North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell, Juliet Stevenson hours and eighteen minutes of this felt like so much longer, somehow. And has led to a review-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-this that seems almost as long … And ranty. That might make up for some of the length. And that’s one of the reasons for my rating to be three stars instead of two – along with the fact that Juliet Stevenson’s performance elevated it all, say whatever else I will say, the book did stir up emotions. Though perhaps not the emotions Miss Gaskell might have intended.

One of the quirks of my memory is that, while I know I saw the miniseries based on this book years ago, and I seem to remember liking it, I remember almost nothing about it. I know both book and film garnered effusive praise in the online community I belonged to at the time, which is why I ended up watching it, and why I spent that Audible credit on Juliet Stevenson’s reading of the book. A current friend praises Ms. Stevenson to the skies – and she couldn’t be more right, the performance is superb. Past and present friends praised the book to the skies… and … I … don’t know.

I did some thinking about virgin goddesses, listening to this book. Depending on how you read her, Diana always was a bit of a bitchy prig; look at what happened to Medusa. Diana was a warrior, and there’s no questioning her scornful courage, but while her insistence on retaining her virginity was a perfectly laudable intent, her actions in defense of it were sometimes a bit over the top, by modern eyes at least. Look at what happened to Actaeon.

Which brings me to Margaret. Her pride and her prejudices make any given Jane Austen character look absolutely logical and open-minded. She lowers herself to visit the poor and mortally ill Bessy Higgins – when she remembers – purely because she is guilted and shamed into it, and then after a while her interest is caught despite herself. Her self-centeredness and reluctance to lower herself by entering the poor Higgins home is countered only by a bold – slightly marvelous – reminder from Bessy that, eh, she never thought Margaret would show up anyhow; resignedly, Margaret determines that she will not allow this lower class girl to be able to crow over her. Afterward, she forgets to go as often as possible, or finds excuses not to. In another arena: when her marriage proposal comes – poor mistaken fool that the man was – he was just lucky she didn’t have Diana’s powers or he would have suddenly been standing bewildered on four cloven hooves wondering why all those dogs were starting to drool. Her reactions to both men who dare – dare – to tell her their feelings are the same: outrage, scorn, offense. How could they ever dream of considering thinking of telling her they loved her? The cheek! The nerve! The effrontery!

For most of the book I was hoping and praying that Margaret would find herself a withered spinster at fifty, petting her cats and trying to convince herself that’s the way she wanted it.

After only a few chapters, I was beginning to worry. I don’t like these people – not just Margaret, almost all of them. My impression of Henry Lennox was very good – him I liked, and it seemed obvious to me that he loved Margaret. Her reaction? See above: contempt complete with a curled lip. I was revolted. She’s a Victorian innocent, and unsettled by her first candidate for the role of lover – I get that. But rather than behave graciously, as I thought she was meant to do as a Victorian innocent, she squashes him like a bug. A really nasty bug. But she hopes they can still be friends. I wanted to slap her.

Then comes the upheaval at home. After a few semi-blissful days back in her country home, her father – who has been acting oddly – drops a bomb on her (and only on her): he is at odds with his church, and although he loves his work, loves his parish, loves his people, he cannot continue to serve them. The reasons for this are not explained – I suppose it is assumed that the reader will understand. I don’t, and I never did have the chance to research the apparent schism. Without more information about what could cause such soul-searching, Hale comes off as a selfish, weak, pig-headed fool who injures the parish he supposedly loves by abruptly leaving it to someone else, and who injures his family by the manner in which he does so. His wife is a discontented self-centered annoyance, and he – apparently terrified at setting off a hellstorm – shirks the duty of telling her of his decision for weeks. I waited. I had a feeling I knew what was coming.

Hale has dragged his wife to a country parsonage where she is miserable, but he is happy and does good work. I’m not going to denigrate his reasons for not being able to continue – I don’t know enough about the situation, so while it looks like a very poor decision to me – he won’t be doing himself, his family, his cause, or his parishioners any good by up and leaving – it might be morally sound. Whatever the situation, he does everything in the most frustratingly, infuriatingly sheepishly underhanded manner. If he had said “I’m the man of the house, this is my decision, I have no choice within the scope of my conscience, I’m sorry if it inconveniences you but if you love me I hope you will support my decision” – that would have been manly. This … this is like a five year old who tells a fib about how that vase got broken, and then develops a fever from the guilt and scares the household half to death before finally tearfully confessing. He goes about writing letters and arranging his resignation and securing a replacement, all the while moping about the house taking up dramatic poses of despair without telling anyone why. By the time he finally pulls Margaret aside and spills it, it feels like one of those scenes of a drama queen drooping about with the back of her hand pressed to her forehead, sighing tremulous sighs, trying to force someone to ask her whatever’s wrong – and no one does, so she’s finally driven to just come out with it.

During the conversation with Margaret, he evades the subject of her mother until she finally corners him into revealing that … well… no, he hasn’t told her. He’s been making all these plans for weeks now and hasn’t told her. Was he waiting for her to rise to his bait and ask him? She’s at least as self-centered as he is, so there was never a chance of that; my impression of her is that if someone were to come to her bleeding from a head wound she would get upset about the stains on the carpet, and then faint and expect to be tended to first. Regardless, he hasn’t told her – and I waited. And finally, there it was: “If I tell you all, perhaps you could break it to her tomorrow?” And Margaret’s response? Should have been “Oh, no. Not a chance, mister. You should have told her – never mind me – ages ago, and you’re gonna suck it up and go tell her right this second. This is your mess – you deal with it.” But no.

The weakness of the man, and the passive strength of the girl – because she has no choice. She *can’t* say no, or he’ll – sadly – think less of her as a daughter – and, worse, she’ll suffer pangs of guilt for ages thinking of herself as a bad daughter. It’s ludicrous.

“They were at the lowest now; they could not be worse.” – Margaret, pondering on their situation after their move.

What a disgusting line. How dare she think so? I suppose there’s irony in the sentence, because things certainly will get worse for them, but to be surrounded by the poor, who are as likely to starve to death as not, and – far from realizing how well off they themselves are in comparison – to count the presence of those poor as part of why their own situation has degraded… Thoroughly ugly and distasteful.

I just did not like any of these people. JohnThornton is the closest – he seems open, honest, straightforward – but he has his prejudices and harshnesses. He is one of the only ones I can find any respect for – and even he goes completely unreasonable and hard-headed about his employees, insisting that an employer must be a dictator, and ignorance is the best state for a worker – i.e., a stupid worker is a docile worker. I simply do not find him likeable overall.

Mr. Hale is impossible. He has no backbone whatsoever – he makes Kleenex look strong and upstanding.

As the tale wore on, I began to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Hale, but she was still too vain and ridiculous to really warm up to, and every time I started to she waxed selfish and stupid again and I wanted to smother her with her own lace-lined pillows. ‘Why, I should not be ill—be dying—if he had not taken me away from Helstone, to this unhealthy, smoky, sunless place.’ What a hideous, lingeringly painful thing to say. Then there’s the whole state of affairs regarding Frederick, Margaret’s brother. He was part of a (perfectly righteous, of course) mutiny, and is now living far away under another name because of a very real danger that the authorities will catch up to him and hang him. But his mother wants to see him. Now. ‘I charge you, Margaret, as you yourself hope for comfort in your last illness, bring him to me that I may bless him. Only for five minutes, Margaret. There could be no danger in five minutes. Oh, Margaret, let me see him before I die!’ An hour later: ‘Oh, Margaret, I’m so afraid of his coming! If he should be recognised! If he should be taken! If he should be executed, after all these years that he has kept away and lived in safety! I keep falling asleep and dreaming that he is caught and being tried.’ Stupid cow. Half killing your husband with guilt isn’t bad enough, but now trying to get your son killed, then heaping guilt upon your daughter’s head for doing exactly what you told her to do. Stupid, selfish, disgusting cow. characters: Bessy Higgins I liked somewhat, but she’s a rather scary fanatic who threatens at one point to kill Margaret and has an unhealthy fixation on the Book of Revelation; her sister Mary is a cardboard cutout only serving to be clumsy and timid and make Bessy look better; their father might be a good man – he tries, with the strike – and I liked him in some scenes as well, but he can’t stay away from the bottle, and he’s hard. Martha is an auld harridan, Fanny is one to love to hate, Mrs. Thornton was possibly the most likeable and sympathetic, in an odd love-to-read-about-you-wouldn’t-want-to-know-you sort of way, and … I liked Henry Lennox, dammit.

How do I feel about Margaret? Let me put it this way. My maternal grandmother’s name was Margaret. It disgusts me that this creature shares her name. I kept wanting to like Margaret, and then her lip would curl again for some reason or other, or she’d forget about Bessie again, and I was back to wanting to slap her. She is a prig and a ludicrous snob, and not terribly bright, and can be outright vicious.

“She, who had hitherto felt that even the most refined remark on her personal appearance was an impertinence, had to endure undisguised admiration from these outspoken men.” “These outspoken men” weren’t wolf-whistling, or propositioning her, or commenting on her breasts, or anything I would expect to be called “impertinent”. No. They were, rather gallantly I thought, giving her genuine compliments. Someone, quickly, call the police.

“Margaret thought she had seen the face of one of them before, and returned him a proud look of offended dignity for his somewhat impertinent stare of undisguised admiration.” But see, if no one ever looked at her or found her attractive I expect she would be offended about that, too.

It’s odd, because I’d swear that at some point at least one character (undoubtedly female) dismisses Margaret’s looks as not beautiful but distinctive – yet she is constantly, and I do mean constantly, praised as just stunning. It did not take long for me to weary of all the compliments lavished on Margaret – not by her father or mother or her unlucky swains, but by the narrative voice. “Sweet” and “sunny” and “stately” and “elegant” … There was one lengthy description of her more than midway through – which I can’t find now – which raised both my eyebrows. It’s another place where I questioned whether Gaskell was injecting irony, but doesn’t seem to be… “She was so gentle and ladylike in her mode of reception that her visitor was somewhat daunted”. Wha – ? Since when is haughtiness and disdain and a quick temper part of the definition of “gentle” OR “ladylike”? It baffled me that this sort of thing: “her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve” – was presented as if to say “isn’t she wonderful??? Because – no. Cold may go hand in hand with serene, but it’s not a great pairing; if “haughty” is “lovely” then it’s not the kind of lovely that’s admirable. It’s just absurd. Her “sweet patience” and “sweet forbearance” and yet still “her regal composure”… She’s cold. She’s sweet. She’s sunny. She’s haughty. She’s patient and contemptuous and regal and – wait. She’s wonderful no matter what and everyone comes to love her – even Mrs. Thornton comes to respect her … the narrator adores her …

Margaret is a Mary Sue. goes a long ways toward explaining my loathing of her.

I feel a little stupid that I can’t tell if Elizabeth Gaskell means it or is being ironic or sarcastic when she speaks of Mr. Hale being a kindly and big-hearted gentleman, and when she describes Margaret as “sweet” despite all evidence to the contrary; one of the very last adjectives I would ever assign to Margaret is “sweet”. I can’t tell if the depiction of Margaret as largely inconsequential among her aunt’s circle yet so astoundingly snobbish in Milton is meant to be social commentary. I hope so. I do hope so.

But there doesn’t seem to be any of that. I don’t know if it’s having a 2012 perspective on a book published in 1855, but … bleh.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s skill as a writer is, for me, in this, wildly erratic. On one (virtual) page she will present me with a bit of business I can’t help but enjoy – and then a few minutes later I’ll be rolling my eyes again.

Speaking of eyes, this is a partial list of how Margaret’s eyes are described (thank you, Project Gutenberg):
– her large soft eyes
– the pure serenity of those eyes
– her large grave eyes
– her beautiful eyes
– yo’r clear steadfast eyes
– yo’r deep comforting eyes
– the large soft eyes that looked forth steadily at one object
– those beautiful eyes
– her deep, serious eyes
– Her grave sweet eyes

I’m sure there’s more. It was just hilarious after a while. I know: Victorian. Still.

Other problems I had with the writing, in terms of pacing and plot: There is immense buildup to Frederick’s coming, and then to his first meeting with his mother – and then it’s skipped over, and he’s gone in a minute. There is buildup to Bessy’s death – and we hear about it after the fact. Then it’s pretty much over, and Margaret certainly doesn’t go to the funeral.

In reading people’s reviews of books from other eras, I tend to become annoyed with complaints about what are now seen as completely wrong-headed mindsets. Prejudices, discrimination, particularly chauvinism, use of words which are now verboten – it’s baffled me in the past, because if a book is about another time period – much less written in another time period – the characters in it cannot be expected to embrace Equal Rights and Women’s Lib and so on.

Suddenly, though, with this book I’m feeling exactly what I’ve criticized others for expressing.

The casual racism – I put a quote in the updates somewhere – and rampant elitism were ugly and pervasive. Basically, anyone who was not exactly like or higher in rank than Margaret was worth only contempt until proven otherwise. The Irish, the poor, the country folk of Helstone and the city folk of Helstone, people in other walks of life who don’t try to better themselves and those who do – everyone. It was just awful that Margaret had to be subjected to living among these inferior beings.

However I feel about the book, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the narration. It was wonderful. Juliet Stevenson uses breath and silence and pause like no other narrator I’ve come across yet. It’s exquisite. And her characterizations were perfect. I can still hear the lines I’ve quoted above – especially Mrs. Hale moaning Margaret’s name – in Juliet Stevenson’s voice; I can’t imagine how much more I would have disliked these characters if I hadn’t been enjoying the reading so much. Oh – one thing I particularly enjoyed was that Mrs. Thornton’s voice was made deeper than John’s. I thought it was perfect. Accents were wonderful, tones were perfectly suited to the characters, I loved everything about the read. Ms. Stevenson officially became one of the narrators I will follow anywhere: I’ll listen to anything as long as it’s in her voice.

Even Elizabeth Gaskell.


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4 Responses to North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell, Juliet Stevenson

  1. Ummm, so this is not the same “North and South” that was a miniseries here in the US, with Patrick Swayze, about the Civil War?

    This explains a lot. I kept seeing fan videos on YouTube and was totally confused.

  2. stewartry says:

    LOL, no – this one was written a few years before our Civil War, and there was a BBC miniseries a few years back with Richard Armitage.

    In other news, I remember my cousin telling a story about being in a bookstore and overhearing someone asking a bookseller for the book the Swayze miniseries was based on – they missed the last episode and wanted to know who won.

  3. ::facepalm::

    Wow, they should go down south and ask this question. It’s my understanding that some people STILL have not forgiven us Northerners for that war.

  4. OK, I can come back to this now that I am currently reading it through the CraftLit Podcast. A few thoughts:

    1. Mr. Hale being at odds with his church had to do with a power struggle going on within the religion and, because, he didn’t see eye to eye with these new rules, he left the church.
    2. I think Mr. Hale was afraid to tell his wife about the upheaval because he was ashamed. He married above his class and I think there was some embarrassment about his decision to leave the church. I do agree with you that it was a bonehead thing to do to both Margaret and Mrs. Hale.
    3. I’ve learned over time to cut Margaret some slack. She was mostly raised in London by her aunt and is used to that lifestyle. Going from that to Milton had to have been quite the surprise. She also had to make all the arrangements once she got there because dear ol’ dad was really no help. I think she is just truly naive and sheltered in a lot of ways.
    4. I can’t stand Mrs. Thornton. While I understand that her husband gambled away all the money and then committed suicide, leaving poor John to be ‘the man of the house’, she really didn’t need to have such a strangle hold on her son. Cut the damn apron strings for the love of Mike!

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