Upon hearing that the next selection for our Victorian books blog was “North and South,” my husband assumed that it was about the Civil War. I explained that having been published between 1854-55, the Civil War hadn’t even taken place yet. But I imagine that’s a misconception a lot of people might have about this book, especially since John Jakes wrote a book in 1982 called “North and South” that was about the Civil War and was later turned into a popular miniseries.
The reason I start out talking about misconceptions is that Elizabeth Gaskell begins her book in a way that could easily lead the reader to misunderstand what the book is about. We meet our main character, Margaret Hale, living with her well-off aunt and cousin, helping with the preparations for her cousin Edith’s wedding. It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jane Austen novel — in fact, Aunt Shaw is reminiscent of Mrs. Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice,” with her imagined complaints and her skewed view of marriage and romance. (Be warned, this won’t be the last time you’ll hear me comparing “N&S” to “P&P” — despite the fact that we picked this book due to its similarities to “Shirley,” I keep finding myself thinking, “This is a lot like ‘P&P.’”)
However, the wedding takes place off stage, and Margaret is quickly whisked away to her parents’ home in Helstone (a place not to be confused with Caroline Helstone, with whom we spent so much time while reading “Shirley”). At Helstone, Margaret lives much more modestly than she did as companion to her cousin for so many years, but she seems not to care too much for the fashionable society she left behind and is happy to be home and reunited with her parents.
Things aren’t as blissful at home as she had imagined, though, since her father, a minister, is distracted and troubled by some unknown worry, and her mother is constantly complaining about Helstone and its “poor air.”
Margaret is hardly settled in before Mr. Henry Lennox, brother to her cousin Edith’s new husband, arrives for a visit and ultimately declares his love for Margaret and proposes marriage. Astounded by this, Margaret refuses him none too gently, and Mr. Lennox leaves, hurt, but unconvinced that Margaret is completely indifferent to him.
Here we have fodder for an entire novel — the contrast between life in London and life as the daughter of a country preacher; a suitor scorned, but who may yet convince his lady to reconsider. It’s “Sense and Sensibility” meets “Pride and Prejudice.” But we’re only on chapter IV, and Gaskell hasn’t even sprung the true plot of the book on us yet! See what I mean about misconceptions?
The true plot of the book begins while Margaret is still reeling from Mr. Lennox’s unexpected proposal. (Unexpected to Margaret only, I have to say. I knew as soon as Mr. Lennox appeared in chapter I that he was in love with Margaret.) Margaret’s father, Mr. Hale, confesses to her that he has been having doubts, so he can no longer be a minister and the family will be leaving Helstone in two weeks’ time for the factory town of Milton-Northern, where Mr. Hale would work as a tutor.
I was so perplexed by Mr. Hale’s vague description of his reasons for leaving the ministry that I did something I almost never do when reading Victorian literature: I read the introduction. Rather, I skimmed it to find an explanation for Mr. Hale’s behavior.
I usually don’t read introductions because they’re full of spoilers. Yes, I realize that “N&S” was written a century and a half ago, but the first time I read a book, I do want to be surprised as I go along, and the intros to classic books tend to give everything away. But this time, I needed more information. Alas, my introduction was at first less than helpful: “It is not important to know exactly what Mr. Hale’s doubts were …” But it explained that Mr. Hale considered himself aligned with the Dissenters of the 17th and 18th centuries, and that his beliefs seemed to lean toward Unitarianism, not Anglicanism, which was why he could no longer be a minister in the Church of England.
Once Mr. Hale has dropped his bombshell on Margaret, he asks something of her that I consider cowardly and inexcusable: he wants Margaret to tell Mrs. Hale that they’re leaving Helstone. He has come to the decision to uproot his family without consulting them. He is moving them to a less desirable place where they will live in reduced circumstances, and he has the nerve to ask his daughter to be the one to break the news to his wife.
I have to say, at this point in the book, I don’t have a very high opinion of any of the characters. Mr. Hale is spineless. Mrs. Hale is whiny, as is Aunt Shaw. Edith is spoiled. And Margaret is too perfect and innocent. I liked Henry Lennox, but he’s gone to lick his wounds after Margaret’s refusal.
But despite Gaskell’s misdirection in the first chapters and my grievances with the characters, I’m really enjoying “N&S.”
So what are your thoughts on the beginning of “N&S?” And have you settled on a critical perspective to view the book through? I can’t seem to get a handle on my usual feminist perspective — Margaret doesn’t strike me as a feminist heroine. I suppose a Marxist perspective would be the most logical choice. What do you think?
I’m looking forward to our discussions of this book!