In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. (Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Lectures on Literature)
I’m going to collect one of North and South’s trifles. It is a particularly pleasant one to fondle, made of real Indian silk, with a “soft feel” and “brilliant colors,” or so I am told in the first chapter, when the Indian shawl is introduced. In a mildly comic scene, our heroine Margaret is buried in shawls, “laden with shawls, and snuffing up their spicy Eastern smell.” She seems to be doing a bit of fondling herself. Anyone who has one is “a lucky girl.” They are “very perfect things of their kind.”
At this point, the shawls serve two purposes: this one detail, this excess of shawls, conveys the scope of the wealth of Margaret’s London relatives, and its source in Indian ventures; and Margaret’s modeling of the shawls gives Gaskell her first excuse to describe her protagonist to the reader. A few pages later, the shawls are briefly mentioned again. Margaret’s suitor, Henry Lennox, vulgarly admires their monetary value.
Difficult circumstances force Margaret to an industrial city, where her own Indian shawl, apparently a gift from her aunt’s heap, takes on a personal meaning. It is one of her few luxuries. She is now the poor gentlewoman with the unusually nice shawl, something the poor children like to touch.
If the shawl is so important, it must be involved in the romantic plot. Let’s see, when does Margaret meet Thornton? Chapter 7:
Her dress was very plain: a close straw bonnet of the best material and shape, trimmed with white ribbon; a dark silk gown, without any trimming or flounce; a large Indian shawl, which hung about her in long heavy folds, and which she wore as an empress wears her drapery.
We’re seeing Margaret through Thornton’s eyes. He is the no-nonsense self-made man of business, but his response to the shawl is poetic, entirely different than that of Henry Lennox.
I could continue with the shawl, but at this exact point in the novel, the shawl theme intersects with the interior decoration theme. Margaret has just discovered that, in the industrial town, apartments are not only expensive but decorated in the worst possible taste.
She had never come fairly in contact with the taste that loves ornament, however bad, more than the plainness and simplicity which are of themselves the framework of elegance.
Hey, is that a dig at me? I love ornament in fiction, although I like to pretend that I only like good ornament.
Every dwelling in the novel is at some point described in terms of the taste of its décor. Taste is a signifier of – well, it depends on who is looking. Henry Lennox, suitor #1, seeing the tasteful but faded carpets and curtains of Margaret and her family in Chapter 3 interprets them economically (the family is poorer than he had thought), just as he did the shawl, two chapters earlier. Thornton, in the same situation (Ch. 10), notices all sorts of specific objects and intuitively understands them as an extension of Margaret herself, even though he barely knows her. He also contrasts them with the sterile, uncomfortable (and, although he does not know it, tasteless) decoration of his own home.
Again, I could keep going, but will not. The only point I really want to make is, this is skilled, controlled writing, yes? Dang good. North and South is rarely written along these principles. It could have been. Gaskell knew how to do it.