Green is the color of life to me. (Consider plants, and the relationship which chlorophyll, photosynthesis, and oxygen forges between us and them. See, like that.) Still, despite these beneficial, life-giving qualities, some people don’t seem to feel any particular need to be around greenery. (Those would be the people inexplicably content to have treeless, postage-stamp-sized lawns, or no lawns at all, I guess.) Meanwhile, others--like me--crave the presence of green like... well, like one of those plants you see which bends and stretches and does a crazy little jive-dance in its efforts to get just a little bit of sunlight.
My soft spot for classic English novels comes as no surprise then, eh? Overflowing with all those vivid descriptions of fragrant purple heather blowing on the moors, peaceful arbors wreathed in roses and honeysuckle, and colorful, carefree English gardens full of flittering butterflies (I know, I know--what other type of garden would one expect to find but an English one... in England?), they're a delight for the senses.
How is it even possible, then, that my new favorite classic is set predominantly in a dirty industrial city... a place perpetually made grey by the smoke pouring from the stacks on the rooftops of an endless sea of factories?
One reason is because it’s also the setting for a glorious, passionate, and intelligent love story. The other reason has to do with the great well of compassion it displays, as well as its serious look at social, economic, and political issues. This is Elizabeth Gaskell’s epic North and South.
Unlike so many of the better-known classics, the heroine of North and South--Margaret Hale--is a happy young woman, not suffering from cruel (nor deceased, nor absent) parents, nor burdened with any jealous or otherwise ridiculous siblings. And even though her own father is but an humble country preacher (possessing neither wealth nor fame), Margaret herself has had the luxury of attending London schools (and staying with her affluent aunt and family there). She has thus enjoyed the best of both worlds: the bucolic New Forest setting of her father’s modest parsonage has been her vacation destination, while all the excitement London has to offer (especially for a charming young lady of some means) has been hers for the taking, the remainder of each year.
All that is about to change, however. Margaret and her same-age cousin Edith have completed their schooling--and Edith has only just gotten married--leaving Margaret to return to Helstone to live with her parents. She looks forward to the prospect of living once more among the uncomplicated, kind people in the beautiful countryside she considers home.
That, however, is not to be. Her father, Margaret discovers, has recently suffered a “crisis of conscience” and is leaving the Church, effective almost immediately. To make matters worse, he feels the need to remove his little family far from their beloved Helstone, and plans to relocate them to an area in the distant north, where no one knows his name (or will have heard the scandal attached to it). He has chosen Milton for their new home, an industrial city well-known primarily for its cotton mills.
This new circumstance is anything but happy news for Margaret, and is even worse news for her mother, who has always been of a rather delicate constitution. Nonetheless, Mr. Hale’s mind is made up, and the three of them are soon en route to the North.
Once there it is, of course, as bad as or worse than the female Hales had feared: dirty, polluted, noisy, and overcrowded with a rather coarse lot-- in short, it’s everything that Helstone (or even the part of London which Margaret knows) isn’t.
Mr. Hale’s closest friend--who grew up in Milton--has arranged for him to work as a tutor, offering instruction in the study of the classics to adult pupils. His very first student is John Thornton, a self-made man who owns one of the more prosperous mills in town. The two men quickly form a fast if surprising friendship, despite the fact that their experiences and outlooks are so different. Mr. Hale is a deeply-religious man, regardless of his fallout with the Church, and looks to a divine power for answers to life’s questions and solace for life’s problems. Thornton, on the other hand, has a hard-scrabble background, and sees everything through the rather more practical eyes of a businessman; his problems are his alone to solve. Hale considers the souls of the men, women, and children working in Thornton’s mill, whereas the owner himself sees them only in terms of how to get the most productivity out of them and how to keep them healthy and able to work.
During one of his frequent visits to the Hale home, Thornton and Margaret meet... but their meeting is hardly the love-at-first-sight of fairy tales. Margaret is appalled by how little Thornton seems to care for the plight of his employees, and he thinks her misguided in her blind championing of their cause. Yet Margaret has reason for her concerns; she has recently made friends with a local girl--Bessy, a former millworker now riddled with consumption, and thus forced to quit her job--and has heard tales of what factory life can be like. Margaret even forms a surprising friendship with Bessy’s father, Mr. Higgins, an outspoken rabble-rouser of a man with ties to the millworkers' union, who shows unexpected depths.
Although Thornton disagrees with most of what Margaret so heatedly espouses, he finds himself hopelessly attracted to the headstrong daughter of his teacher. He admires her intelligence and fiery passion (as well as her pleasing looks). Margaret, on the other hand, suffers no such affliction of affection for the mill owner. While it’s true enough she occasionally finds him interesting, and certainly respects all the hard work and years of deprivation he endured whilst trying to make something of himself, she spends the majority of her time being repulsed by his views.
Thornton has more pressing concerns to occupy his thoughts than the allure of one challenging female, however. The situation at the mills has suddenly become very grim; all of their costs (supplies, equipment, and upkeep) have increased, while the price they can get for their product has gone down, due to a recent glut of American cotton in the world market. Meanwhile, loans--for equipment purchases deemed necessary and made during a more profitable era--are rapidly coming due.
It is at this exact--and unfortunately, highly inauspicious--moment in time that the Milton millworkers decide to make their move. The union wants more money for all the employees at all the mills, and so they strike.
What follows during this walkoff, which lasts far longer than anyone ever anticipated, is heartbreaking. The already-destitute can no longer eke out even the most meager of livings, and people begin first to starve, and then to die. Tensions escalate to incredible highs, and crime, naturally, rises. Margaret wants to do what little she can, such as taking food to some of the neediest, and Thornton berates her for her foolish largesse; feeding the hungry, he insists, will only serve to prolong the strike, by making people less desperate (thus, less willing) to resume their old jobs at the old pay--which, at present, is truly all the owners can afford to offer. (Obviously--at least, I would think it should be rather obvious--things are going no better for Thornton in his pursuit of Margaret than they are for those displaced workers.) And so it goes.
Besides the primary themes I’ve touched on, there are several other important sub-plots woven throughout, as well, which I won’t mention. (All of them, though, are vital to the overall story, and are very compelling.) The developing relationship between the two, seemingly diametrically-opposed leads is wonderful, full of frustration, sadness, and confusion, but also moments of hope and joy.
Overall, though, North and South does not paint a pretty picture. There are no lives of genteel ease--not for anyone in Milton; there are no carefree days spent picnicking on scenic hillsides, and no balls to plan and attend. Instead, we get a view of the working world, where regular people live and struggle to scratch out a place for themselves--a place where things are oh-so-far from idyllic. There is poverty, disease, filth, hunger, social injustice, political (and social, and sexual) inequality aplenty--and disagreements about what might be done for any of it.
This isn’t a sweetly-romantic tale of lovers pulled apart merely by pride or circumstance (only to be joyously reunited at the end); nor is it a gothic story of madness and desire--although it does have some elements of each. What North and South is, instead, is a gritty tale, and I absolutely love it for the brutal way it looks at conventions and ideas. I know it may seem on the surface to offer anything but the verdant, life-renewing qualities (of which I rambled on about earlier), but in the end, it offers something that turns out to be even more precious: life and love amidst all the unremitting grey. Rather than a vast sea of green, it gives us one stubborn-but-glorious weed, tirelessly pushing its way between the cracks in a dirty grey sidewalk, to come bursting forth, full of hope as it reaches for the sun.
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 5 (out of 5) mousies!!
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 5 (out of 5) mousies!!