Book Reviews

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: My New Favorite Victorian Novel

After how much I enjoyed and loved Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, I thought I had found my favorite Victorian novel of all time. But after reading North and South, I’m not so sure anymore. Gaskell is a master at crafting multi-dimensional characters, portraying inner emotional turmoil, offering social criticism, and weaving beautiful love stories.

The novel begins with our main character, Margaret Hale, an 18-year-old girl from the South of England. She moves to the industrial town of Milton after her father gives up his position in the vicarage and becomes a tutor. One of his students (and his favorite) is Mr. John Thornton, a self-made, wealthy 30-year-old mill owner who had to cut short his education at sixteen due to his family’s financial difficulties.

Mr. Thornton is almost immediately attracted to Margaret’s independent spirit and beauty, but he and Margaret frequently clash over the town’s mill workers and unions. As the story unfolds, both characters begin to understand each other’s points of view, and love develops between them.

Margaret’s friendship with the Higgins family, especially with Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy, adds another layer of depth to the novel. Through them, Margaret is exposed to the harsh realities faced by mill workers, including poor working conditions and health issues. The Higginses become a bridge for Margaret to understand the plight of the working class, leading her to empathize more deeply with their struggles. The novel’s depiction of mill strikes and labor disputes highlights the tension between mill owners and workers, providing a nuanced critique of industrial society and class conflict.

The reason I enjoyed Wives and Daughters so much was because I related to Molly and her complicated feelings surrounding her single father, new stepmother, and stepsister. However, when it comes to the love story, plot, and social commentary, I must give the edge to North and South. This makes it my favorite Victorian novel and perhaps my favorite love story of all time.

What makes North and South my favorite love story is the journey the characters go through, from Mr. Thornton’s rushed proposal and Margaret’s hasty rejection to the long pages of regret and longing from both characters, culminating in Margaret’s proposal-of-sorts to Mr. Thornton. How often do we see a female main character take so much initiative in their love life?

Read my previous blog post of Wives and Daughters.

P.S.: I read this half on kindle and half on audiobook. I highly, highly recommend the audible version narrated by Juliet Stevenson.

P.S.: I loved the novel so much that I immediately binged the highly acclaimed 2004 BBC miniseries. I was definitely not disappointed. The actors were wonderful and perfectly casted, and it stayed true to the novel, even improving it somewhat.