Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Gaskell grumbling - North and South, complaints first

Should I spend a few days writing about Elizabeth Gaskell’s mature industrial novel, North and South (1855)?  I fear I did not read it well.  Perhaps a kind-hearted reader will help me out.

I read Gaskell after and amidst some especially writerly writers.  After the exquisitely crafted patternings of Vladimir Nabokov, or the rhetorical cloud-castles of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, the plain ol’ novel writing of Elizabeth Gaskell looked pretty thin at the sentence level.  Competent, but the prose of Cranford, finished two years earlier, was a lot better than competent.

Since I was reading the Norton Critical Edition, I could at least turn to the selection of supporting materials for assistance with understanding the art of Gaskell.  Let’s see:  “Mrs. Gaskell and Christian Interventionism in North and South” -  well, that is not quite what I have in mind.  “Political Economy in North and South” – yes, there is quite a lot of that.*  “Factory Work for Women” – oh, now, come on.  All right, I see where this is going.  No one is too interested in fondling the details or unpacking the surprises of North and South.**   Critics and readers must bow their heads to the difficult task of improving the Condition of England.

Rohan Maitzen describes North and South as “both artistically and intellectually a better book” than Mary Barton (1848), and I agree completely, although Mary Barton is not such a high standard, nothing like the ingenious, richly imagined CranfordJenny of Shelf Love declares Cranford “minor” and North and South “as complex and substantial as nearly any 19th-century novel I’ve ever read.”  If I were ranking 19th century novels by complexity and heft, North and South would be well down the list.  But my list would likely be topped by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which should encapsulate the aesthetic differences between Jenny and me.

I did think the novel improved as it moved along.  Gaskell is excellent in individual scenes and passages, and there were more good ones in the second half – she has a deft hand with a death scene, and the back half of North and South has plenty of those.  The worst piece of plotting is in the back as well, though, but the less said about that, the better.  I can imagine a radical sequel in which Leonards’s brother comes to Manchester to stubbornly, passionately fight for justice; after many obstacles and the sacrifice of his health and true love, he sees both the murderer of his brother, and the corrupt magistrate who covered up the crime, imprisoned, bankrupted, and disgraced.  Neither the Critical Edition essays nor the blog posts I have surveyed have much interest in poor Leonards.***

Please read Jenny and Teresa’s discussion for the pro-North and South case.  Please visit Rohan’s post, which contains a long excerpt from one of the best (best written!) scenes in the novel.  Please point me to other well-written blog posts on the novel.  My survey of the terrain was disheartening.  For the next two days, my own pro-Gaskell case, or parts of it.

* See Book I, Chapter 15, in which the hero and heroine debate the question, with the hero representing the views of Thomas Carlyle, and the heroine also representing the views of Thomas Carlyle.  He is the “hard” side of Carlyle; she is the “soft.”  By the end of the novel, the characters work together to create the ideal Carlyle.

** Why, for example, does the novel begin and end in the same room, the “back drawing-room in Harley Street”?  Here is evidence of a novelist writing a novel.

*** I realize that this passage makes no sense to anyone who has not read North and South.  To those who have:  ???.  Also: did Gaskell invent the “I see her with another man oh she will never love me but the other man is actually her brother!” nonsense, or was it already a cliché in 1855?


  1. Phooey.

    Well, I'm ready to be schooled. I really liked North and South, and thought it was well worth reading, but my approach may have been colored by my immediate read of it, and I admit it hasn't stuck with me as much as it might if it had the heft you're looking for. I think when I made that extravagant claim, I was trying to express my surprise that Gaskell isn't as well-known, in her way, as Dickens, since I think this novel is certainly as good as some (not all) of Dickens. But I take back the extravagance.

    As for the aesthetic difference between us, Amateur Reader, you're nothing but a pack of cards!

  2. I've been struggling with North and South for months now. I don't know how much of it is my own reluctance to dive into a 19th century read (they weigh a little heavier on the soul...), or my lack of time, or just my relationship with the book. Either way, every week or so I'll read a few more pages before setting it aside for something a little... better. Some scenes are brilliant, but I'm just not getting into it properly...

  3. (Argh, I just wrote a whole long comment and Blogger ate it. So here's another try!)

    Interesting and thought-provoking as always. No, at the sentence level, I agree that there's not much defense to be made here, unless you think less about artistic effects or sophisticated language and more about what the sentences are used for. I'd start my defense with character, Margaret in particular, who is an interesting cousin to Lizzie Bennet (N&S is obviously an industrial version of P&P, with the same mutual re-education plot) but also to Dorothea Brooke (who also struggles to figure out what she can and should do with her life as a woman)--how can Margaret do what she thinks is right and important in her life without her actions being redefined as sexual, for instance? Thornton is interesting too. They do embody the Carlylean debate you identify, but they do more than than too.

    The patterns that interest me are on a larger scale than the sentence: there's a persistent interest in the significance of mobility, for example, literalized in Margaret's walks through town but also important in terms of the social changes the novel is addressing. Conversation, too, is key both to the operations of the novel and to its larger proposed solution to the 'condition of England' problem. Gaskell is much more literal in her treatment of this than Dickens--the smoke of Milton-Northern is nothing like the fog in Bleak House, but then if you wanted to compare how the two authors think about England's social problems, comparing their use of these elements is actually quite interesting, just as it is interesting to compare Gaskell's chapter 'Masters and Men' to Dickens's of the same name in Hard Times.

    So that's where I'd begin, that, and I personally find it a very readable novel, despite the occasional burps in the plot (like the melodramatic train station bit, you're right about that! but I'm intrigued about why Margaret is quite so overwhelmed by lying about it--again, I approach it through an interest in her characterization and just what it is that she is struggling to be or do.) I'll be interested to see if your defense is very different!

  4. It's been several decades since I read North and South. I can only say that I admired it very much at the time.

    I see, from the critics you cited and from Jenny as well as Rohan here, that those of us who admire it do so for reasons other than "good sentences." I don't know if this is just a trap that all socially conscious novels fall into, or it North and South really isn't all that good at the sentence level. It's been too long since I read it.

    I do agree that Cranford is her best work, but I still believe that readers will find North and South a rewarding book, if only for the chance to view a time and place without the intrusion of aesthetics. It's a very straightforward tale.

  5. I was disappointed in the writing of North and South after reading Cranford. I really wanted to see a story I loved from the movie paired with the writing of Cranford but it just didn't happen. I enjoyed it nonetheless, and I agree, it did get better as the novel went along.

  6. I want to mention that I have no stake in being right about anything I have written here. Except for the insipidness of the "it's her brother" device. I'll argue that into the ground.

    So, for example, Jenny and Teresa's post identifies some interesting repeated patterns that Gaskell uses - a master-servant theme that is brought up in all sorts of contexts (e.g., Margaret's subservience to the simpering Edith), although only developed in a few. This, like the mobility theme Rohan mentions, is artful. Writing the novel so that its language tied into, reinforced, contradicted, etc. these themes would be more artful.

    I'm trying to decide if I want to write much about Margaret. If I were writing a real defense, I would have to - if her character were a failure, no one without a PhD would read this novel. But she's a success, a big one. She becomes more interesting as the book progresses, as Gaskell tests her in various ways, even crushes her. I would occasionally remind myself that she is 19 years old for much of the novel!

    Compared to Dickens, to Hard Times - Dickens is so much more creative, but what a primitive thinker! Gaskell thinks rings around him.

    biblibio - A 20th century version of the story would benefit from some basic time fragmenting - starting the novel in the North and flashing back to the South when necessary. As it is, Gaskell spends a lot of time doing spadework before the novel gets rolling, I would say around the strike scene. A lot of her mulching and aerating and watering pays off near the end.

    And by the way, if you're finding 19th century novels a little heavy, I can get you a list to change your mind - the Light 19th century, the Ponderous 20th. We'll start out with Herman Broch, and follow that with, say, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Soon the 19th century will seem like a lark.

    without the intrusion of aesthetics - North and South is still a novel! It is by definition an aesthetic object. The reader who wants to escape aesthetics will be more disappointed than I was. Everywhere he looks, on every page, he will find aesthetic choices, good or bad.

    That's the wrong word, for me - I was not disappointed, nor was I actually expecting Cranford - maybe hoping, a bit. And sometimes, there in fact were little glimpses, like when Gaskell suggests that staid Margaret and stuffy Dr. Bell might steal the silver at an inn.

  7. Yes, what Rohan said. I don't think North and South's strength is in the language but in the big-picture stuff--the characters, the themes, the repeated patterns. The language is adequate for the job, which is to say that I didn't notice it one way or another.

    I think if you're going to move on to defend the novel, it would be hard to do so without talking about Margaret. To me, she's the thing that makes the novel work, despite what I agree is a silly and contrived misunderstanding at the train station. (Silly and contrived misunderstandings, however, are a staple of the romance novel, so I couldn't get to cranky about it, as this is a romance of sorts.)

    I do need to reread Cranford one of these days. I read it only after reading Mary Barton and Ruth, so I picked it up when I was in the mood for an "issues" novel and was more than a little taken aback by what I got. That doesn't make it a bad book; I found it charming, but I did spend a good portion of it waiting for some crisis to arise, and this kept me from appreciating the book for what it actually is.

  8. Here we have those aesthetic differences again! Different ones, maybe.

    I do not actually want to defend the novel as such, which is doing all right on its own. I want to defend the language of the novel. The central principle of Wuthering Expectations is self-contradiction.

    So Margaret will have to wait for someone else's post - although I will note that her "crisis" closely parallels that of Matty in Cranford, and I do not see how Matty's crisis is any less serious or significant than Margaret's. There is a lot more to Cranford than charm.

    Now, those contrived misunderstandings in romance novels - do they typically involve manslaughter, as in North and South? If so, romances are more interesting than I had thought.

  9. In all honesty, I read this so long ago that I can't remember individual scenes. Should probably reread, but in the meantime...

    When I read it I found it to be one of the more interesting of 19th century books on my reading list. This may have been personal preference and identification with Margaret. I also agree that Gaskell is excellent at individual scenes and I recall liking her dialogue. Apart from that I'm useless!

  10. one of the more interesting of 19th century books on my reading list

    That reading list - it didn't have anything to do with your PhD study, specialty: mid-Victorian fiction? Because that list may not have been perfectly representative of the most interesting novels of the 19th century. A little low on German and Russian fiction, for example, although it might have had Lewis Carroll.

    Besides, when did I challenge the interest of North and South? Any reader with the slightest interest in the Victorian novel should read Mary Barton and North and South.

  11. Sorry, sorry, I think you took that as relating to your views when it was more aimed at my own. I was actually referring to my undergrad reading list, a little more evenly spread around the century: Austen up to Stoker.

  12. While I'm on this bent, any reader with a more than slight interest in Victorian fiction should read Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present. I had no idea how useful it would be.

    Does anyone believe me? It's true, I swear.

    CharmedLassie - no apologies necessary. We're all just following the thread of the argument, wherever it might go.

  13. I'm sure you're right, A.R, that Cranford has a lot more than charm. That's why I need to reread it. It's been at least 12 years, and I'm a better reader now than I was then.

    As for misunderstandings that lead to manslaughter, I don't read enough romance to say how often that happens, but I wouldn't be surprised if the more Gothic-inspired romances were chock-a-block with that kind of thing :)

  14. I don't think I read any of Gaskell for the writing -- I think she's great at setting up scene and makign characters I like. I did like this one very much, I even liked Mary Barton even though I saw it was pretty awfully written and constructed.

  15. For setting up scene and creating characters, writing is all Gaskell's got. It's the only tool in her belt.

    I liked North and South, too, as well as Mary Barton.