North and South is, I think, a rather bland book. Elizabeth Gaskell’s main strength is in the individual scenes—I’m near the end, and the best chapters are chapter 40 (Mr Hale, Mr Bell, Margaret, and Mr Thornton sit together, and Mr Thornton lets slip a mocking allusion to her lie that silences her and makes him ashamed of himself), and perhaps chapter 46 (the visit to Helstone, and the conversation between Margaret and Mr Bell about Mr Thornton).
I like Margaret Hale. Next to some 19th century heroines, she might not stand out much, but she has inner strength and self-reflection, without being perfect—she has her own prejudices, and sometimes appears haughty. Moreover, she doesn’t understand herself. Like Jane Austen’s novels, North and South is about Margaret growing, learning, and coming to understand others and herself. A lot of the book is about misunderstandings, and Gaskell writes these scenes with subtlety.
I like the way Margaret changes without realising. She grows up in London with her cousin Edith’s family, then returns to Helstone for a short time, and is forced by circumstances to move to Milton, which she doesn’t like at 1st, but afterwards she returns to London and revisits Helstone but no longer feels at home at either place.
Gaskell’s prose is plain, but I won’t complain—it is remarkable what she could achieve, having to deal with the weekly serial. It’s the plotting of the book that I don’t like. It’s clumsy, and it’s like Gaskell, for the entire book or at least the 2nd half, tries to crush Margaret. I’m on chapter 48, and now Mr Bell is dead—she kills off Margaret’s friend, then mother, then father, and now even her godfather. Who will be next? Frederick?
I count 6 deaths, plus a roasted cat. Gaskell has to roast a cat too. Such cruelty.
Having said that, I know Mr Bell’s death brings Margaret liberation—she becomes an heiress, and can have all the freedom she wants. That is like the plot device at the end of Jane Eyre. An inheritance can solve all problems and bring about a happy ending.