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North and South begins as a novel of clear, seemingly deep contrasts that eventually begin to dim and complexify as the protagonist grows in knowledge and understanding of the world and realizes her own prejudices. These juxtapositions of alien classes of people (North and South, factory owner and employee), with all their antithetical philosophies, customs, manners, fashions, landscapes, architecture, types of labour, leisure activities and more, are crocheted by the narrator in exquisitely fine detail for the reader to ponder, as exquisite as the lace fabric some of the characters wear. The Victorian novelist is inarguably the master of detail, and Gaskell is one of the best. I believe North and South to be her most excellent novel, and her discriminating, profound and often poignant descriptions of people, places, thoughts and emotions make this a book for the soul (the beautiful romance helps, too).

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I appreciate the photo of the protagonist,
Margaret Hale, from the most recent film adaptation of the book (on the right). The actress’s fully absorbed, introspective look betokens the intellectual nature of the novel; there is just so much to think about, in North and South, for both the protagonist herself, whose world is dramatically upended by change and sorrow, and the reader, who shadows her through Gaskell’s lifelike, transporting description. Unfortunately, the film all but erases the Christian faith that is Margaret’s guiding light and sure foundation, and which anchors her soul amidst upheaval and grief.

Elizabeth Gaskell was the wife of a Unitarian minister, and often wrote about the problems of industrialization, especially for the poor. Her desire in North and South, as well as in Mary Barton, was to see the factory owners and workers come together in the spirit of Christ in order to overcome their differences.

Further reading about Elizabeth Gaskell on Christian Victorian Literature :

Introducing Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Body of Christ in Mary Barton

Introducing Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Great Victorian Sin in Ruth

The Fall of Women in Victorian Novels

Introducing Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell