Margaret of the North, Victorian Feminist Romance

posted in: A Writer's Life, Blog, Books | 1

Margaret of the North, the first novel I published, is a historical novel. It’s a sequel to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a much loved classic, at least in its form as a BBC miniseries. Why write a sequel?

I actually didn’t know about the novel until I saw the miniseries. Like many viewers, I loved it. When that happens I very often read the book it’s based on. As it also sometimes happens when a book or film touches me, I continue it in my mind. So, I thought: Why not put it down on paper?

Below is a preface to Margaret of the North. In it, I talk about my approach.

The Preface

Margaret of the North
Margaret of the North

If you’re expecting a sexy plot, you may be disappointed in Margaret of the North, my first novel and a sequel to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I was more concerned with character development than a thrilling climax (no pun intended). Conflicts and tendresse occur just as much within the psyches of characters as they do openly between them, and the story progresses in as natural a fashion as I could imagine life to happen.

Inner Voice. The main characters in Gaskell’s book are said to be “interior” oriented; that is, they often look inward, into their thoughts and feelings. I continue this approach in Margaret of the North, particularly with Margaret.

Gaskell’s novel has been described as a romance against a backdrop of industrial upheavals and their occasionally violent strikes. I wrote Margaret of the North as a kind of Victorian feminist bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) couched in romance. Yes, the romance is there. But equally stressed is Margaret’s inner adventure as she fully realizes her womanhood and finds her place in a rapidly changing society.

This is my bias: I think introspection (self-analysis, soul-searching) is essential to a journey of discovery and growth.

Margaret, iPad "painting," my illustration
Margaret, iPad “painting,” my illustration


Writing Style. Doing art—whether it is painting or writing—commits the creator to a series of decisions. How big a canvas should I use? Or, should this story swirling in my head be a short story or an epic? How should I apply my brushstrokes—with a brush of a certain size or a palette knife? With what colors? Or, what kind of viewpoint would make my story more intriguing? And how should I express the themes of the story? On and on. Many times, we may not be conscious that as we create, we are making decisions or even problem solving.

With this novel, I chose to write in a style as close as I could get to that of 19th-century writers. I suppose I thought it would fit the story better. Besides, I wanted to see if I was up to the task. I had read enough Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters that I thought I could pull it off. So, in fact, it was a dare I posed myself. I know this approach has its problems: It can seem antiquated, stilted, daunting at the very least, and most likely, impossible. Still, I had some trouble imagining the characters talking like my niece or my son and using currently popular forms of expression.

I have attempted to pay homage to Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen and show my admiration and indebtedness to them. Like these writers, I use an omniscient viewpoint throughout the novel. I was also conscious of trodding in their footsteps when I wrote the second to the last chapter. Gaskell opened North and South, with scenes typical of the Austenian novel of manners. In the penultimate chapter, I borrow a frequent theme in Austen—the vagaries of courtship among young people of the period.

The prologue of Margaret of the North borrows liberally from the last scene of the BBC adaptation of Gaskell’s novel, mostly because Gaskell’s ending, to me, seemed not fully realized.

I don’t think the decisions we make when we create can be judged either right or wrong; such is true as well for reading preferences. I made choices when I wrote this novel that may appeal to some and repulse others. And that’s all right.

  1. Rich

    A complex understanding of your writing Margaret of the north. Also a complex understanding of the novels of that period, adopting an effort to show interiority just as The novelist Gaskell used.

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