The first time I read North and South was during the Fall of 2010. Elizabeth Gaskell's work was on the syllabus for one of my university courses and, due to time constraints, I had to read through it very very quickly. After finishing my classes (and joining the Wordsworth Classics Challenge 2011) I wanted to read more Victorian work... and I thought a thorough read of North and South would be a good place to start.
North and South depicts a wealthy southern family's move to the manufacturing town of Milton during the 1800s. Gaskell expertly describes tensions between northern and southern regions of England, religious denominations, the education system, science and technology, and society's increasing scrutiny of the role of mothers in a child's upbringing. Gaskell's work both highlights these themes and, through doing so, provides a pertinent window into nineteenth-century English society and culture.
Differences between English populations, regions, and classes are emphasized within Gaskell's work. Yet, I find that the novel portrays a common humanity that connects the English together. It may be an idealistic stance, but it is one that leaves the reader content upon completion of the novel.
Marriage was one of the central themes in Gaskell's novel that kept my interest. Why one should marry - whether it be for love or money - is frequently examined by North and South's characters.
On the cover of the Penguin edition of the novel, The Guardian states that Gaskell has written "a wonderful love story." During my university class discussions many classmates stated that they could not see the 'romantic' qualities of Gaskell's work. I think this is due to a failure to interpret the theme of marriage in the novel. Gaskell's work becomes much more romantic if you interpret the novel as a commentary on marrying for love or money. Also, it is important to note that the Victorians could not have published a 'romantic' novel that meets twenty-first century expectations.
Overall, North and South is a great piece of Victorian literature. It is a dynamic, fast paced, and a highly engaging read. I would recommend this book to any reader searching for a nineteenth-century British romance novel.