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Greater Manchester - North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

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GREATER MANCHESTER
 
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
 
Synopsis:
Set in the mid-19th century, and written from the author's first-hand experience, North and South follows the story of the heroine's movement from the tranquil but moribund ways of southern England to the vital but turbulent north. Elizabeth Gaskell's skilful narrative uses an unusual love story to show how personal and public lives were woven together in a newly industrial society.
 
This is a tale of hard-won triumphs - of rational thought over prejudice and of humane care over blind deference to the market. Readers in the twenty-first century will find themselves absorbed as this Victorian novel traces the origins of problems and possibilities which are still challenging a hundred and fifty years later: the complex relationships, public and private, between men and women of different classes.
 
Other Greater Manchester books:
 
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell *****(*)

Margaret Hale, comfortably ensconced in her rural idyll of a vicarage, is abruptly uprooted along with the rest of ther family and transported to the dark and murky industrial landscape of Milton North (i.e. Manchester) when her father has a crisis of conscience and feels obliged to resign his living to become a private tutor. Here she meets factory owner and her father's pupil John Thornton, with a drastically different view of the world....

Elizabeth Gaskell has long been regarded as one of the second tier nineteenth century authors, good, but not quite in the same league as the likes of Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, the Brontes., Austen and a few others, and purely objectively one can see why: the plotting has some weaknesses, it's perhaps rather overloaded with social issues, there are some issues with balance (it has one of the most abrupt endings I've ever come across) and so I could go on, but objectivity is not what the reading experience is about. Subjectively, I absolutely loved it, hated putting it down, and really didn't want it to finish - all the hallmarks of a great!

 

For me, characters are the number one priority in a novel, and here they came absolutely to life, jumping out of the pages, full of contradictions, feelings and opinions. Margaret herself may be somewhat put upon at times, and be all too ready to conform to family pressures and social mores. She is certainly prejudiced in her views on people, at least initially, but she has the inner strength and moral stature of a true heroine, and she learns and changes. Others I found equally vividly drawn, not least Mrs Thornton - a truly formidable grande dame!  These are people who, aren't all good or all bad, but like all of us have strengths and weaknesses, aspects which we like and dislike. Real people in other words.

I also loved the plot and the way it wove its way from one misunderstanding to another, minor issues assuming great importance in the eyes and minds of the protagonists, even when genuinely 'big' issues needed tackling. That's life after all! Critics may comment on structural weaknesses and infelicities, but life itself is not perfectly structured, and what for me gave this book its strength was how real it felt.

What also surprised me was the language: Gaskell's writing, although as substantial as any of the serialised Victorian writers filling paid-for space, had a suprisingly modern feel to it, something that she shares with only one other nineteenth century writer I've read, Jane Austen. But then, the whole novel had a real taste of Pride and Prejudice about it,albeit with a grittiness that would never have been allowed to intrude!

This was my third Gaskell novel and whilst Cranford is perhaps her widest known, and maybe even most loved, especially given the recent TV series, this for me is by far and away the best to date, standing comfortably alongside the other nineteenth century Premiership players. Time will tell whether it achieves the full 6/6 rating.

Edited by willoyd

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I've almost finished  this and I'm really enjoying it, I agree it does get a bit "issue" heavy at times but it's certainly still very topical (eg the issue of "foreign" workers being brought in) and overall she handles the issues well.

 

It does remind me of a grittier version of "Pride and Prejudice", although I think Margaret has led a bit more of a sheltered life than the Bennett girls, who all jostled for space within their family, whereas Margaret is an only child who hadn't seen much, if anything, of the outside world until they leave for the North.  She's so put upon at times that I felt really sorry for her, and her father in particular seems a bit thick-skinned towards how she was feeling, although he was kind and was also suffering in his own way, but occasionally I wanted to shout at his attitude towards her, but I suppose those were the conventions of the time. 

 

For a classic I've actually found it surprisingly easy to read, occasionally a little bit wordy but overall I've found it quite fast-paced, with all the misunderstandings common to the course of true love not running smoothly!

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Copied from my book log:

 

This took me a while to get into. It's a decent sized tome and I found it hard to find any sympathy for the characters at the beginning. 

 

Margaret's mother comes across as a demanding wet fish in the opening stages, so upset with her lot at only marrying a poor clergyman while her sister married into (unhappy) riches in London. Then they up sticks to Milton (Manchester) and are terribly snobbish about the place. Given I was born and brought up in the modern day north, and indeed Manchester, I did rather take it as a personal affront! But they do make it easy, the terrible industrial north, making money, having mouths to feed. How very dare they. 

 

So Margaret did annoy me from the off as well. 

 

But, getting past that and this is a wonderful book. As well as an involved plot and a varied cast of characters - Gaskell weaves in the theme of Victorian social justice. Of factory strikes, of people dying of hunger, and of contrasting views between herself and John Thornton, factory owner. 

 

The ending is so abrupt I wondered if I had managed to miss a chapter, and there are a few holes in the plotting but no matter, this holds together very well. And the characters jump out of the page. Margaret is snobbish and prejudiced but she does go on a learning curve and it is a delight to go along with her - and for the time, she is a strong female heroine. 

 

Mrs Thornton was my favourite character, the formidable mother figure, and while there were a couple of vapid simpering idiots (Edith, the Aunt and Fanny), the rest of the cast is delightfully varied. 

 

I deducted a mark because I did find it slow to start, but once I persevered I thoroughly enjoyed this. Another (!) win for the English Counties Challenge. 

 

4.5/5 (I really, really enjoyed it)

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Yes I found her mother a bit of a drip as well, but I also liked Mrs Thornton, she and her son were close but he wasn't a mummy's boy, and he was a self-made man as well, starting off working in a shop.  They had a great relationship.  I also thought the ending was a bit rushed, but it's become one of my favourite classics.  Glad you enjoyed it too.

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I loved this book!  I got completely caught up in Margaret’s story and I love how it moved from the city, to the country to the industrial north of the country, and all of them were very distinctive places and societies.  Gaskell has definitely set out to look at the difference between the social classes, but not just in terms of what they have, but in terms of their values and there is as much emphasis on the working classes as there is on the mill owners, the middle class Hale’s, and their wealthier upper middle class relations.  This is quite unusual to find in the novels of this period, and I found it a breath of fresh air.

 

The characters are wonderful, and I mean all of them.  They all felt like real people I could have met and known had I lived back then.  No-one is perfect, everyone has their flaws, but all have their own distinct personalities and you really feel like you get to know them.  There are strong men and weak women, but also weak men and strong women, but none of them is just that, they are complex and interesting people.

 

There is a very realistic description of the conditions that mill workers had to live in, and Gaskell’s social commentary really brought this to life.  The devastating impact of the living and working conditions on life expectancy but also Gaskell looks at mill workers and the effect of the union in this story is fascinating to read.

 

Margaret’s journey through the book is wonderful.  She grows up and matures as a woman, and I loved following her life.  There are some devastating moments and it’s very dramatic at times, but there are also quieter moments, times of reflection, impulsive decisions, regrets and mistakes, and I thought it made for and fascinating and absorbing read.

 

One thing I might be in a minority on is the ending.  It's very sudden, but I thought that worked brilliantly with the novel.  There is so much that has happened throughout the story, that I found the unsentimental and almost work-a-day feel to the conclusion of this chapter of Margaret's life was perfect.  Loved it.

 

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book, and I think it’s one I will return to.  I will definitely be reading more of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work.

 

(I should say, I listened to this audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson)

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(I should say, I listened to this audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson)

 

Whilst audiobooks are, for me, always a bit of substitute for the 'real' thing (although some readers can bring a book out of itself in a way that makes it so worthwhile listening to them), I love Juliet Stevenson's narration:. She reads the Jane Austen books superbly, so I can imagine her wih Elizabeth Gaskell, a brilliant combination.  So much so, I may well get it, as I seem to enjoy some of these audiobooks even more if I've already read the book.

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I have to like the narrator to be able to get the most out of an audiobook.  I'll listen to a sample and if I don't like the voice of the person reading or if it doesn't sound like the voice suits the book, then I won't buy it.  I'm very fussy, and I tend to prefer female narrators.  I've given up on audiobooks before where when I've come to listen to more than the sample, I haven't enjoyed the way the narrator is reading the story.

I do tend to mostly listen to audio version of books I've already read, however, this year, I've listened to a few of the English Counties books that I'd never read before.  I find the best way to approach it for me, is to listen to the first few chapters while not doing anything else so that I can really concentrate of listening to the story.  Once I've got into it and have all the main characters clear in my head, then I can listen while doing other things like driving in the car or sewing or baking, for example, and still keep my mind on the story.  Sometimes, I find I need to go back and listen to a chapter again if I haven't really taken it all in, but then I do this while I'm reading as well, so I don't think I'm losing out on anything this way.

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 I'm very fussy, and I tend to prefer female narrators.

Me too, on both fronts!

Edited by willoyd

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Copied from my blog:

 

I am struggling to get any coherent thoughts down about this book – I really can’t think what to write to do the book justice – not helped by the fact that I read this back in April and am so behind with my reviews, but here goes!

Margaret Hale has been living in London for some 10 years with her cousin, but when her cousin gets married she moves back to the New Forest where her father - who is a vicar - and her mother live. Margaret enjoys spending time with the locals and even receives a proposal from her cousin’s brother-in-law, Captain Lennox, but she turns this down. Life is pretty idyllic until her father has a crisis of faith and the family suddenly find themselves heading North where her father intends to earn money by becoming a private tutor. Margaret’s mother, who is something of a snob objects but has no choice to accept the move seeing as they lose their house which came with the living.

To begin with, Margaret does not like living in Milton, but eventually she settles in and takes an interest in a young girl called Bessy who is the daughter of a man called Nicholas Higgins – a Workers’ Union representative at a factory owned by a man called John Thornton. Bessy has consumption as a result of working in the cotton industry and inhaling the dust. She knows she is likely to die, but suffers her illness with strength and dignity – qualities which Margaret admires. Thornton is one of Mr Hale’s first pupils and Margaret initially clashes with him because they very much disagree on social and economic matters. Margaret thinks she is better than him because he comes from a working-class background, despite him now being an important mill-owner, but she soon thaws and starts to enjoy his company. However, Thornton’s mother takes a dislike to Margaret and thinks that it is Margaret who isn’t good enough for her son!

These are just a few of the rather large cast of characters that appear in this book and I loved the way they were portrayed in the book. Not everyone is likeable (particularly Margaret’s mother) but they are all important to the storyline and they are all so very well drawn. Society and class play a huge part in this book. Margaret looks down on Thornton even though he is quite wealthy because he came from humble beginnings. In a complete contrast, Margaret is now quite poor although she is well educated. The pair of them clash over such issues as workers’ rights but eventually John’s attitude to his workers improves and Margaret becomes less uppity. It is very obvious that they are destined to be together, but there are, of course, many ups and downs along the way. I really loved the ending of the book – it made me smile.

I listened to this on audio book and it was so brilliantly narrated by Juliet Stevenson – she simply made the book come alive. I doubt I’d have read this if it wasn’t for the challenge but I’m so glad I did – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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I can imagine Juliet Stevenson being a brilliant narrator.

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Having read this at the start of the year, I was struck by a shift in perception, unless I misunderstood it. The notion of the "Southern Softy" (that's me, now that I live in the North!) seemed to be totally reversed.

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