Dear Mary Beth,
I'm so glad you've posted already! I finished North and South two nights ago and have been eager to discuss it. I was planning on posting as I read the book (and pacing myself!), but alas, that didn't happen. I ended up racing through the novel and neglecting other things pretty badly. Then, when I finally decided to post, I realized that Eric had taken the iPad on his out-of-town trip, and I had read it as an ebook on our nifty little tablet (I wasn't able to find it in print from either of my usual outlets--the bookstore or the library, oddly enough). Fortunately, I had the wisdom to take notes for the first 12 chapters before I let myself get lost in the book.
I'd like to add a bit to your discussion of the title. I read that Elizabeth Gaskell had originally titled the novel Margaret Hale, but the publisher suggested North and South as a more appropriate title. I couldn't agree more. Not only does the title refer to the two main charters--Margaret represents the ways of the South while Mr. Thornton represents the North--but it highlights how different two regions of one country can be. I honestly never thought about it myself before, that the South was more fixated on the aristocracy and inherited wealth, while the North favored earning a higher rank in society through hard work. It makes sense, and I'm glad I read this novel if only to learn that one little thing.
It took me a while to really get into North and South. By starting out with Edith's wedding, and with Edith being such a flake, I was wondering what kind of novel this would be. Then Henry Lennox's proposal! I was quite surprised to come across a proposal so early on, and I though Henry would become the "love interest," but then his character seemed to fade into the background, as did Edith.
You mentioned the similarity between North and South and Pride and Prejudice (even the titles have parallels!); I noticed that immediately as well. In fact, my first reaction upon finishing the novel was that North and South was a rip-off of Pride and Prejudice, but I think the former is too complex to make that a fair judgement. You mentioned finding Mrs. Shaw similar to Mrs. Bennett, which I honestly had not thought of. I had, however, immediately compared Mr. Hale to Mr. Bennett in that they're both weak and unable or unwilling to deal with their own responsibility (Mr. Bennett and Lydia, Mr. Hale and his decision to leave the Church). But I found another novel to compare North and South to, at least in some ways: The Mill on the Floss. To me, Mrs. Hale is a pre-existing version of Mrs. Tulliver. Both women married men who disappointed them later in life, and both women dishonored their families and themselves by failing to take responsibility for their decisions and make the best of their situations. Instead, both women make their daughters miserable, albeit Mrs. Tulliver moreso than Mrs. Hale.
Speaking of Mr. Hale's decision to leave the Church, I found that part incredibly confusing. Upon doing some minor research (Wikipedia, I admit it), I found out that Elizabeth Gaskell's husband did the same thing upon converting to a Unitarian. I felt much more comfortable with the novel upon learning that, and it added a bit of scandal to the Hales' situation as well. Mr. Hale's religious doubts weren't the only thing I found confusing, though. What is the deal with Frederick's mutiny and following exile? I became more comfortable with this aspect of the novel as well once it was explained, but I still find it an odd side-plot.
Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that this is a novel best read through a Marxist lens. I, too, often default to a feminist reading of just about everything, but there simply wasn't much to go on in North and South (although I got really sick of all Margaret's crying by the end of the novel, sheesh). Marxism, on the other hand, is all over the place. I don't know how anyone could read North and South without focusing on the labor, class, and social-status issues, and I think this is the aspect of the book that I enjoyed the most. In fact, I have always been fascinated by both gender and class issues, whether in literature, film, or modern-day life. I just find them so pervasive, and it is particularly so in North and South.
Well, I knew this was going to be a long post, but I really was hoping to do more than just respond to your points on the first four chapters. North and South seems to get more and more complex as I think about it, and I think it is an excellent choice for our blog, especially as a follow-up to Shirley. I've been meaning to read this novel for years now (ever since Dr. Gergits's Victorian lit class), and Netflix has been suggesting the 2004 BBC mini-series to me for about as long. I've resisted thus far, though sorely tempted, but am happy to say that having finished the novel, I'm finally off to start watching the mini-series. Let's hope we get further into the novel in laters posts than we did in the first round!