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 metaphor of the two nations. He saw Britain divided sharply between rich and poor. His politics sought ways of reconstituting a single nation. Gaskell suggests the gap between the north and the south is equally wide, but avoids seeking a solution in politics. Instead, she points toward mutual understanding and intermingling through personal relationships. The marriage of the dynamic, self-made industrialist, Thornton, to Margaret, who stems from the rural home counties and fashionable London, symbolizes this. At the end of the novel, a circle leading back to London is completed to show how much Margaret has changed. She has embraced northern ways of openness and energy, and rejected the artificiality of the capital.
Part of this openness-artificiality dialectic is conveyed through the Victorian theme of what constitutes a gentleman. Thornton is stung by Margaret’s accusation at one point that he has not acted as a gentleman. Gaskell wished to redefine the concept of the gentleman in terms of inner qualities of sympathy. Industrialists must move away from their own self-images as masters, self-images that are reinforced by the workers. Thornton manages to make the transition. In addition, ironically, Thornton fails financially through trying to do the right thing (invest in a new plant and improve conditions of work). Margaret’s wealth is unearned. Gaskell’s plot demonstrates that men need women, and that women can have and should have responsible financial power to invest in a better society. Women have a readier sympathy to face the suffering and plight of the workers and their families, and for them, this is part of the remaking of society. Men concentrate too much on profit and power alone.
Margaret Hale, however, is more than a symbol for Gaskell’s wider purposes. She is developed as a complex heroine, expanding traditional gender roles. She has to take over much of the financial...
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decision making from her father. She moves independently into the masculine Milton society, becoming involved in upper-class as well as working-class homes and in a strike. She is contrasted to the effete Edith and Fanny, and stands between the domineering Mrs. Thornton and the helpless Mrs. Hale as the ideal Victorian woman for Gaskell.
Gaskell’s style, however, does not allow for careful psychological portrayal. Her descriptions, dialogue, and narrative are realistic, but without show. They do not draw attention to themselves, and avoid not only the melodramatic but also the symbolic. She can embrace, realistically, a wide variety of speech and locale and can tackle the affairs of the day. An analysis of her style demonstrates real depth, careful arrangement of detail, and subtle insights into observed human behavior.
Gaskell refuses both high-flown rhetoric and agendas. Her beliefs, born out by her style, lie in quiet, low-key acts of reconciliation and sympathy that bring human beings together in creative relationships for the good of society as a whole.