Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Blog Tour: North and South (Naxos Audiobooks) – A Book Review

Welcome to the 5th stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell 200th Anniversary Blog Tour! Please join me and other Elizabeth Gaskell enthusiast in honoring her on birthday today with a blog tour featuring  a biography of her life and times, reviews of her books, novella’s and movies, reading resources, and a photo tour of her homes.

Visitors leaving a comment at any of the posts on the tour will qualify for a drawing of one unabridged copy of the Naxos Audiobooks edition of North and South read by Clare Willie. Deadline to enter is midnight Pacific time October 7th, 2010. The winner will be announced on October 8th, 2010. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses, digital download internationally. Good luck!

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell – A Review

First published as a magazine serial of twenty-two installments in Household Words edited by her mentor Charles Dickens, North and South was later expanded by Mrs. Gaskell into the format we know today and publish in book format in 1855. The story explores some of Gaskell’s favorite topics: social division and class struggles, religious faith and doubt, and the changing landscape of mid-Victorian England from an agricultural nation to industrial giant. Interlaced in these conflicts are genuine characters as passionate in their social convictions as they are in their quest for understanding and love.

Opening with the wedding of her vivacious cousin Edith Shaw to Captain Lennox, our nineteen year-old heroine Miss Margaret Hale is at an important juncture in her life. Raised in London by her wealthy Aunt Shaw, her duties as companion to her cousin are now over and she returns to her family as an educated and sophisticated young lady. Her parents live in Helstone, an idyllic rural Hampshire village where her father is the local Church of England minister and her mother a former county belle. Higher born than her husband she married for love against her family’s wishes. They lead a comfortable, but frugal life until her father’s decision to leave the church on principal; uprooting his family to the only opportunity available to them. His former Oxford tutor Mr. Bell has connections in Milton-Northern, an industrial city of cotton mills and coal smoke in the north of England, a far cry from the comforts, sunny climes and verdant countryside of the south in Hampshire. On the same day of Margaret’s fathers shocking announcement, Henry Lennox a young lawyer and brother of Edith’s husband visits the Hales in Helstone with the objective of proposing marriage to Margaret. Because she feels no affection other than friendship for him, his offer is rejected.

Margaret: ‘I have never thought of–you, but as a friend. I like to think of you so; but I am sure I could never think of you as anything else. Pray, let us both forget that all this’ (‘disagreeable,’ she was going to say, but stopped short) ‘conversation has taken place.’

He paused before he replied. Then, in his habitual coldness of tone, he answered:

Lennox: ‘Of course, as your feelings are so decided, and as this conversation has been so evidently unpleasant to you, it had better not be remembered. That is all very fine in theory, that plan of forgetting whatever is painful, but it will be somewhat difficult for me, at least, to carry it into execution.’

The Hale’s are aided in their search for a new home in Milton by Mr. Bell’s tenant John Thornton, a young successful mill owner who has worked his way up from working class to respectable tradesman after the tragic death of his father when he was fifteen. The ladies find Milton smoky and stifling, especially Mrs. Hale and her personal maid Dixon who are always ready to complain about the dirty air, the unsophisticated town and its lowly people. Because of their reduced circumstances and the lack of help in a mill town that can offer higher wages to young girls, Margaret fills in as maid with the household duties. Margaret is happy to help, but her mother is horrified that her daughter, a lady, must work as a menial. To support his family Mr. Hale has found work as a tutor. One of his best students is John Thornton who is eager to improve himself and catch up on his education. Mr. Hale invites him to tea much to the bemusement of Margaret and Mrs. Hale who are arrogant and cold to him, believing him below their notice. Margaret is outspoken, voicing her opinions to him of Milton, their odd northern customs, and critical of Mr. Thornton’s comments about the differences in the south. Margaret thinks he is coarse and harsh with his workers. He thinks she is beautiful and intriguing, but proud and full of airs for someone new, poor and uninformed.

Margaret: ‘That is a great admission,’ said Margaret, laughing. ‘When I see men violent and obstinate in pursuit of their rights, I may safely infer that the master is the same that he is a little ignorant of that spirit which suffereth long, and is kind, and seeketh not her own.’

John: ‘You are just like all strangers who don’t understand the working of our system, Miss Hale,’ said he, hastily. ‘You suppose that our men are puppets of dough, ready to be moulded into any amiable form we please. You forget we have only to do with them for less than a third of their lives; and you seem not to perceive that the duties of a manufacturer are far larger and wider than those merely of an employer of labour: we have a wide commercial character to maintain, which makes us into the great pioneers of civilisation.’

As Margaret begins to acclimate to her new home, she makes friends with Nicolas Higgins, one of the mill workers and his sickly daughter Bessy. They are skeptical of her intentions when she visits and very proud not to take charity. Through them she comes to understand the hard working conditions in the mills and sees the result of their unhealthy environment in Bessy, whose work from a young age has infected her lungs from inhaling the cotton fluff that floats through the factory. Mrs. Hale’s health is also in steady decline and the doctor warns Margaret that there is not much more time before she is gone. Margaret keeps this news to herself and shoulders the burden as she has done to protect each of her parents from bad news. With his urging, John Thornton’s mother begrudgingly makes a social call at the Hales with her daughter Fanny, privately offering her assistance with her mother to Margaret.

Margaret visits Mrs. Thornton at their home next to the mill and finds herself in the middle of a workers strike. Desperate to fill mill orders and keep his business solvent, Mr. Thornton has brought in cheaper Irish workers to break the strike and an angry mob has amassed outside the mill ready to riot and kill the blackleg workers in protest. Margaret admonishes Thornton to talk to the crowd and appease their anger.

Margaret: ‘Mr. Thornton,’ said Margaret, shaking all over with her passion, ‘go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man. Save these poor strangers, whom you have decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor-creatures who are driven mad. I see one there who is. If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man.’

But, it is too late. A stone thrown from the crowd intended for Thornton strikes Margaret in the head instead. The crowd is hushed and shocked as Margaret lies on the ground. The army arrives to violently disperse the crowd and Thornton carries the unconscious and bleeding body of Margaret inside. At this moment, he realizes how much he loves her. Against his mother’s wishes, he is compelled to ask her to marry him and visits her at her home the next day. She has recovered enough to be repulsed by his offer and flatly refuse him. He is crushed.

John: ‘One word more. You look as if you thought it tainted you to be loved by me. You cannot avoid it. Nay, I, if I would, cannot cleanse you from it. But I would not, if I could. I have never loved any woman before: my life has been too busy, my thoughts too much absorbed with other things. Now I love, and will love. But do not be afraid of too much expression on my part.’


Of course Gaskell has built up to this moment so beautifully that we are crestfallen by Margaret’s reaction to his admission of love. It is the axis of the novel. She despises him and accuses him of ungentlemanly behavior, the worst insult to throw at a man trying to win the heart of a lady. He is hurt yet dignified in rejection. That is indeed an act of a gentleman that she does not recognize yet.

How these two strong minded and opposing personalities will come together, and we are never in doubt that they will, is one of the most moving and satisfying love stories that I have ever read. Often compared to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Gaskell’s North and South parallels many of the same misunderstanding and misconceptions that the two protagonists go through to reach mutual respect and love. This was the first Gaskell novel that I have read, and her style, while more effusive and descriptive than Austen’s was a welcome surprise. Interlaced with this study of the diametric personalities are the differences in the lifestyles from agricultural southern England to the industrial north. Her characterizations were so detailed and real, that I cared deeply about the outcome of each of them. I recommend North and South highly. It will remain one of my cherished novels that I reread regularly. That is the greatest compliment an author can hope for.

This Naxos Audiobooks edition was sensitively read by Clare Willie whose characterizations reminded me of the voices of the actors in the 2004 North and South mini-series. I was so drawn into the story by her melodic intonations that I have never enjoyed my commute to work as much as the 18 hours and 36 minutes during this audio book recording. Gaskell’s powerful story of the division of workers and master told through the eyes of a haughty girl from the south of England who is thrown against her wishes and better judgment by her father’s life choices into a foreign world of the working class struggles of a northern mill owner is her most beloved work for good reason. Margaret Hale and John Thornton are a romance to remember and savor again, and again.

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, read by Clare Willie
Naxos Audiobooks (2010)
Unabridged audio book, 15 CD’s, 18h 36m
ISBN: 978-962634185-8

Follow this link to the next stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Celebration Blog Tour a review of the North and South (2004) mini-series by Maria at Fly High

Sometimes one likes foolish people for their folly, better than wise people for their wisdom.” Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters

© 2007 -2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

48 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Blog Tour: North and South (Naxos Audiobooks) – A Book Review

Add yours

  1. I can see why this tale is so popular – what can beat romance against a backdrop of social commentary? I have a secret to share, Laurel Ann. I want to WIN this audiobook, so I shall leave as many comment as I dare. LOL Vic


  2. Wonderful review. I believe I have an audiobook or two read by Clare Willie…but oh I can’t imagine the joy if Richard Armitage ever recorded N&S! Please enter me in the drawing. Thank you!


  3. Absolutely one of my favorite books ever! I love the part at the Thornton’s annual dinner party when Mrs. Gaskell describes how Mr. Thornton knows where Margaret is at all times, who is talking to her, who is not. But he never looks at her, but knows exactly where she is. *sigh*

    North and South is a treasure!


  4. You are definitely right, Laurel Ann… this one is to be savored again and again!

    You quoted several of my favorite passages in the novel, especially from the riot scene and the first rejected proposal scene (oh, my aching heart…). But this is my favorite passage, on how Thornton was feeling when he attended Mrs. Hale’s funeral unseen:

    For all his pain, he longed to see the author of it. Although he hated Margaret at times, when he thought of that gentle familiar attitude and all the attendant circumstances, he had a restless desire to renew her picture in his mind — a longing for the very atmosphere she breathed. He was in the Charybdis of passion, and must perforce circle and circle ever nearer round the fatal centre. (Chapter 33)

    Oh my…


    1. Great quote Joanna. “a longing for the very atmosphere she breathed.” lovely. Gaskell’s use of Charybdis is unusual. Since she is English, I thought she should use the Scottish version of whirlpool Corryvreckan, but she chose the Greek usage. Either works, just curious choice. Lovely passage and a great example of her wonderful prose.


    1. Adriana, I am pretty sure that international download is on. Can you access the Naxos website and purchase audios there? That is how you would download it. I have had people download from the Philippines.


  5. I’m anxious to read this novel. I watched the mini-series, but as we all know — the book is always better. Your review and some of the previous comments have certainly whetted my appetite.


  6. I am actually in the process of reading North and South.

    The soldiers coming in to break up the mill workers is reminiscent of the Peterloo massacre in Manchester.

    There is a lot of socialism going on in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels or an implicit plea for socialism.


  7. Laurel Ann, an excellent review and lovely comments makes me want to read North & South yet again!

    As much as I have loved Austen from my teens, North & South has taken the place of my Jane Austen favorites. It is a book that keeps giving and giving. It is the first time I think that I feel totally connected to both male and female characters and their journey to understanding is a wonder to experience. Mrs. Gaskell certainly wrote a masterpiece!

    Sorry, Mr. Darcy – Mr. Thornton has captured my heart!

    Happy Birthday and thank you!


  8. I recently reread North & South and I fell even more in love with it than I did the first time around. Less anxious to get to know exactly what the story would turn out to be, I had more time for the details and I loved them.


  9. Thanks for organizing this celebration of Elizabeth Gaskell, Laurel. North & South is perhaps my favorite of her books, and I’m particularly glad I read it before I saw the BBC adaptation because I find the flavor a little different, especially the initial portrayal of John Thornton. That first proposal scene truly is a heartbreaker. It’s hard for me to like Margaret much during it.


    1. My feelings for both protagonists were mixed through the first half of the book. I wanted to like them both, but they would do or say something to bring them down, and then bounce back up in my esteem shortly after. I like how Gaskell played with their emotions – and ours.


  10. I wanted to approach strangers and ask them if they had read this book. That is how much I liked it. I enjoyed the mini-series too, but as usual not as much as the book. The access to the minds of the main characters that is available in the novel is missing in the film. However if you have readfirst, you can fill that it and enjoy. Thanks for the participation in the blog tour.


    1. Brenda,
      I like your comment on how you would like to approach strangers about this novel. I have to say whenever I’m in a book store I walk over to the G’s to see if they have any Gaskell novels. If they do, (especially North and South) I pull them out a little so people will notice. When I go back to the store, the books are gone, so I hope its working. lol


  11. I love North and South! I finished reading it only a few weeks ago. I thought it was charming and wonderfully written! Only a couple pages in, I already loved how descriptive the story was — much more than Austen’s writing, in fact. The conversations were realistic and how people acted were realistic, and I loved every word of it!! I was slightly dissappointed with the end, only because I wanted the ending conversation to be longer!!



    1. I agree Sara, as I stated above in another comment. The sending was abrupt. The 2004 movie screenplay improved upon Gaskell’s interpretations. A rare instance in my estimation.


  12. I do need to re-read this as it has been a while, and this book is such a joy that it begs to be re-read often. I agree with Sara about the ending, which seemed a little rushed and unsatisfying. Especially after the uber-satisfying ending of the 2004 adaptation which was completely different.


  13. What’s not to love about North and South, I ask you! Love the adaptation, superior to all adaptations, the book, the audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson. But from listening to it’s excerpt from Naxos this read has a more contemporary feel to it. Please sign me up, if not a winner I’ll most likely will get it regardless. As for another wish I’m hoping this mystery tour will draw some attention as well to the people of PBS and take note of the fact they never aired it!! And yes I am aware of the campaign of bringing N&S on PBS


  14. You really captured what I love about Gaskell at her finest and N&S in particular…

    >Her characterizations were so detailed and real, that I cared deeply about the outcome of each of them.

    I think she did succeed in creating realistic people and situations that readers can care about–she humanized and individualized types.

    I think you really nailed the turning point of the story, and I know I just about cried out when Margaret so willfully misunderstood Thornton’s response to her response when she tried to protect him from the mob.


  15. I too love North & South. I liked much (but not all) of the mini-series, but found I didn’t much like the ending – but then I also don’t like the mini-series ending. So I wrote my own ending, which I like better (I have another version also in my head). But I don’t know anyone who has read the book, so I have no one to try it on. It reads directly out of Mrs. Gaskell’s last chapter.


  16. I adore my North & South but even reading about it…just makes me tongue tied and unable to shake away images of Mr. John Thornton….I mean Richard Armitage…I’m sorry to two are forever linked. I fear any more comments I make may be dribble…as I am having a Richard Armitage moment and must now go watch some clips of North & South on YouTube to recover…or perhaps a whole afternoon of the full therapy…the full adaptation is in order? Hmmm…we shall see…

    Thanks again for a wonderful event Laurel Ann!



  17. This is quite the whirlwind tour-I’ve hit several stops so far! North and South does sound excellent; I’ve only seen the miniseries versions of Cranford and W&D,which have strong hints of social change bubbling up under the surface of the stories.

    I have yet to read one of the actual books but all of this delightful talk is making me wonder which one first? N&S seems to be a good beginning there,so perhaps that one I will attempt to conquer:)


  18. I am new to Gaskell’s work. I watched the North and South mini series and have fallen in love! It was so much more than I have ever seen in a period piece. I loved the exploration of the begining of industrialization. Still relevant today! I am so thankful for people putting out information on her work.


  19. I really love North and South, while Jane Austen is my favourite author, North and South is probably my favourite novel. It is a great love story and a great social story as well. From a more academic point of view (and I’m a political science student) I’m extremely impressed with how the Gaskell manages to describe Socialism (Higgins), Liberalism (John Thornton) and Conservatism (Margaret). Reading this book has more than any thing really given me an understanding on where these tree great ideologies came from.


  20. Oh, I really want to read/listen to this book! I would rather read it but having it on audio would fit in my schedule better! I fell in love with the movie so I am sure the book will be even better! Thanks!
    Through Christ,


  21. I have never read the novel. I have seen the 2004 adaptation many times. I would love to win the audiobook. The members of C19 also recorded an audiobook to North & South. It’s available for free on LibriVox.


  22. This was my third Gaskell novel and I was encourage to read thanks to all the raving comments that the 2004 miniseries provoked when it premiered in UK. I had to read the original source before attempting to watch an adaptation which was producing an effect which can only be compared to that of P&P2 (P&P 1995).

    What I got was marvellous: a compelling love story, interesting characters (not only the main protagonists), a social background (the Industrial Revolution and social conscience), and, on a more subjective appreciation note, a hero who can stand up right beside Mr. Knigthley in my eyes (yes, I know he is most often compared to Darcy, but bear with me please, I’m a Mr. Knightley fan).

    It is tied right up with Wives and Daughters as my favourite Gaskell novel and among my top novels in general.

    My mother also loves the novel too, in her opinion, this is the perfect novel.


  23. I’ve read the novel and I’ve seen the BBC adaptation. It’s a wonderful novel. I’d love to have this audiobook, but it would be marvellous if Richard Armitage could read North & South in the future. The Georgette Heyer’s audiobooks he read are lovely.


  24. Enjoyed your review of North and South! I’ve only read Cranford and Wives and Daughters, the latter of which is one of my favorite books (even as a devoted Austen fan!). I am now inspired to read North and South next. And, the fact that Mr. Hale invited John Thornton to tea to meet Margaret is particularly interesting!

    Barb G


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