“Read nothing but what is truly good or what is frankly bad.”
This famous line of Gertrude Stein’s has always struck me as remarkably silly advice. Why read anything bad at all? And what does it mean to be “frankly bad”? But what bad writer has ever been frank about his badness? Take a look for example at Stephen King’s acceptance speech after winning a National Book Award. He thinks he’s a blinking genius.
Conversely, are we truly to read nothing but what is of the very highest merit? (For one thing, that would rule out almost all of Stein’s own work!) No Patrick O’Brian? No Anthony Trollope? No Booth Tarkington or Dorothy Parker? No (to come to the point) Elizabeth Gaskell?
Gaskell is an early Victorian writer who fell badly out of fashion in the 20th century. You can certainly see why! She is wordy, preachy, and sentimental, everything that the great Modernists repudiated.
North and South is Gaskell’s most famous novel, and I have to say I very nearly did not finish it. Gaskell worked at the heyday of the notorious Victorian lending library system. The libraries required writers to extend their stories over three volumes (thus multiplying the number of loans the libraries could extract from each purchased book). Result: horrible padding spiced up by improbable coincidences and plot contortions to force reader interest until enough pages have been filled and the author can wrap up her story.
And yet I did finish, and I’m glad I did. Nobody would call Gaskell’s work “truly good.” And yet it’s interesting in its own way – in some ways more interesting than better books.
Gaskell wrote what her contemporaries called “industrial novels”: novels intended to cast a critical light on the sudden transformation of English social life by the spread of factories and the growth of an urban working class. In many ways, these books functioned more like modern documentaries than like other novels – and indeed the thought often occurred to me while listening to North and South that Gaskell would have been happier if she could have omitted the story part of her story altogether: for she is at her weakest when attempting to do the novelist’s work of creating characters and imagining interior lives.
North and South tells the story of a young woman, Margaret Hale. Though not wealthy, Margaret is a member of the traditional gentry class: Her father is an Oxford-educated clergyman; her mother is the daughter of a baronet. Through an improbable series of events, Margaret and her parents are transplanted north to the fictitious industrial town of Milton-Northern.There, Margaret becomes intimate both with the family of a working man and with the family of a millowner.
I’ll shear away here an efflorescence of tedious subplots, and cut to the ending. The millowner falls in love with Margaret and proposes. Margaret refuses. Only when it is (seemingly) too late does Margaret realize she has indeed loved the millowner all along. Then comes a financial crisis. The millowner is ruined. Margaret inherits a (landed) legacy. She rescues the millowner financially – and they are happily reunited
Along the way, Margaret learns to reconsider some of her snobbish distaste for trade and commerce – and her millowner husband is brought to a new appreciation of the need for some kind of social cohesion more intimate than the mere “cash nexus” – yes, he actually uses that term.
Yet it’s hard to enter very deeply into this moral transformation, because Gaskell lacks the art of creating compelling characters. The heroine, Margaret, is one of the more off-putting young heroines in the Victorian canon. In all the long length of North and South, she shows zero sense of humor and not much intelligence. Although she attracts two marriage proposals along the way, there is nothing in any way fetching about her. Her idea of flirtation is to lecture the men who court about the need to lead more serious lives. Even in 1850, that cannot have been very alluring.
(This problem is made worse in the audiobook I heard by an unusually awful reading, in which a male narrator delivered Margaret’s dialogue in a falsetto voice that sounded exactly like Nell in the Dudley Do-Right cartoons.)
True, Margaret cares about something more than parties and dresses – the preoccupations of almost every other woman in the novel, including her foolish mother. Her compassion for a dying factory girl ais inflicted with a liberal seasoning of Margaret’s blithe confidence in her social superiority – a confidence all too dismally shared by the narrator herself.
The millowner – John Thornton is his name – is hardly a character at all. He is a stock figure to illustrate Gaskell’s pet ideas. Gaskell’s snobbery intrudes here too. The millowner is supposed to stand for the self-made men of the industrial north: vigorous, yes, but also brash, harsh, and unspiritual. Yet Gaskell cannot bear to give her heroine away to such a man – so she keeps dropping hints that he is not really quite so self-made. We are allowed to glimpse upon Thornton’s mother some antique lace
of that old English point which has not been made for this seventy years, and which cannot be bought. It must have been an heir-loom, and shows that she had ancestors.
Well that’s a relief! And indeed we learn that Thornton’s father had been a man of wealth, ruined by unfortunate speculations, and that Thornton’s first concern once he has recovered his fortunes somewhat is to acquire some grounding in Greek and Latin and become something resembling a gentleman. The gentlemanly code is reaffirmed in the final scene, when Thornton rebuilds his enterprises upon the more secure foundation of Margaret’s acreage. North and South are reconciled – but there is no question about which is to be dominant.
Why read this book 150 years later? Well there’s the fascination of the small details – Gaskell’s explanation of the Victorian social convention, previously unknown to me, that frowned upon women’s attendance at public funerals. Her description of a strike is vivid, ditto the origins of trade unions, ditto again the contrasts between the manners and lives of working people in factories and in agriculture.
This first glimpse of a northern beach town almost compensates for Margaret’s personal insipidity:
The country carts had more iron, and less wood and leather about the horse-gear; the people in the streets, although on pleasure bent, had yet a busy mind. The colours looked grayerÑmore enduring, not so gay and pretty. There were no smock-frocks, even among the country folk; they retarded motion, and were apt to catch on machinery, and so the habit of wearing them had died out. In such towns in the south of England, Margaret had seen the shopmen, when not employed in their business, lounging a little at their doors, enjoying the fresh air, and the look up and down the street. Here, if they had any leisure from customers, they made themselves business in the shop ….
And this next bit offers an even more interesting window into the mindsets of a vanished era. Margaret has just made the acquaintance of a working-class neighbor and his daughter. She asks the man his name. He demands to know why she asks.
Margaret was surprised at this last question, for at Helstone [her Southern home town] it would have been an understood thing, after the inquiries she had made, that she intended to come and call upon any poor neighbour whose name and habitation she had asked for.
‘I thoughtÑI meant to come and see you.’ She suddenly felt rather shy of offering the visit, without having any reason to give for her wish to make it, beyond a kindly interest in a stranger. It seemed all at once to take the shape of an impertinence on her part; she read this meaning too in the man’s eyes.
‘I’m none so fond of having strange folk in my house.’ But then relenting, as he saw her heightened colour, he added, ‘Yo’re a foreigner, as one may say, and maybe don’t know many folk here, and yo’ve given my wench here flowers out of yo’r own hand;Ñyo may come if yo like.’
Margaret was half-amused, half-nettled at this answer. She was not sure if she would go where permission was given so like a favour conferred.
Industrialization did much harm to the first generation to experience it: It mangled limbs and blackened lungs. But it also emancipated people who worked with their hands – freeing them from having to welcome an uninvited visit from a Margaret Hale as a marvelous gratuity.
To her credit, Gaskell does see this. Back in their Southern home, the Hales had employed a household of servants at low wages. Here is Gaskell’s description of their attempt to hire a single serving-maid for their new house up North. BTW, the “she” in the antecedent is not Margaret, but the Hales’ feudal-minded housekeeper:
[N]othing short of her faithful love for Mrs. Hale could have made her endure the rough independent way in which all the Milton girls who made application for the servant’s place, replied to her inquiries respecting their qualifications. They even went the length of questioning her back again; having doubts and fears of their own, as to the solvency of a family who lived in a house of thirty pounds a-year, and yet gave themselves airs, and kept two servants, one of them so very high and mighty. Mr. Hale was no longer looked upon as Vicar of Helstone, but as a man who only spent at a certain rate. Margaret was weary and impatient of the accounts … of the behaviour of these would-be servants. Not but what Margaret was repelled by the rough uncourteous manners of these people; not but what she shrunk with fastidious pride from their hail-fellow accost and severely resented their unconcealed curiosity as to the means and position of any family who lived in Milton, and yet were not engaged in trade of some kind.
Margaret accordingly went up and down to butchers and grocers, seeking for a nonpareil of a girl; and lowering her hopes and expectations every week, as she found the difficulty of meeting with any one in a manufacturing town who did not prefer the better wages and greater independence of working in a mill.
I remember reading once (I forget where) that we can learn more about the past from its mediocre works than from its outstanding ones, precisely because outstanding work is by definition exceptional – while mediocre work fixes for all time the assumptions and habits of mind of the age in which it was created. North and South vindicates that observation, an observation which is the strongest of all counter-arguments to that clever but wrongheaded epigram of Gertrude Stein’s.