Every time is a good time for classical literature especially those addressing women’s issues, a hot topic for modern women. We can count the works of Elizabeth Gaskell (author of the popular historical romance North and South) as an important part of that canon from the Victorian era.
A consistent thread weaves through Gaskell’s novels. It stems from her concerns—expressed in letters to friends and family— about how women viewed and dealt with their world including the changes taking place in industrializing England.
The titles of many Gaskell books, which bear the names of her heroines, attest to the importance she placed on women’s issues. But Charles Dickens, who first published North and South, wanted to focus on the stark contrasts between north and south England and suggested a title reflecting such contrasts. He might have believed they were of greater interest to the male-dominated societies of the period. Hence, North and South instead of Margaret Hale. The change shifted the lens away from Gaskell’s preoccupation with women’s issues. Issues Victorian society ignored or, worse, assumed as nonexistent.
While often put on a pedestal, Victorian women were also thought inferior to men. They can be worshiped for their grace and beauty, but they’re good only for keeping house, bearing children and maybe adorning a man’s image. But three strong women in N&S—Mrs. Thornton, Margaret, and the maid Dixon—don’t fit this image.
At its core, N&S is a love story set against a backdrop of violent strikes while the industrial revolution raged on in England. As a secondary plot, it shows the working class fighting for their rights against tyrannical masters.
A sequel I wrote of N&S (Margaret of the North) is more of a Victorian feminist bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) couched in romance. The romance, though, is not only in the love between John Thornton and Margaret Hale. It’s also in the adventure and thrill Margaret finds as she pursues her various passions.
Margaret moves from an idyllic Southern village to a harsh bustling Northern city. There, she has to face not only her place in a fast changing society. She also becomes more aware of her needs as a woman. And she wants to help make life better for the working class.
As I refocus on Margaret’s journey into a fully evolved, involved individual, I pay homage to Ms. Gaskell and return to the themes that reflect her concerns about being a woman, those we now think of as women’s issues.
Some literary scholars have noted that Gaskell’s characters often wallow in their thoughts and feelings. In Margaret of the North, it’s not just Margaret who does. John Thornton, who goes through his own trajectory of growth, develops his tender spot and tempers his alpha male. In contrast, practical Mrs. Thornton is a staunch defender of the old order. She has changed little by the time she dies at the end of the novel. Like many others, this is my bias: One must live an examined life in order to grow.
Modern readers may find the story slow. There’s not much that looks like exciting action; instead I go into characters’ thoughts a lot. Sadly, I think our high tech world of instant information which we get in small bytes is shredding our attention span. We have become impatient with the time and reflection it takes to know ourselves and grow.