North and South belongs to a group of novels written in the mid-nineteenth century often called the Condition of England novels, or more generally, industrial novels. Society as a whole was trying to come to terms with the rapid industrialization and urbanization of Great Britain, the first country to experience such development. Elizabeth Gaskell belongs to a group of novelists committed to exposing the social conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and to suggesting ways to go forward and to oppose wrong values and policies. Other novelists of this group include Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, and Charles Kingsley.
Gaskell lived much of her life in Manchester, married to a Unitarian minister. She therefore experienced at first hand the living and working conditions of both rich and poor, workers and masters, and had seen the dire results of economic slumps and industrial disputes. She described these conditions in an earlier novel, Mary Barton (1848), which is very sympathetic to the working classes, especially her proletarian heroine, Mary. At times, however, it is melodramatic. In North and South, Gaskell takes a more balanced view and explores the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, allows a good deal more dialogue, and introduces intelligent outsiders (the Hales) who can be relatively impartial. The novel goes at a slower pace, therefore, but its credibility is strengthened, except for such incidents as those involving Frederick.
At a more general level, the novel may also be placed in the category of the provincial novel. This category includes novels that do not take London (or any capital city) as the cultural norm and that explore regional ways of life, speech, values and beliefs in a serious way. Gaskell is a provincial novelist through and through.
The title harkens back to Disraeli’s...
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