Friday, January 18, 2008

North and South

My daughter had the idea of spending a few moments writing out a response whenever she read a book for her reading goals this year. I am going to try to do the same -- like her, I am not going to try to write out a full review, just a few thoughts, so that is my disclaimer.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (here is my daughter Clare's view of the book)

Why I read it Clare received the book as a gift from a friend -- she read it recently after watching the BBC version which I got her for Christmas -- and she passed it on to me to read after she finished it. Plus, it seemed to fit in a bit with this economics reading I am doing since it is about the contrast between an industrial economy and an agrarian one.

Circumstances of Reading -- I started it two days ago but read the bulk of it yesterday and finished it last night. Kevin, Aidan and I escorted Clare by train partway to Thomas Aquinas College where she is going to visit her brother and the college. This gave Aidan a chance to ride the Amtrak, which he has longed to do ever since the first time Liam departed for college by that means. So I'll always remember looking up from the book and seeing a freight train flash by next to us -- painted-metal-freight-car -- then farmland -- painted-metal-freight-car -- then farmland -- in rapid intervals. Also the GIANT bales of cotton in a huge grey field (we were going through the San Joaquin Valley at the time). Not at all like Gaskell's North and South, but evocative anyway.

Reading Thoughts --

"So between masters and men, the wheels fall through"

This book takes a look at a specific historical time through a filter of change. Changes in society as expressed by the tension between the new North and the traditional farming South; changes in religion (the events of the book are precipitated by Margaret's father's crisis of conscience which leads him to give up his position as a minister in a small country village); changes in life circumstances; and changes in opinion (Margaret moves towards respecting the Northern virtue and practices while Mr Thornton moves towards a less harsh and distant treatment of his workers, and the workingman Higgins moves towards a better understanding of the challenges faced by the "master").

This is what I noticed most. The novel form allows the author to take a time frame of three years and show the changes in society reflected through the lives of the main characters. It is well done -- you can see the movement in many symbolic details of various subplots -- for example, the worker Boucher's downward movement to final drowning in a stream, of all things, is countered by both Higgins (the Union man) and Thornton (the master) taking responsibility for raising and educating them.

In the end, the "solution" proposed to the turmoil caused by changing social conditions is a human one, not an economic or political one -- a matter of acknowledging that no man is an island, that we are bound to each other, that human contracts go beyond economic ones.

There is also a strong theme that an acknowledgement and acceptance of reality as it is will lead to better results than a denial of reality. This plays out through Margaret's father's gradual recognition of his wife's fatal illness, and through Mr Thornton's changes of fortunes through the strike and the price changes in fortune, and Margaret's own acceptance of the reality that there may never be a chance for her brother to vindicate himself in the eyes of English law.

Related to that is the emphasis on truth in perception and integrity in action -- a major plot line is concerned with a falsehood told by Margaret and what that reveals to her about her own lack of faith and courage.

There is a chapter near the end of the book where Margaret goes back to the village that she remembers as a sort of earthly paradise and finds it changed during the years of her absence:

All night long too, there burnt a little light on earth; a candle in her old bedroom, which was the nursery with the present inhabitants of the parsonage, until the new one was built. A sense of change, of individual nothingness, of perplexity and disappointment, over-powered Margaret. Nothing had been the same; and this slight, all-pervading instability, had given her greater pain than if all had been too entirely changed for her to recognise it....

And a bit later:

'After all it is right,' said she, hearing the voices of children at play while she was dressing. 'If the world stood still, it would retrograde and become corrupt,.... Looking out of myself, and my own painful sense of change, the progress all around me is right and necessary. I must not think so much of how circumstances affect me myself, but how they affect others, if I wish to have a right judgment, or a hopeful trustful heart.'

She realizes that change is inevitable in an imperfect contingent world, and that a right personal response is required. Once she realizes that she is able to take responsibility for making decisions herself rather than simply letting herself be guided by what others seem to need from her, and this is a step on her road from girlhood to taking a place in society as a mature woman.

I found myself reading the book to Paddy, who is five, and this is how it came about --

I had already read Paddy's bedtime stories and was trying to settle him down to sleep. I told him it was my turn to read while he went to sleep and he asked me, "Can you read your book out loud and put your finger on the words as you read?" So I did -- I was reading chapter 13,

'Fluff,' repeated Bessy. 'Little bits, as fly off fro' the cotton, when they're carding it, and fill the air till it looks all fine white dust. They say it winds round the lungs, and tightens them up. Anyhow, there's many a one as works in a carding-room, that falls into a waste, coughing and spittingblood, because they're just poisoned by the fluff.'

'But can't it be helped?' asked Margaret.

'I dunno. Some folk have a great wheel at one end o' their carding-rooms to make a draught, and carry off th' dust; but that wheel costs a deal o' money--five or six hundred pound, maybe,and brings in no profit; so it's but a few of th' masters as will put 'em up; and I've heard tell o' men who didn't like working places where there was a wheel, because they said as how it mad'em hungry, at after they'd been long used to swallowing fluff, tone go without it, and that their wage ought to be raised if they were to work in such places. So between masters and men th' wheels fall through. I know I wish there'd been a wheel in our place, though.'
and Paddy was fascinated with the fluff, and a bit fearful. I was surprised that he would listen for two or three pages to such a discursive book, which alternates between detailed description, and equally painstaking dialogue, with not very much action that would seem interesting to a five year old boy.


Anonymous said...

Wow, your daughter is so perceptive and eloquent. I guess the apple doesn't fall far. . .North and South is one of my favorite books. If she hasn't read other Elizabeth Gaskell books, she's in for a real treat. I have only read Mary Barton and Cranford. North and South was written in response to Mary Barton which only speaks from the worker's point of view and someone challenged Gaskell to write a book that would reflect both the master and the worker's perspectives.

What I really love about N&S is the religious feelings through out. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Margaret is upset and reads St. Francis de Sales to comfort herself!



Willa said...

Faith, I THOUGHT it was St Francis! But my edition left it in French and I never got around to going to the notes in the back to look it up. And my French is quite rusty so I was guessing.

You know, Mrs Gaskell was the wife of a Unitarian pastor but she seemed fairly sympathetic to Catholicism and she did seem to have a very acute religious understanding -- I was astonished how the fact of Margaret telling an untruth under pressure became such a momentous issue in the book. I've hardly read a book where a falsehood wouldn't be readily excused under those circumstances, yet the problem was pinpointed very well to a lack of faith and living out one's principles.

I think Clare has read Wives and Daughters and I read Mary Barton way back, when I was in my college days. Perhaps I ought to read it again since I'm getting very interested in this Industrial Revolution thing.

lissla lissar said...

Thanks. I keep meaning to read North and South, and maybe now I'll get around to it. It sounds lovely.

I kept a journal of books read for a couple of years, and I wish I'd kept it up- just dates and short reactions to whatever I was reading. Not so eloquent as yours and Clare's. A thing to restart this year.

Also, thank you for your prayers for our family, which is now larger by one, and feels MUCH larger. :D Thank you.

Willa said...

Oh, just saw your comment, Lissla, and thank you. I am really glad you came over to my blog from Clare's way back a year or so ago.

Congrats on your little one by the way! He sure is a cute one.