Why not Both?
The Chartist Movement had grown rapidly and there were problems such as the Luddite Riots which subject appears in Bronte' s book Shirley. Her treatment of the strike and the manner in whcih her heroine saves her lover are simliar to that in North and South. But Bronte had somewhat similiar heroines for whom love was their prevailing passion, the characters in Gaskell's novels are varied and though they fall in love, it is not the driving force of the story.
Gaskell felt the unfairness of it all deeply and became a strong defender of the problems and sufferings of the Lancashire poor, spilling forth her feelings and compassion in her first novel, Mary Barton, published in 1848. This appeared at about the same time as Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and the two became firm friends. Both authors were amazed at the reaction to their books; the anger of Gaskell's circle of friends dismayed her and her attempts to remain incognito were easily flushed out as Milton was so obviously Manchester where she lived. Some chose to think she parodied them in her exposure of the middle class and wealthy mill owners. They felt she was being one sided in portraying only the misery of the poor as driven by circumstances and starvation and the 'gentlefolk', as tyrants who ignored their plight in the comfort of nice homes, laden tables, smart clothes on their backs and pleasurable pursuits. Nothing indicated the problems faced by the manufacturers, managers and mill masters who had the rise and fall of markets to consider and all the worries of keeping their businesses afloat in uncertain times. They had all the responsibility while the workers just had to work hard and accept the problems if things went wrong. Gaskell realised that the two sides simply did not communicate their problems to one another and in North and South, she redressed this by showing both sides of the question through the characters of Mr Thornton, the master of Marlborough mill, with Higgins, the intelligent and hard working Union man who strives to unite the workers in order to demand a fairer wage. The two men begin to listen one to the other and gain some middle ground of compromise and ways of working together instead of in enmity.
To quote Gaskell's own preface to the published edition ". . . the author found it impossible to develop the story in the manner originally intended and more especially was compelled to hurry on events with an improbable rapidity towards the close. . ." But she also admitted that the tale was obliged to conform to certain conditions required by a weekly publication.
The Book: Full of Contrasts
There is no doubt that this is a long book by modern standards but it never drags for me. The characters in Gaskell's stories come alive through the keeness of her observation, the style and language is colloquial for she was interested in the Lancashire dialect, but easy to read. There is drama but somehow more down to earth and less overwrought than Jane Eyre, a story which Gaskell found puzzling. Her life and nature were very different to that of Charlotte, happy as she was in her husband's love, her children and pleasant home life. Gaskellwas a born storyteller, loved by many friends and admirers, socially in demand for the ease and interest of her conversation. She loved to quote anecdotes, enjoyed gossip and stored up memories and ideas in many short stories which at first she wrote to amuse herself and escape from the demands of her busy life as a mother and minister's wife. Though there is plenty of drama in her stories, they never seem unreal or impossible.
North and South is a book where one feels Gaskell achieved a balance in her self and in her own mind. She was a Libran, sign of the scales and lover of fairness equality and reason. It's title and the chapter headings are all a contrast of opposites. The characters too are all in contrast to one another. We have Margaret Hale, a gentleman's daughter, reduced to lesser circumstances purely because her father feels it necessary to leave his calling as a Vicar. Mr Hale is thus an educated, thinking man with the luxury of a conscience, he has choices and the ability to survive despite a lowered income and expectations. In contrast to educated, gentrified Margaret with her southern manners and notions we have a straight talking northern lass, Bessie Higgins, the daughter of an intelligent man but whose only choice in his life is to work like a slave in the mills and keep his motherless children. Yet he too can be proud and refuse charity. Bessie is nineteen, the same age as Margaret, but already sick and dying of a terrible lung disease (pneumoconiosis - which can be contacted even now by those working in the textile industries). Margaret is struck by the contrast in their lives and attitudes. The two girls form a deep, loving friendship and understanding. In the book Bessie, constantly yearns for her death, believing fervently that she will be going to Heaven and a happier afterlife while her father is agnostic. Higgins is thus opposite to Mr Hale who tussles with his beliefs but does not lose his faith in God.
Then there are the contrasts of Mr Thornton's proud, strong, stately mother to the weak, complaining, dissatisfied mother of Margaret, his silly idle sister, Fanny, to the industrious and dutiful Margaret Hale. And, of course, the whole contrasting change from the beautiful fields, lanes, cottages, roses and fresh air of Helston, the southern home of the Hales, uprooted as they are to the dark, dirty, smoky, greyness of Milton. Thomas Hardy spoke of the feudal attitudes and agricultural problems, but this book addresses a different set of people, the rise of the modern industrial, manufacturing man, proud, unyielding, equally harsh in the treatment of his workers though he may himself have risen from their ranks as Thornton did.
There is also the contrast of the noise of the mills and the constant whirring of the machinery, the busy crowded streets of the city to the peace of the countryside which the Hales have left behind them. It is so beautifully done.
The book has often been compared to Austen's Pride and Prejudice and it does indeed contain similar themes such as Margaret's hostile, proud attitude and repressed dour character of Thornton. But he is a self made man, not from landed gentry as Darcy is and frankly, I prefer his character and the struggle he has had to undergo to rise in the world. He is allowed pride in his achievements where Darcy's are merely inherited. Margaret is a less cheerful and vivacious character than Elizabeth Bennett, her life much harder. But again, there is much to admire in her tenacity and strength in misfortune. The pride between the lovers is on both sides as well as the prejudice. Both novels have two proposals and in both the hero is rejected before his truth worth really impresses itself on our heroine. Both heroines have ineffectual mothers and somewhat absent fathers. Thornton's mother opposes the union as much as Darcy's aunt, Lady de Burgh. But whereas Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners, witty and charming, North and South is dramatic, passionate, intense and explores deeper themes of inequality and social injustices. It is a novel that isphysical, brutal in parts, the sexuality unusually clear for a Victorian novel, depicted through subtle moods, Margaret's physically saving of Thornton from the striking mob, scenes of anger, jealousy. Intriguingly there is also a constant reference to hands and handshakes or the refusal of touch (hands are mentioned 237 times!) and the touching scene when Thornton watches Margaret pouring out tea and is fascinated by a bracelet that falls down her soft, white arm as she moves and which is constantly pushed back again only to fall back once more.
TV Adaptation: Amazing scenic effects
Sinead Cusack as Mrs Thornton stayed in my mind perhaps more than any other actor. She conveyed pride and dignity, strength and devotion and her attitude towards Margaret isn't too surprising in the circumstances. She and her daughter, Fanny, see her as aloof and haughty, misunderstanding her southern attitudes. Richard Armitage as Thornton, the mill owner, was handsome, brooding, dark, a little Heathcliffe-ish. He is not so fierce and cruel in the book. But the scenes which depict him as harsh and unyielding to poor, weak, Boucher are far more likely to have been acted by such a man in truth. Plus, we have to recall the Mrs Gaskell upset her friends greatly in her first book Mary Barton where she showed the misery and plight of the downtrodden workers and attacked her own class by so doing. In N and S she was careful to show both sides of the question and tamed
Margaret Hale is well played by Daniela Denby Ashe though I felt she wasn't quite my image of the character - but that's personal. The actress conveyed her sadness, intelligence, inner strength and feeling beautifully. And Brendan Coyle as Higgins gives a magnificent portrayal of that kind, proud, strong man, one of the noblest characters in the book. We see all the characters in the novel change and grow from their Pride and Prejudice attitudes to become softened, more feeling, more open and inclusive of each other's views. This change of feeling has to be shown in four one hour shows. Thus it has to be condensed into visually striking scenes that can say a great deal more than whole passages in the book. I feel it was admirably done.