If you're British, you'll be well used to the concept of the north/south divide. Being a southerner myself, but having lived and worked for more than twenty years in the north, I can tell you that there are certainly some differences, though far fewer in many instances than the sterotypes might suggest. But in 1854, when Elizabeth Gaskell published North and South, the differences must have seemed enormous and insuperable.
In this great novel, nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale, together with her parents, is forced by circumstances to leave her lovely home in an idyllic southern country village and move to the northern town that Gaskell calls Milton. Obviously based on Manchester, where Gaskell herself lived, this is an industrial town that has expanded massively over the past few decades. The Hales are initially horrified by the harshness of the environment, and Margaret soon encounters at first hand examples of the clashes between masters and men, and the strikes that ensue. She also meets one of the masters, the self-made John Thornton, who is reading Greek with her father. At first they don't take to each other at all -- she thinks he's coarse, he thinks she's haughty. Well, she looks as if she is:
Margaret could not help her looks; but the short curled upper lip, the round, massive up-turned chin, the manner of carrying her head, her movements, full of a soft feminine defiance, always gave strangers the impression of haughtiness.
Before long, though, Thornton comes to admire Margaret and soon he is in love with her, but she turns down his proposal. Then she comes slowly to wonder if she's done the right thing, and finally to understand her own feelings -- but is it too late?
When I first read this book, more than twenty years ago, I was a southerner through and through, even though my grandfather, who I never knew, was born in Manchester. Now, having lived some twenty miles from there, I know the city like the back of my hand, and this added a great deal of interest to this second reading. Manchester started life as a small and unremarkable little town, and was completely transformed in the nineteenth century to become the cotton capital of Britain, with huge factories and mills springing up all over the place. All this meant a lot to me as I have found out lots about my own family history lately and now know that my ancestor Henry Devine, a skilled weaver, came over from Ireland to work in one of those exact same mills. Gaskell deals wonderfully with the social conditions of the day. The conflict between the masters and the men is exempliefied here by Thornton and his employee Nicholas Higgins, a staunch union man. The two men start by disliking and distrusting each other, but as time goes on they grow in respect and end up as good friends, mutually helping each other.
So yes, this is what's called a Condition of England novel. But of course it is primarily Margaret's story, and Margaret is a fascinatingly unstereotypical Victorian heroine. Born to a weak father and a delicate, emotional mother, separated by circumstances from her beloved older brother Frederick, she has to grow very rapidly in strength and decisiveness when the family moves to Milton. Decisions are forced on her which no young woman would have expected to have to make, and she feels increasingly constrained by the expectations of her gender. Having disliked Milton intensely at first, she finds when she is forced to move to a fashionable household in London that life in high society has no charms for her, and longs to return to somewhere where people are more real and grounded.
I've seen this novel, or at least the relationship between Margaret and Thornton, compared to Pride and Prejudice. Well, maybe there's a grain of truth there, but this is a very different kind of novel and nobody should run away with the idea that it's sub-Austen. It's a terrific read, and highly recommended.