Great Britain is known for its complex class system, convoluted social etiquette and confounding variance of accent and culture. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South sums this up almost perfectly – though admittedly from a mid-nineteenth century perspective.
Certain things we believe to be true nowadays have indeed been so since the 1850s: living costs being astronomically high in the South, particularly London – when the family fortunes decrease, Margaret Hale and her family move into a Northern dwelling similar to their own Home Counties one, but costing a fraction of the price – Northern accents being rough and almost indiscernible – Nicholas Higgins, a working-class man from the fictional ‘Darkshire’, certainly has entirely different articulation to the cut-glass vowels of London’s Harley Street – and that generally, the South is Tory and the North is Labour. Gaskell delicately explores this with her description of labourers’ strikes and the battle between the trade unions, middle-class manufacturers and upper-class ladies and gentlemen.
Margaret Hale begins as an almost disconcertingly well-behaved and dutiful character, demonstrating the ideal virtues of an 1800s lady. Upon moving to Milton, a Northern manufacturing town known for its fog, factories and ‘heavy, smoky air’, more of her inner boldness is released. Margaret sees it fit to argue with the stormy Mr Thornton, a local mill-owner, visit the unsavoury homes of the neighbourhood paupers and generally speak her mind. She is very much the protagonist of the novel, but Gaskell focuses keenly on her social commentary of class and county in England too. Interestingly, Charles Dickens recommended that Gaskell choose North and South as the title of the book, rather than her original choice of ‘Margaret Hale’ (blandly similar to her earlier novel Mary Barton). This grounds the book as an exploration of culture as well as character.
The three Hales originate from the idyllic Southern rural setting of Hampshire: “the old south country-towns and hamlets sleeping in the warm light of the pure sun”. London is represented by Edith, Margaret’s cousin, and consists mostly of high society, endless dinner-parties and a purely hedonistic existence. Again, these initial descriptions in the novel reinforce the ‘South-good North-not-so-good’ stereotypes so ubiquitous abroad these days. But Margaret’s budding relationship with Mr Thornton and her comprehension of the delicate class system present in Milton sheds light on the myths of living ‘up North’; she develops a love for the rugged freedom of the place and its characterful inhabitants.
This battle between north and south is fought throughout the whole book, often between Mr Thornton and Margaret, whose relationship is impeded in the manner of the modern romcom – miscommunication, prejudice and stifled emotions. North and South is often labelled as a regional retelling of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but in reality it’s the regionality which makes this book so fresh and gives it a new perspective. As Margaret learns, both regions are equally beautiful in different ways, and complement each other the most when working in harmony.
As Tennyson wrote:
“… bright and fierce and fickle is the South,
And dark and true and tender is the North.”
Words by Annabelle Fuller