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Book Report: North and South

Back a hundred years ago (well, two), when I found out about Elizabeth Gaskell through the recent television adaptations, Gentle Reader Chris Cobb suggested I read North and South, which takes place largely in a mill town in the industrialized North of England. Our main character is a young woman from the South, who comes up North with her parents when her father, a C of E parson, leaves the church (see Robert Ellsmere or for that matter Children of the Ghetto), and who falls in love with a mill owner.

OK, that last bit is a spoiler, I suppose, although, you know, not really difficult to guess, nor should it actually spoil the book, since you don’t really read this sort of book wondering who she is going to fall in love with, do you? And Ms. Gaskell handles the whole business of she-is-really-in-love-with-him-but-won’t-admit-it-to-herself very well indeed. And the corresponding business on the man’s side—I think she may be better at the man’s side than Jane Austen, although I admit that I like the surrounding bits of book better in Ms. Gaskell’s stuff than Ms. Austen’s, which makes a difference, too.

The surrounding stuff is really what the book is about, of course. The mill, and the workers, and the strike, and the low pay and the high cost, and the poverty and luxury and all of it. Ms. Gaskell is oddly ambivalent about the issues involved—or at least, it seems odd to me as a fan of Charles Dickens that Ms. Gaskell does put some persuasive talk into the mouths of mill owners about their own costs, and of course makes one of the owners a sympathetic and romantic character. There are other sympathetic characters among the mill-hands and radicals, and the crushing poverty of the hands is depicted in such detail as to make it clear that whatever the theoretical or indeed practical economic justification, the pay and conditions are simply not acceptable.

I am trying to imagine something written recently, with this sort of setting and plot, and it doesn’t work at all. A young woman of semi-genteel background finds herself in West Virginia, say, or Arkansas, and finds herself in friendship with both a union radical and a CEO, visiting both homes, sometimes in the same day, and finding herself disoriented and unsettled by her inability to despise either. The background plot of her father and his almost unstated religious crisis underscoring the fundamental changes taking place in the world. The ways in which she finds herself a foreigner, marked by a hundred habits of speech, dress and comportment, in a part of her own country she has never visited. And, of course, her eventually becoming an heiress, the CEO going broke, and then a wedding to end it all. It sounds awful, cheap and trite and stultifying, not to mention the offensiveness of the Outsider, all pretty and educated and whatnot, coming in to Make Things Better. I can imagine hearing about this book, I can imagine an interview on NPR, I can imagine the movie rights being sold for a jillion dollars, but I cannot imagine liking it.

And yet, I liked North and South ever so much. Just goes to show, doesn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Not to dismiss your fundamental affection for Victorian novels, but could it be the case that "cheap and trite" of the hypothetical contemporary West Virginia story would come from the fact that we are now two centuries into the Industrial Age, so a character making the kinds of discoveries that Mrs. Gaskell's heroine made would now seem clueless, and her discoveries trite, whereas only fifty years into the Industrial Age, Victorians were still trying to figure out what Industry was all about, and the labour movement was trying to figure out its core identity and strategies, and so on.

To pick a setting in which a contemporary version of North and South wouldn't seem trite, I think you'd have to look to a part of the world that is rapidly industrializing: India or (probably better) China are places where industrialization is bringing dynamic social change that is disrupting traditional social formations. When you imagine the novel there, does it seem less cheap and trite? I don't think the United States has any truly appropriate equivalent setting. Perhaps Silicon Valley, but probably you'd have to go back a decade or two. And the foreignness part would be tricky, though if she were making connections in a Latino community, maybe.

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