June 08, 2007

June's Book: North and South

....by Elizabeth Gaskell.

While Wynne is caught between houses and computers in her migration to Washington, Sharon and I are proposing a late choice for June: Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. Now that the world has run out of Jane Austen novels to dramatize and the Brontë sisters' stories have been done to death (well, the decent ones, anyway), we're on the prowl for more exceptional female authors.

The answer: Elizabeth Gaskell. A friend of Dickens, Carlyle, Worthsworth, and Charlotte Brontë, Gaskell was known for writing in an array of genres, including ghost stories, fairy tales, romance, and social commentary (especially women's roles and class struggles of the new Industrial Age).

A special bonus: there's a recent BBC movie version of North and South that you can watch after reading the book. I haven't seen it, but Sharon says it's wonderful.

Here's the synopsis from Amazon:

North and South is a novel about rebellion. Moving from the industrial riots of discontented millworkers through to the unsought passions of a middle-class woman, and from religious crises of conscience to the ethics of naval mutiny, it poses fundamental questions about the nature of social authority and obedience. Through the story of Margaret Hale, the middle-class southerner who moves to the northern industrial town of Milton, Gaskell skilfully explores issues of class and gender in the conflict between Margaret's ready sympathy with the workers and her growing attraction to the charismatic mill ownder, John Thornton.


wynne said...

WHAT??!! No comments? Does that mean that I still have time to read this book, even though it's now July?

Okay. Then I'll run out and go get it!

Marie said...

Yeah, I'm really enjoying it, but am proceeding at my normal slow pace. I'm halfway through, but it might take me to the end of the month to finish...what say we call this the book for June AND July?

wynne said...

Did you know that the Centralia Library is unable to procure me a copy of North and South? I cannot believe it. The library has actually let me down...*sniff*...I certainly hope this isn't foreshadowing things to come for me.

So, how was it?

Marie said...

I just felt lame being the only reader so I was dragging my feet leaving a comment. I finally did finish it the other day, and I really enjoyed it. I kept comparing it to Jane Eyre (since I know that the authors were friends) and overall I'd have to say that what I enjoyed was her exploration of her themes (master and servant, authority of church and government and employer, friction between different classes, and coping with inevitable change were the ones that stood out to me). I especially liked how in the end she had to acknowledge that even the South changed -- she had to acknowledge that the dichotomy of the progress-minded North vs. the traditional and sleepy South was a false one. That "traditional" non-industrial England was no more authentic by virtue of never changing, as she had once thought -- it changed too, just as everything must. I liked that she came full circle and confronted that.

As for characters, I wasn't enraptured. I felt that the strength of Jane Eyre is its living, breathing characters, and the strength of North and South is its themes. There's simply not enough time to both explore all those themes in the broader society and have really three-dimensional characters. I think the most interesting character was John Thornton. Margaret made a lot of changes, but I confess that she sort of annoyed me. The author started out painting her as as sort of plain Jane character (next to her beautiful cousin Edith) and then made her into this great beauty later on. Also, I must be a pretty calloused sinner because her swooning fits and months of inner turmoil over lying to save her innocent brother from death -- I just didn't get it. And it got OLD. This probably says more about me than it does about the character :)

Speaking of characters, I loved Mr. Bell, and I wish he'd appeared much earlier in the book. Perhaps a little flippant about the important questions that the other characters are grappling with, but I was grateful for the irreverance and the comic relief.

I also thought it was interesting how Gaskell used the whole romantic turning-of-the-tables thing that Bronte had done in Jane Eyre. The man has to be somewhat emasculated and the woman has to be raised up and become his savior before they can come together as equals in every way. I don't know if Bronte was the first to do that, but I'm guessing that it's no accient they both used the device if they were close friends. I confess I like it. Not because I want to see men crushed and broken under my stiletto. I don't think I'd enjoy it in a romance set in 21st Century America. I guess it's just that back in the 19th Century, there was no other good way for the playing field to be equal enough to make for a really satisfying romantic conclusion where man and woman are truly interdependent financially, emotionally, spiritually, and every other -ally.

wynne said...

Sounds like I really need to read it. As soon as I can get my paws on a copy, that is.