I haven’t read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South since I was a teenager, though it was a favourite then and I read my old copy almost to pieces. Actually, at that age, I liked it much more than Pride and Prejudice, to which it has often been compared. I wanted a break from the sober and serious books I was mostly reading over the summer. Not that North and South is frivolous by any means, but because I know the ins and outs of the story so well, I know when it’s going to get sad, and I can steel myself to get to the other side. For those who haven’t read it, it concerns Margaret Hale, an eighteen-year-old girl who has just moved back in with her parents after spending most of her adolescence with relatives in London. Mr Hale is the vicar for the idyllic village of Helstone in Hampshire – but not far into the novel, he takes issue with some aspects of the Anglican church’s creed, leaves the church, and moves his family north to the fictional industrial town of Milton-Northern in Darkshire (Manchester and Lancashire, respectively), where he takes poorly-paid work as a private tutor.

It’s difficult to summarise this novel, because (as always in these big Victorian doorstoppers), there’s just so much that happens in North and South. Margaret has to adapt to a very different culture and way of life, and for a long time she does not do so gracefully. She’s appalled by what she sees as the unique exploitation of working class men and women in the mills. Margaret, who hasn’t actually lived in Helstone for years, has an extremely idealised view of the experiences of poor families in the south, and thinks that they live much happier lives than the working men and women of Milton. This view brings her into conflict with Mr Thornton, owner of Marlborough Mill and one of her father’s new students – but also with some of the working men and women, who don’t much like her pity and don’t want her to play the genteel lady at them, thanks. The most interesting part of her arc over the course of the book, at least for me, comes in the way Margaret’s thinking on class, wealth, and work shifts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the antigonistic relationship between Margaret and Thornton changes and evolves over the book. When I was a teenager, it was this that drew me in, because, you know, I was a teenager. Although I didn’t see the miniseries in full until after I’d read it for the first time, I’d seen clips here and there, and with hindsight I suspect my adolescent love of Mr Thornton was Richard Armitage-inspired.

Richard Armitage

Rereading it as an adult, I still enjoyed the romance, but I was much more interested in Margaret’s growing friendship with factory worker and union activist Nicholas Higgins, and his daughter Bessy. Bessy is dying of bissynosis after working in a mill where the master refused to invest in simple safety measures to reduce the amount of cotton inhaled by his workers. She is the closest the novel gets to a stereotype – languishing on a sofa while talking ecstatically about how beautiful heaven is going to be – though even she has moments of being fully realised on the page. Bessy objects strongly to the strike Higgins and his fellows enact over a pay cut, feeling that it will bring everyone more trouble than it’s worth. She also fears that her father will take to drink, as some of the other men have done during strikes. Over the course of the novel, Bessy’s illness and Higgins’s strike act as representatives of the damage each group of people can do to one another. Because Margaret knows both Thornton and Higgins well, she sees the strike from both perspectives – understanding the masters’ rationale for having to cut pay, and the men’s experiences of what it means to have their pay cut.

I find it highly impressive that Gaskell was able to portray both the masters and the working men of the mill with empathy and nuance. In contrast to the central character in her novel Ruth, Gaskell resists the temptation to make Higgins Too Good, Too Pure. He loses his temper and sometimes shouts at the daughter whom he adores and gets frustrated with the men who find being on strike more difficult than he does. At one moment, the reader’s sympathy is all with the strikers; not even ten pages later, it’s with Thornton (though admittedly his colleagues never get a particularly positive look-in). That mirrors the way that Margaret’s mind changes, over and over, about the rights and wrongs of the situation, and from my understanding of the industrial revolution it also mirrors historical truth. There were appallingly exploitative people in charge of some mills and factories, who did not care tuppence for the health and welfare of their employees; there were also some who built schools and hospitals and high-quality housing. Thornton probably sits somewhere between the two at the start of the novel – he’s willing to shell out for safer equipment, and he definitely doesn’t believe that his employees are somehow inherently less human than he is, but he is also very clear that he’s running a business not a charity. Although it’s not the main focus of the book, Gaskell even takes a fairly sophisticated look at the paternalism sometimes entangled in charitable activities – a serious problem, especially in the Victorian era, and it’s a testament to her that she was able to be somewhat analytical about it in that context.

There’s always a risk in rereading an old favourite – especially a childhood favourite – after a long time has elapsed, but this time it was certainly worth the risk. I definitely experienced the book in a different way, but if anything I enjoyed it more. Because I haven’t read it in over a decade, I hadn’t twigged that Helstone is actually in the New Forest, just up the road from me. Having realised that, I sympathised much more with Margaret’s anguish at having to leave. The New Forest really is gorgeous, and, like Margaret, there are few ills that I can’t solve with a tramp through its autumn leaves. Leaving that behind for a big bustling industrial town up north probably would be a wrench. If I recall correctly, as a teenager, I always thought she lacked a sufficiently adventurous spirit and wasn’t approaching her new home with a very good attitude. That said, this time around, I felt much more indignant at her snobbery towards the dreadful “shoppy people” that live and work in that appalling metropolis of oiks, Southampton. I mean, excuse you, Margaret Hale. Margaret’s rudeness is of course the point, and I felt it much more acutely on rereading as an adult.

On the other hand, I don’t remember finding the dialect so intrusive in the past. In general, I prefer authors to convey dialect with word order, vocabulary choice etc, rather than phonetic spelling. Even when I read a character like Dickens’s Joe Gargery – a character who speaks very much like my own granddad did, written by a man who grew up in working-class Kent and knew the speech pattern inside out – I still find the language difficult to follow. There are exceptions: I’m partway through Jane Harris’ The Observations right now, and the Scots is done so well that I’m not struggling with it, even though I’m not very familiar with some of the words – just occasionally pausing to google something and listen to how it’s pronounced. I think it’s closer to what I prefer – it’s the rhythm, punctuation, and vocabulary of Bessy’s narrative that is different, rather than the spelling. In North and South, the strong Lancastrian (or specifically Mancunian?) accent with which Higgins and Bessy speak is rendered phonetically, and I can follow it, but it takes me out of the story. (It’s a different Bessy, of course. All novels written or set during the mid 19th century are required by law to contain a working class girl called Bessy). As I was reading, I couldn’t hear their speech clearly in my head, so my brain kept trying to supply different accents in an attempt to make it make sense.

Hoo’s so full of th’ life to come, hoo cannot think of th’ present. Now I, yo’ see, am bound to do the best I can here. I think a bird i’ th’ hand is worth two i’ th’ bush. So them’s the different views we take on th’ strike question.

This quote from Higgins isn’t the most difficult to follow example in the book, but the passages where it’s most intrusive all turn out to be laden with spoilers – which is perhaps part of my difficulty. Higgins’ accent in particular is strongest when he’s upset, which is very realistic, but that means that some of the most emotional moments in the book are undercut by me having to read the passage several times over in an attempt to parse it.

Overall, though, I absolutely loved this – even more than I had remembered. Margaret Hale is one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever read. I think she’s a masterclass in complexity, because – unlike Elizabeth Bennet, say, whose judgemental qualities tend to be smoothed over by the fact that she’s witty and clever – Margaret’s raw edges really are raw, and yet that never stops the reader from empathising with her. The same goes for Mr Hale. I remembered him as a rather weak man, whose inaction inflicts suffering on his family that he makes no real effort to redress. In many respects he is, but he is also quite the kindest man I’ve ever come across in any book. There’s probably an interesting essay in the fact that Mr Hale demonstrates qualities that tended to be written as feminine during the era – passivity, compassion, tender-heartedness. The only time he ever really does anything is when he refuses to reaffirm the creed because of conscience; he’s Fanny Price refusing to act in the play in Mansfield Park. Margaret, on the other hand, demonstrates behaviour that was often coded as masculine – she’s all independence and get-up-and-go and practicality. Really, all the characters (with the possible exception of Bessy) were much more nuanced and layered than I remembered them being. I can’t recommend North and South highly enough – whether you’ve read it lots of times, or never at all, it’s very much worth picking up.