Elizabeth Gaskell & 'North and South'

Elizabeth Gaskell had planned to call her novel ‘Margaret Hale’, but it was Dickens who persuaded her to give it North and South as a title. I think his was the better choice.

I just love this book. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is one of my favourite 19thC novels. Easy to read, packed with social detail and suggestions for reform, with a delightful heroine and a very sexy hero, there is just so much in it to enjoy.

I’d have loved to have Elizabeth Gaskell as a friend. She comes across as such a nice woman – the sort of person you want to sit with over coffee for a good chat about books, friends, children, running a house etc.

Her life was not always a happy one. You’ll have noticed that many deaths occur in North and South – hardly surprising when one considers the many deaths of family members experienced by Elizabeth Gaskell.

“Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used—not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless.”
― Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, young Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the North of England where she is confronted with the poverty and suffering of local mill workers.

Manchester, which Gaskell calls Milton in her novel, was in the heart of the cotton district, part of the ‘workshop of the north’. It was both the pride and shame of England – there was development and innovation, but there was also squalor and deprivation. Manchester was at the centre of new technology, and the city was growing at an incredible rate, but public housing and facilities had not kept up with the growth in population. At a time when the average life expectancy of an agricultural labourer was 38 years, for a Manchester worker it was about 17 or 18.

In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell makes social concerns the core of a love story that is still wonderfully readable more than 150 years after its publication.

I hope that you love reading it too, and that learning more about it helps you to appreciate its riches.

North and South is a ‘condition of England’ novel, exploring the rights of workers in a northern English city, but it is also a powerful love story between gorgeous John Thornton and strong Margaret Hale. Leave a comment.


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Featured image credit- Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, 2004 BBC TV miniseries adaptation, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0417349/
Body image credit- Patrick Stewart and Rosalind Shanks in North & South (1975), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0228651

Comments (4)

  1. Jennifer Gray

    Hi Susanah,

    I have finally read your highly recommended “North and South” but I found it very slow, especially in regard to the romantic interest. I’m much more of a “love at first sight” kind of girl so I found it terribly tedious to have to wait until the last page of the book to finally get the love interest in full swing. I felt no passion in their love affair, so I differ from you in this regard. The book was extremely interesting from an historic point of view, in regards to the work conditions in the cotton mills and the lives of the workers, and I look forward to viewing the BBC DVD which my children bought me for Christmas. I recently heard in the news that Manchester has now re-opened one of their cotton mills – how interesting! Let’s hope that the conditions are better than they were in Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s novel.


    Kind regards
    Jenny Gray

    • Susannah Fullerton

      How interesting about the cotton mill re-opening. I didn’t know that. I am sorry you did not fall in love with ‘North and South’. But do watch the TV version – it might help you change your mind. I think John Thornton is in love with Margaret for most of the novel, and she also responds deeply to him but will not admit it for almost the whole novel. How do you get on with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ if you want the ‘love at first sight’ aspect?

  2. Alexandra Young

    Hi Susannah,
    I loved the British production of North and South.
    I haven’t read the book but recently saw the “talking book” in my local library so will definitely get it out.
    have recently enjoyed rereading Poldark via the “talking books” wonderful.

    Alexandra Young

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t ‘North and South’ the most fabulous TV series. You can get a wonderful talking book version of it read by Juliet Stevenson.

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