Saturday, August 13, 2011

North & South

I have a thing for 19th century novels. I don't know when it started, I don't know how, and I really can't explain it, but I love them. All of them. I'm fascinated by the history, traditions and culture of the time that I can't get enough! Which is why I'm thankful that there are so many books from that era, and that I can never tire of them no matter how many times I've read them! So, to the point now. North & South. Not so very well known, unless you like 19th century novels, or watch the BBC period drama productions.

I knew of Elizabeth Gaskell, of Cranford fame, and was aware of her novels, but didn't really pay much attention to the others until a YouTube video of period dramas led me to look up Mr. Richard Armitage, North & South and then Mr. John Thornton. Good succession of things, I'd say. And so I watched the BBC adaptation of the book, fell head over heels in love with it right after the very first episode, printed out the eBook, and read it and then went back and watched the rest of the four part series. I've been in love ever since.

Written in 1854, this novel is drawn from Gaskell's own experiences of living in an industrial town in the northern regions of England, though Milton is a fictional town. It follows the life of Margaret Hale, daughter of country side parish, who moves to the north when her father renounces the church. She is thrown into a society very unlike the one she had experienced while in London. Her ideas of civilized people is questioned as she encounters mill owners and their workers. Their crudeness, and kindness.

I was drawn in by the soothing flow of the story. It takes you through time, makes you relate to and feel every situation and emotion that each character is described to have! And all of them have so much depth and soul, it's astonishing!
Mrs. Thornton, the strong, hard-hearted mother that she is, makes a formidable foe, as well as an interesting character to understand. Because she would do anything for her son, and that's what makes her behave the way she does.

Richard Armitage as John Thornton
Margaret's character does annoy me at times. Especially when she takes to a steadfast spite of everything Mr. Thornton does, inclusive of his honest marriage proposal - one that he declares with as much passion as appropriate to say aloud to a lady (his private thoughts just makes a girl tremble and wish he were real). But she has her own mind that makes her a good heroine. She, at the age of nineteen, is put through a lot - an uprooted family, adapting to very different culture, coming to terms with the attention of men, dealing with an ailing mother, an emotionally dependent father, a fugitive brother, a dying friend... the loss of society and people that she has most cared about, gossip, her own feelings... A lot of responsibilities no nineteen year old girl, or boy, has to face. This makes her a stronger woman and an attractive person to read.
Mr. Thornton. Ah. Love him, love him, love him!  A combination of him and Mr. Darcy (and a bit of Mr. Rochester, perhaps) would make me my perfect man, I suppose. I digress. Businessman that he is, he proves all through that he is simply just a man. He is a good master, tries to be a good brother to a somewhat foolish sister, and is a good son. And that makes him perfect, with all of the flaws that a gentleman can have - unconditional love and passion, poise and (northern) manners, and jealousy. Yes, jealousy. The fact that he wishes Margaret well even if it were with someone else, shows his character in good light because though he says he hates her, he knows he can never love anyone else.... ok, I got caught up in that bit.
Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale
The literature. It is a wonderful book, very well written and precise in its portrayal of the industrial north. Paints a perfect picture of how the times were, with the strikes/riots that plagued that industrial period. The lives of the workers are given due attention through Higgins' family mainly. Even the law is brought in here, a murder investigation - it plays an important role in the story, especially where the main characters are concerned.

There is the element of class difference - both economic and on levels of literacy. Northerners are prejudiced of those from the South in that they lead easier lives. While Margaret scorns at Mr. Thornton's lack of formal education.
It is quite starkly described, this divide, which eventually merges as Margaret's opinion slowly alters. She begins to appreciate the people and place more despite all the hardships it has caused her. She, in fact, learns of life here. Mr. Thornton's opinions also change - he remains a practical business man, choosing to protect his interests rather than speculate - though it doesn't do him good. His transformation is because of love that he never thought he would discover. It has all the makings of a well informed romance. *sigh*

Now. The writing. Very very important to me when I read a book. Elizabeth Gaskell's words are captivating enough for me. Not Jane Austen, definitely, but she is good. I like that she has given due importance to each of the characters in the book, the characters that matter, that is. The distinction in language - that of Margaret and her family, Mr. Thornton and his, and Higgins and his. And when I say that there are several parts of this book that simply make me swoon because of the way things are expressed, I mean it in as much a literal sense as I do in a romantic one.

Thornton's declaration of love for Margaret with the knowledge that she literally despises him is one such example -
" ... You look as if you thought it tainted you to be loved by me. You cannot avoid it. Nay, I, if I would, cannot cleanse you from it. But I would not, if I could. I have never loved any woman before... Now I love, and will love."
Mrs. Thornton's manner and lines are just as powerful. Here's one when she realizes that she's on the throes of losing her son to 'that woman'. (Sinéad Cusack is wonderful as the overbearing matron).
"... after to-night, I stand second. It was to have you to myself, all to myself a few hours longer..."
I would like to read Charlotte Brontë's Shirley because of the supposed similarities between the two novels. But something tells me, given my history of having liked only one of the Bronte sisters' creations (Mr. Rochester - somewhat reluctantly) from the three books of theirs that I've read, North & South will still have my vote and remain as one of my all time favorites.
I'd rank it third, right after the Lord of the Rings, which leaves Pride & Prejudice in its unaltered position of being the highest ranked for thirteen years.