly succeeds in her task of describing the changes industrialization brought to England. She balances her sympathy for the workers in the factories with the dilemmas posed to the mill owners by new machinery, competition from abroad, and the threats of potential workers' strikes. She contrasts very effectively the excitement of this new way of life against the nostalgia for the agrarian past. These were new concepts in Victorian England, but they are not so foreign today that we cannot readily understand their significance.
She gives us a sympathetic and spirited heroine in Margaret Hale, who is wise beyond her years. Another colorful character is Nicholas Higgins. I found myself looking forward to his scenes because he provides the humor in an almost-humorless book. (It is funny at the end, though, and I would have liked to have seen more of this tone.)
Mr. Thornton is a character we can readily identify with--someone who triumphs over adversity and seeks to constantly better himself. Someone with high standards, yet none higher than he holds himself to. Margaret is his match in every way.
I did see many plot similarities with "Pride and Prejudice" in the love story. We have characters of different class backgrounds who are initially repelled but who come to appreciate each other and are kept apart by misunderstandings and circumstances. The proposal scenes are strikingly familiar, and the first proposal includes almost the same language (re gentlemanlike behavior) that Elizabeth speaks to Darcy. And we have a Lady Catherine DeBourgh character in Mrs. Thornton, who does her best to drive the lovers apart. But I can't fault Mrs. Gaskell for borrowing plotlines from the master. Although Gaskell is a strong writer, she does not quite have Jane Austen's gift for revealing the humanity in her characters with humor and affection. There is not much "fun" and no banter (until the very last lines of the book) in the North and South love story.
There are many plot contrivances and conveniences, too, which compel us to suspend disbelief. A few too many rapid deaths, a character's coincidental presence at a key scene, another character showing up in an unexpected place, and more. But these limitations serve to drive the story and allow us to focus on the strong moral characters of our central characters and our strong wish for their eventual reconciliation.
In the Penguin edition, it is also rather disturbing to find the plot given away in the footnotes. I read the footnotes religiously to orient myself, but I don't understand why they have to mention so many plot occurrences (especially big things like deaths and proposals) ahead of time. So, if you don't want to know how things go, read the footnotes (and preface) judiciously.
OK, I've written a lot of negatives and yet I give the book 4 stars. Despite its flaws, North and South takes on a lot and mainly succeeds. I love its ambition and its great heart. I love that I learned a lot about English history at that particular time. I love that it rewarded me for getting through those first 150 pages with a rich, compelling story. I love that Mrs. Gaskell held my interest to the end. As Victorian novels go, this is surprisingly modern and a worthwhile read.
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on March 15, 2011
First, let me say that this free edition of North and South is no longer riddled with errors. Yes, there are some places where sentences are cut off after Dr. and Mrs., but that isn't unusual. Any other awkwardness of reading comes only from the old fashioned spelling and punctuation common in a book of this era.

North and South is the interesting tale of Margaret Hale, torn from her idyllic home in the S. of England to live in the dirty, busy industrial N. It tells of John Thornton, and his admiration and love for Margaret, who at first considers him uncouth and ungentlemanly. She has no love for those in trade, and Thornton runs one of the mills that blackens Milton with smoke. In the same way, his Mother considers Margaret haughty and spoiled. During the two years Margaret comes of age there she befriends a laborer's family, gains a greater understanding of the quality of the people, and comes to learn much about herself.

North and South reminded me of Pride and Prejudice mixed with Jane Eyre -- an historical British romance, but not as light-hearted as Austin. It inclines to more sentimentality and idealism than Austin, but her hero is more likable than Bronte's Rochester. Gaskell impressed me by managing to show both sides of the industrial revolution; both the workers and Masters are presented fairly. And I came away with a sense of what life might have been like there.

I read this book after reading Gaskell's Cranford and watching the BBC version of this book. I heartily recommend both watching the series and reading this. They are quite close, though not identical. I did feel the miniseries was more successful, however. North and South suffers, to my mind, with Gaskell's flights of moralizing and occasional wordiness.
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on June 4, 2008
I love this novel, it's a wonderfully written and complex story, I just wish I had not bought this particular edition because there are a lot of obvious typos that distracted me from the story. Just a helpful note. :)
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on March 22, 2003
I fell in love with this marvellous novel and it's main protagonists, Margaret Hale & John Thornton, when I first read it some five years ago. I remember when I was reading the chapters describing the riot at Thornton's mill while on the way home from work on the train, I was so caught up with the story that I nearly missed my stop.
One of the things that particularly impresses me about "North and South" is that Elizabeth Gaskell actually concentrates as much, if not more, on the principal male character's (John Thornton's) sexual and romantic desires and inner life rather than on the main female character (Margaret Hale). This is somewhat unusual to find in a book by female writer of the Victorian era. I feel that it makes the character of John Thornton one of the most interesting and attractive in 19th century literature.
His passionate love and desire for Margaret border on the obsessive at times. However, Elizabeth Gaskell details his torturous struggles with his emotions in such a empathethic way that you feel immensely drawn to Thornton from the first time you meet him. The scenes where Margaret rebuffs his attempts at a marriage proposal and the aftermath where he dazedly goes off into the countryside to calm down are vividly written.
I thoroughly disagree with some of the other reviewer's comments below, especially the person on 17 March 2003 who cannot even get the author's name right. It makes you wonder if they have read the same book as I did. I have no respect for people who impose inappropriate and modern notions on a work from this era and give their opinions, with such a sneering tone, in a trite and dismissive critique.
I know that there are many "North and South" fans out there who, like me, can appreciate the novel for what it is, not what they think it should be.
It is simply a beautifully written, engaging and satisfying book.
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on March 12, 2010
This is just a warning about this specific edition, published by Wilder Publishing. I purchased this edition over others that were slightly more expensive but ended up regretting it. It is rife with spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. The errors were so egregious it didn't appear to have been proofread at all. I loved the novel, but the experience would have been vastly better had I chosen a book by a reputable publisher.
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on December 3, 1999
This is one of the best books I've ever read. It should be known that Elizabeth Gaskell was a protege of Charles Dickens. This book is a book written by a woman who was ahead of her times. The heroine is such a heroic and exciting character, while at the same time kind and benevolent. The plot is fast moving and exhilarating. I find this a treasure in English Literature...a must for the serious reader ...and especially women. Unfortunately Miss Gaskell died before she reached the level of fame she so deserved. This book was recommended to me by a professor of English Literary Philosophy at Univ. of So. Cal. What a find!
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on January 2, 2007
This is a must-read, particularly for anyone who has seen - and been captivated by - the BBC film version of Elizabeth Gaskell's very fine novel. Although the film is excellent and largely faithful to Gaskell's story, it cannot fully convey the depth of her characters. The author herself does this masterfully, painting rich word portraits of each figure through skillful use of dialogue and description. Another especially exquisite feature of this book is the way Gaskell weaves the relationship between Margaret Hale and John Thornton into the differences between cotton mill owners in the north of England and their workers. The author creates tension and passion in the coupling of Margaret and Thornton by immersing them in the conflict between labor and management, pitting Margaret's advocacy of the workers against Thornton's interests as a mill owner. In doing so, she offers valuable insights into the needs and concerns of both sides in this labor dispute in a way that speaks to present-day tensions between unions and companies. Gaskell does this by portraying Thornton as a mill owner who ultimately tries to balance his head for business with an expanding heart for his workers and Margaret as someone who comes to understand both sides in the conflict. Readers with a spiritual bent may appreciate, too, Gaskell's tasteful use of religious imagery and language, something the film barely touches on. This is especially apparent in the exchanges between Margaret and her dying friend, Bessy Higgins, who is obsessed with the biblical book of Revelation. Margaret, the daughter of a minister, relates beautifully to Bessy's concerns and Bible quotations, engaging and respecting her religious sensibilities, yet offering a sense of balance that is drawn from her own beliefs.
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on August 8, 2006
I was told by my sister that I just HAD to see the BBC miniseries "North and South" based on the book by Elizabeth Gaskell. I am here to repeat that advice but also to add that you don't want to stop there! As a big Jane Austen fan, I was surprised and ashamed to find that I had never heard of Elizabeth Gaskell. I really enjoyed her writing--the story behind "North and South" and the characters were excellent. I also learned so much about England during that time that I did not know.

I highly recommend the Norton Critical Edition of "North and South" as well. It provided helpful footnotes throughout the story and interesting letters and analysis following the conclusion of the novel. I also must again recommend the BBC was a fairly true adaptation, and the characters came to life! I really don't think you'll be disappointed either way--book or DVD!
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