North & South is another novel which I decided to read after really enjoying a television adaptation of it starring Richard Armitage and Daniella Denby-Ashe. You can probably tell by now that I have a bit of a thing for a good old period drama, and this one is a real cracker (and available on Netflix!) The book doesn’t disappoint either.
The story is set in the English Industrial Revolution era and centres around Margaret Hale, who is uprooted from her idyllic home in Helstone in the south of England to move with her family to Milton in the north of the country – a town at the very heart of the cotton manufacturing industry. She struggles to adapt to the northern customs, manners and way of life, believing herself and her way to be better, and this attitude inevitably leads to some difficulties with connecting with the local people. Throughout the book, Margaret is forced to evaluate her attitude and overcome her preconceptions to adapt to living in the north. A large number of the clashes in approach that occur in the course of the novel are between her and Mr Thornton, a dark, brooding mill owner who becomes a pupil of Margaret’s father, and the relationship between these two is the central plot line of the book.
This book is really similar to Pride & Prejudice, so if you liked that, then chances are that you’ll like this too – it’s a similar situation of a battle of wills between a brusque, arrogant gentleman, and an intelligent, often prejudiced female, who seem to hate each other for most of the book but eventually realise that they’ve actually been in love with each other all along. Apologies for any spoilers there, but given that this is classic romantic fiction, I don’t feel like that admission was particularly surprising!
I like the setting of the novel in the north – Gaskell gives great descriptions of industrial Yorkshire, and you can really sense the smoggy atmosphere of the town and the thick, choking air inside the mill on the factory floor. There’s a roughness about this novel which Pride & Prejudice doesn’t have, which I also enjoyed – Mr Thornton’s unbridled passion in situations of business and love is a nice change from some of the other traditional ‘stiff upper-lipped’ male love interests of this era. He’s kind of like a cross between Heathcliff and Mr Darcy – a great combination! He’s also a self-made man with a devotion to his family that’s admirable, and he’s got morals too – in short, he’s a real catch.
Margaret is a little bit haughty; sometimes I found it hard to wonder why she’s so alluring to Mr Thornton, but I think I put it down to her exotic southernness and the fact that she’s well educated and doesn’t suffer fools gladly – something different to all the other women he meets. Anyway, she mellows a bit throughout the book, which is good, and she’s gutsy, which I like in female lead so it’s not all bad. She also shows a soft side in her friendship with Bessie, which I think is quite important for demonstrating how her attitude changes from the start of the book.
The other theme of the book is that of the changing cotton industry, its future, working conditions, wages and well-being of the workers. Mr Thornton is billed as the revolutionary among his peers, but he faces several difficult decisions throughout the book over what direction to take his business – should he risk what he has built from scratch in return for possible gains, or maintain stability for his family and workers by working harder than before? There’s lots that feeds into these decisions and the choices he makes really demonstrate his strength of character. As you can tell, I’m a big Mr Thornton fan.
All in all, North & South is a great romantic fiction novel – for those who like Jane Austen or the Brontes, this is definitely one to add to the list!
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥