Now and then I come across a sentence that is oddly phrased:
“Mr. Thornton had thought that the house in Crampton was really just the thing; but now that he saw Margaret, with her superb ways of moving and looking, he began to feel ashamed of having imagined that it would do very well for the Hales, in spite of a certain vulgarity in it which had struck him at the time of his looking it over.” (Ch.7)Don’t you think it would be much better if it were “Mr. Thornton had thought that the house in Crampton was really just the thing, in spite of a certain vulgarity in it which had struck him at the time of his looking it over; but now that he saw Margaret, with her superb ways of moving and looking, he began to feel ashamed of having imagined that it would do very well for the Hales.”?
Or a strange simile:
“But the little altercation between her son and her daughter did not incline Mrs. Thornton more favourably towards 'these Hales.' Her jealous heart repeated her daughter's question, 'Who are they, that he is so anxious we should pay them all this attention?' It came up like a burden to a song, long after Fanny had forgotten all about it in the pleasant excitement of seeing the effect of a new bonnet in the looking-glass.” (Ch.12)(my emphasis)
The characterisation isn’t much to write about either. Elizabeth Gaskell’s characters, at least in North and South, are not as interesting as characters by some other Victorian novelists, and perhaps not so memorable.
However, the book does improve.
My favourite so far is chapter 12, when Mrs Thornton and Fanny (John Thornton’s mother and sister) come visit the Hales.
It is a well-written scene: the visitors come with reluctance whilst the hosts are either indifferent (Mrs Hale) or distracted (Margaret—as she thinks more about seeing her friend Bessy Higgins later); both sides have their own prejudices and try to be civil whilst silently judging each other; and the conversation also shows the clashes between them—North vs South, middle class vs working class, old residents vs newcomers, etc.
Take these lines, from Mrs Thornton:
“I merely thought, that as strangers newly come to reside in a town which has risen to eminence in the country, from the character and progress of its peculiar business, you might have cared to visit some of the places where it is carried on; places unique in the kingdom, I am informed. If Miss Hale changes her mind and condescends to be curious as to the manufactures of Milton, I can only say I shall be glad to procure her admission to print-works, or reed-making, or the more simple operations of spinning carried on in my son's mill.”That’s delicious. Such a passive aggressive tone.
As I said, North and South gets better. The way to read it is to read it as a social novel. The beginning may be misleading—the preparations for a wedding make it look like another romance novel, or a novel with a marriage plot, and it looks like Edith may have a rather important role, but she quickly disappears before she can be remembered. As a social novel, it is interesting—Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t only write about North and South, the clashes between classes, class prejudice, and workers’ conditions, but also mentions tyranny and injustices in the Navy, and mutiny.