North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
Until embarrassingly recently I really only knew Gaskell as Charlotte Brontë’s (not so objective) biographer. Fortunately I was tipped off to Gaskell’s brilliance by via her contribution (The Manchester Marriage) to the collaborative novella A House to Let. Her piece, which really stood out in that otherwise awkward work, was enough to pique my interest. I started with Wives and Daughters, but feared I’d made a huge mistake when I saw its size and learned it was unfinished on top of it all. But what I found was an author with a deftly satirical hand offering countless insights and oh-so subtle commentary into Victorian society, class, gender etc. I knew she and I were meant to be lifelong friends. (Also, turns out that I count the lack of a conclusive ending one of the strengths of Wives and Daughters)

I’m not going to bother with a plot synopsis – most people have likely either seen the miniseries or are capable of reading the dust jacket. As with Wives and Daughters what really stands out are the fully realized characters – flawed, infinitely human creatures. Margaret, like any great romantic heroine, is suitably intelligent, beautiful, proud and headstrong. She’s also a bit of a know-it-all and borderline neurotic with her people pleasing ways – particularly with regards to her mother and. Speaking of whom, Mr. and Mrs. Hale present a truly fascinating study in dysfunctional family bliss. And where to start with Mrs. Thornton??? What a formidable woman! I simply can’t do her justice. If not for all of this – it might read very much like any other predictable, but enjoyable, Victorian era novel. Also, as hard as it may be to believe, this really is one sexy novel.

She had a bracelet on one taper arm, which would fall down over her round wrist. Mr. Thornton watched the replacing of this troublesome ornament with far more attention than he listened to her father. It seemed as if it fascinated him to see her push it up impatiently until it tightened her soft flesh; and then to mark the loosening — the fall.

See?

I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention and give some credit to both Richard Armitage and Daniella Denby Ashe who did a remarkable job bringing these characters to life in the truly superb BBC film adaptation. Speaking of the film – it’s so good that I actually balked a little at reading the book. I wondered could there be anything left to glean from the novel? Oh yes indeed there is! The book adds a layer of understanding that enriches an already splendid story. And while I was initially disappointed that the literary Thornton wasn’t quite as ‘smoldering’ as his onscreen equivalent, ultimately I found his character more well-rounded and likable. It’s easier in the novel to see why Margaret would be initially repulsed by Thornton, but also how mutual respect and admiration could grow between the two. As nice as it is to gape at Armitage, I think his scowling would get old in real life.

All of the above considered, it’s still not the easiest novel for modern readers to approach. There are attitudes and sensibilities which are very difficult to accept. Some of it may seem trivial, dated, sentimental, obvious, and just so ‘not of our world’. And it’s all technically true I suppose, but any lover of Victorian literature is seriously negligent if they don’t at least give Gaskell a try. And my guess is that, like me, you may not be able to stop with just one!