With such a succinct title, one might fairly deduce this to be a tale of opposites attract. However, it would be unfair to judge it as simple, predictable or trite. Do not underestimate the complexity of polarity here present. Atop a broiling of social strife, politics and poverty is a love story that is heart-warming and heart-wrenching.
The story follows Margaret Hale, an innocent who basked in Southern comfort in her youth. She is treated to a tempering of morality by rougher Northern ways when she is uprooted from her home by her father and his faltering faith. Once in the North- a land crowned with a capitalist conscience (there’s an oxy-moron if ever there was one)- Margaret encounters a variety of Hogarthian creatures. Amongst them she finds a few friends and an alien prince.
Sound familiar? It is- with a punch of industrial politics- that tale as old as time: Beauty and the Beast. It was the romance that kept me turning the pages, a relationship forever fraught with injured pride. A Workers’ Union strike during The Industrial Revolution, the family drama and trauma- all powerful plot-points. But it was the love story that I most cherished upon completion of the novel. It is hard-won, fragile, full of nuance, articulated without overpowering.
‘He knew it was the first time their hands had met, though she was perfectly unconscious of the fact.’
It is certainly not love at first sight for Margaret, but for Thornton, it is all-consuming.
‘He saw her in every dress, in every mood, and did not know which became her best.’
And it is frustrating- ‘He said to himself, that he hated Margaret, but a wild, sharp sensation of love cleft his dull, thunderous feeling like lightning, even as he shaped the words expressive of hatred.’ Gaskell effectively takes pathetic fallacy to another level by casting weather within a character to show the turmoil.
There is humour in their dance too, as they both resist the attraction. Margaret discloses her ignorance: ‘He is my first olive: let me make a face while I swallow it.’ Thornton’s offended ego elicits some highly comical obstinacy. He is so easily ‘lashed into jealousy’, so self-deprecating, it’s sorely endearing.
Many will be reminded of Pride & Prejudice. There is a strikingly similar proposal scene. Still, Margaret and John are a unique pairing despite adherence to romantic trope (i.e. an ahead-of-her-time miss and a misunderstood knight). All the relationships in the novel question whether love is a ‘heavenly steadfastness in earthly monotony’, whether it is a luxury or prerequisite no matter situation.
The title might have particular resonance currently with the HS2 railway developments, potentially bridging the gap between the North and South of England (almost two separate nations in their own right). Within the novel the countering cultures are excellently evinced. In the North, the ‘violent and desperate crowd’ of protesting proletariats is not shown with pity but with admirable pith. It is Southern society that is more often mocked, those who are ‘killed with my finery’. Our heroine Margaret frequently withers in silence with the folly of the society she has been cultivated in; of the parody of pomp.
What will strike you straight away is Gaskell’s predominantly prosaic style, which took some getting used to. But the carry-on sentences do suit the advent of Stream of Consciousness. Gaskell does prove to be a fantastic pacer with this. She animates a scene, either breathing ease into it or flicking on tension, by varying syntax to excellent effect. Eventually.
Along the way is some truly poetic work:
‘[…] who envied the power of the wild bird, that can feed her young with her very heart’s blood.’
‘Nature felt no change, and was ever young.’
‘[…] the gathering shades of night, which harmonised well with her pensive thought.’
‘ […] all the thoughts and fancies and fears that had been frost-bound in his brain till now.‘
Gaskell’s craft with language is very impressive. She rounds her characters by developing a distinct speech for each one. The innocuous letters from Margaret’s snobbish cousin, Edith, are an example. Or, look to the accents Gaskell creates, which are sometimes off-putting and hard to interpret, as if the speaker is chewing a towel. Undeniably, however, they colour the characters for the reader’s imagination.
‘I’m not one who think truth can be shaped out in words, all neat and clean, as th’ men at th’ foundry cut out sheet-iron.’
The distinct idiolects work to distinguish not only characters but readers also. It is a clever trick of Gaskell’s to illuminate what we find foreign and why; our biases and discriminations. Outlooks on status, for example, differ now from the 19th century, which may induce some winces.
The narrative is led by Margaret Hale in the third person, whose fabulously independent spirit- ‘no one can please me but myself’- is at odds with her naivety- ‘I don’t analyse my feelings’. Margaret is at once a strong-minded and narrow-minded woman.
‘If I saved one blow, one cruel, angry action that might otherwise have been committed, I did a woman’s work.’
The novel as a whole is very seasonal in organisation. Once a climax calms, quite a spring-like air arrives, after a mean winter of death, deception and despair. All the while an acutely-tuned tension in the shape of Mr Thornton endures.
Mr Thornton’s character was the most fascinating for me, so rich with inner-conflict and opposing personas. A pragmatic, unsentimental master on one page, a devoted mummy’s boy the next.
‘ ‘Well, John?’
He knew what that little speech meant. But he had steeled himself. He longed to reply with a jest; the bitterness of his heart could have uttered one, but his mother deserved better of him. He came round behind her, so that she could not see his looks, and, bending back her gray, stony face, he kissed it, murmuring:
‘No one loves me, – no one cares for me, but you, mother.’ ’
His relationship with his mother is as fine and intricate as lace. Mrs Thornton is a most impressive character, of such zeal.
‘ ‘Don’t you find such close neighbourhood to the mill rather unpleasant at times?’
She drew herself up:
‘Never. I am not become so fine as to desire to forget the source of my son’s wealth and power […] I have heard noise that was called music far more deafening.’ ’
There is an entertaining theme of gentlemanliness weaved throughout, common in love literature of this era. The various dialogues of a man’s worth in Emma by Jane Austen provide a good compare. I’ll leave you a taster of this theme in lieu of a conclusion.
‘A man is to me a higher and a completer being than a gentleman.’
‘What do you mean? We must understand the words differently.’
‘I take it that ‘gentleman’ is a term that only describes a person in his relation to others; but when we speak of him as ‘a man,’ we consider him not merely with regard to his fellow-men, but in relation to himself,–to life–to time–to eternity. […] I am rather weary of this word “gentlemanly,” which seems to me to be often inappropriately used, and often, too, with such exaggerated distortion of meaning, while the full simplicity of the noun ‘man’ and the adjective ‘manly’ are unacknowledged–that I am induced to class it with the cant of the day.’