Books Read: North and South

This alas, is only the second in my TBR books challenge. But I’ve now read two of the longer books on my list, so that’s good, I guess? I just got more books from the library today, so I’m making more progress!

North & South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Title & Author:

North & South, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854-1855).

Summary & Thoughts:

The story primarily follows Margaret Hale, daughter of an ex-vicar who has left his profession, as she adjusts to life in a strange place in Milton, a cotton-mill town.

The family (a father, mother, and grown daughter) has difficulty learning the culture of the place in which they find themselves. As the title suggests (once you realize it’s a 19th century British novel, not an American Civil War novel), a large part of the book is the clash of the Southern sensibilities and slower pace the Hales bring with them when they relocate to Milton in the North; a bustling factory town with a harsher feel yet productive people.

North & South also includes a brooding, Darcy-esque mill owner, Mr. Thornton, who becomes a pupil of Mr. Hale’s, and an admirer of Margaret’s. The narration usually follows Margaret, but occasionally we get Mr. Thornton’s inner thoughts as well, usually when those thoughts are about Margaret.

While the romance is fairly central, there is also a great deal of discussion about factory economics, and the responsibilities of mill owners, who have a great deal of authority. It was more interesting than I anticipated reading the various opinions on the business side of the book. As well as talking to Mr. Thornton about his views on the responsibilities of mill owners, Margaret befriends Nicholas Higgins, a factory worker, and hears his side of the question as a member of the workers’ Union. There are many discussions of how to protect both the interests of the workers and how the owners/managers ought to act as authority figures who ought not abuse their position of power.

The book has a little of a Pride & Prejudice feel, with the brooding rich man and the outspoken, strong-willed heroine without a fortune.

Apparently Gaskell discusses industrialism and economics and politics more in some of her other works, but I thought this book struck a good balance. I’m not sure that I would have read a book on industrial Britain’s economics alone.

Gaskell doesn’t quite have Austen’s style, but the writing was engaging, and some passages are really beautifully well-written. If you like Jane Austen and want something in a similar vein, give Elizabeth Gaskell a try.

There’s also a BBC adaptation which is fairly faithful to the book. Of course, there are a few exceptions, like the last scene taking place in a train station instead of a drawing room. Because, drama? But overall I thought they did a good job of capturing the feel of the book and the main events.

It’s also a change to see Richard Armitage (aka Thorin from The Hobbit) at normal human height (he’s actually rather tall) and Brendon Coyle (aka Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey and Lark Rise to Candleford) play the same part (magical disappearing limp not included).


I liked North & South, and if you like Jane Austen, give Elizabeth Gaskell a try. Fewer balls; more discussions of industrial economics.

Also the BBC miniseries is worth a watch. You’ll probably see actors you know because there are only 30 actors in the UK.


★ ★ ★ ★