As you may be aware, I love a good book. Or at least, a good story.
What better feeling is there than cuddling up on the sofa for an afternoon, knowing that these sheets of paper in your hands will influence your emotions, thoughts and coffee intake?
The short answer; there is no nicer feeling.
On a recent trip to London, I was deprived of these trusty home comforts during an afternoon’s reading. Nevertheless, it was an experience, however modest, that I will always treasure as special.
After a beautiful afternoon spent in the midst of Covent Garden, I decided to call into Waterstones, pick up a book and then find a park or coffee shop to sit in and loose myself for a few hours.
If, for some unfortunate reason, you have never set foot in a bookshop, then you are missing out.
Traditionally there is a higgle-de-piggildy type of organised chaos. Walls are lined with yards and yards of books, with titles ranging from books discussing the fall of the Roman Empire, to the proper way to reorganise bookshelves in your new apartment, to the black backed Penguin Classics.
Stepping amidst this oasis of book-lovers, I immediately started to scan the shelves, looking for a story to spend the afternoon revelling in.
Dragging myself out ten minutes later, I had in my hands one novel and one play; North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and (oh joy of joys!) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling and Jack Thorne.
I picked up North and South because over the past few months I had become increasingly interested in 18th and 19th century literature in my own university work. Despite the fact that I would love to tell you that the plight of the working class and their everyday struggle was my main motive in purchasing this book, I would be too precocious for words.
In reality it was this story’s central relationship between protagonist Margret Hale and the tall, dark and broody Mr. Thornton, that made this book an absolute need on my wish list.
Not going to lie to you either, I also had my interest peaked by Richard Ermitage’s beautifully detailed portrayal of Mr Thornton in the BBC’s production of this drama.
As for The Cursed Child, does one really need an excuse to delve into the world of Harry Potter?
Wandering around for somewhere to read, I found myself walking past the British Museum, around the back of Bedford Square and eventually found myself on the edge of Camden, in Russell Square Park. It was here then, that I settled down on a park bench to immerse myself in Gaskell’s imagination.
Until it started raining.
The story of North and South follows a young woman, Miss Margret Hale, from her happily situated life, divided between her Father’s parish in picturesque Helstone, to the residence of her Aunt Shaw in Harley Street. Margret, who despite growing up beside her far prettier cousin, Edith, is the heroine who is accessible to all level-headed female readers; clever, practical, striking in her manner and equipped with a keen sense of wit. For this Margret becomes the much easier person to like of the two. Edith gets all she wants, including a marriage based on love, but Margret’s good sense makes her much easier to like.
Over the course of the story, Margret’s circumstances change with Edith’s marriage to a young and attractive Colonel Lennox and her own father’s decision to move his small family of three up from the southern hamlet of Helstone, to the cold, northern industrial town of Milltown.
It is from here that we really see what Margret’s character is full of. She shoulders responsibility of the household whenever her mother’s health deteriorates, meeting every new person and challenge with the same poise and ladylike ability that epitomises the ‘new woman’ heroine.
Unfortunately this ‘new woman’ status was not always well sought by wider society in the Victorian era. Gaskell therefore, had to introduce a plot line to sell her work.
Enter John Thornton.
It could be argued the whole narrative is about Margret and her relationship with Mr. Thornton. However, in saying this, some readers may be encouraged to think that this book is just a repeat of Pride and Prejudice’s love-hate relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.
This is not the case in any shape of form.
While Margret’s friendship with Thornton was rocky at the best of times, the key fact was that they remained friendly towards each other. There was not a massive emotional upheaval at the first proposal, at least on Margret’s side, and neither was there a major excuse for her to reject Thornton’s advances, there rules out the George Wickham of the story.
Her father was even Mr Thornton’s tutor in the Classics, spending evenings talking about Ovid, Homer’s Iliad and Aristotle’s Poetics. This is a far cry from Darcy’s own education at Cambridge.
Thornton’s depth of character and utterly honest nature is so refreshing. This coupled with glimpses into his internal monologue creates a dimension to his character, which I had rarely come across in Victorian literature before. The feelings, which he holds for Margret, the friendship between himself and his friend Mr Hale, the relationship between even his own mother and sister, were shown through small intersections of Thornton’s internal monologue.
By creating Margret and Mr Thornton’s dynamic, Gaskell developed them into such colourful characters, which make this novel a delight to read. Not only do they depict the archetypal educated middle class of the Victorian era, but the relationship between the two allow the surrounding social issues to be given an appropriate platform to discuss these issues on.
If this is one of Gaskell’s novels that has been pushed out of the limelight, in favour of The Cranfield Chronicles, then this in my attempt at bringing it to the centre stage.
Gaskell, who was great friends with Charlotte Brontë, managed to move away from the gothic romanticism that Jane Eyre drips with. Maybe she avoided this style in North and South because she was a happily married woman who saw more in the world than her friend did. Yet despite the social awareness that permeates throughout Gaskell’s work, the relationships are often at the centre of her work. Ultimately, relationships between different people will always provide a relational subject that the novel’s audience can relate to.
This book is a dream to read. It is not always easy to read, this I grant you. The language can trip you up sometimes and yes, now and again you need to go back over certain paragraphs.
But that is just in the beginning five, ten chapters at most.
After that, you’ll just want to read the book over and over again once you finish. The plot lines are thick, the suspense is rife, the descriptions unimportant in the vast scale of character descriptions.
On a scale of one to ten, I would put North and South at a high eight.
I hope you enjoyed this new type of post. Yet again I will try and write more frequently, despite being back into uni and all of my reading lists.