MAY / JUNE 2011: BY HANNAH KINGSLEY
I love reading classics, and one of my favorite classic authors is Jane Austen. In her writing, I believed I had found literary perfection: witty dialogue between characters, descriptive settings and simple yet deep plots are all present in her books. I have read almost the entirety of her “canon,” as I once heard it called, including her most popular works. I considered it a sort of literary heaven. Yet one day I stumbled on the saga of North and South and my world shifted, so to speak.
I first came across the story in the form of the BBC miniseries. It is well-cast and features beautiful cinematography and gorgeous costumes as well as a moving soundtrack. It is set in Industrial England in, as the name suggests, the north and south regions. The story follows the levels of societal conflict and issues of work and class in England at the time, yet also details what could arguably be called one of the greatest fictional love stories ever told. It didn’t take long for me to become captivated by it. Shortly after viewing the series on Netflix I purchased a copy of the DVD and almost immediately after I bought the book. After many hours spent on benches in quiet nooks on my college campus, I completed reading it and continue to be amazed by the depth of the quality of storytelling to be found in it. In the following, I will try to steer clear of being overly-specific about the plot, as I think the story is one that ought to be experienced (whether in book or film) with its wonderful sense of mystery intact.
I never thought Jane Austen would be challenged in my mind as one of the greatest writers of classical literature, yet Elizabeth Cleighorn Gaskell, the author of North and South, has perhaps more claim to the title. Jane Austen has said to have been critical of her own experience as an authoress, saying she had little claim to be an author because of her lack of life experience. Gaskell, on the other hand, became married at one point in her life, and had a larger scope of life experience. For example, one thing I found interesting about the book is the story allows for the revealing of both the male and female perspectives at different times when it is appropriate. This is something I have never found, or at least not to the same degree, in Austen’s work. It brings a new dimension to the typical nineteenth century novel and gives the reader a greater glimpse into what life was like for people during that time. One instance of this is that we are shown the lifestyles of mill workers and the desperate, and learn how strikes affected the owners of cotton mills and their employees alike.
Gaskell’s broader life experience may be the very factor that allows her book to explore a broad social territory, from the very poor to the prideful aristocrats. Gaskell causes the reader to be transported into a world of fast-paced and slower struggles, in which everyone is striving for some cause or other. Often these take the form of employees pitted against masters or new lines of thought measured against tradition. We get a sense of everyone’s shared humanity and the links between people. Unlike Austen, Gaskell seems to have a more serious pen versus a witty one. In both her book and the BBC production, her overarching seriousness can be appreciated almost more than Austen’s humorous tongue-in-cheek writing style because of the depth it brings to her storytelling.
Beyond the seriousness and the eye on social structure included in the story, the depth of character to be found in North and South is unusual. I have read many books written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and most of them tend to leave you assuming the characters in the novels have at least a nominal Christian faith and attend church, even including moral themes, however, this novel sets a new standard for blatant inclusion of Christianity. This is not as clear in the series, though it is still present somewhat. In the book, Gaskell goes into detail about prayer, faith, the difficulties and differences of opinion early clergy members faced, and a heavy sense of awareness of one’s wrongdoings; pleasure in right is clear throughout the book. This is something that allows you to get to know the inner workings of each character much more than those of many other nineteenth century novels.
Gaskell’s characters are full of faults and follies, but also the desire to do right. Pride and prejudices are present just as in Austen’s work but with a new and perhaps more meaningful potency. Gaskell’s figures possess a kind of gentle strength and determination that somehow seems unusual. They can serve not only as inspiration for a reader’s imagination but might move your heart as well. They may seem to issue you challenges to your integrity, just as a trusted friend, or offer you advice that considers integrity over circumstances. Or perhaps I am the only one who befriends nineteenth century fictional characters. ■