I’ve just treated myself to re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855). I LOVE this book – it is deliciously romantic; I feel a real affinity with Margaret Hale (in all her often misplaced attempts to do the right thing); and the thoughtfulness of its social engagement lingers long after the final page is turned.
|Cover of 1867 edition, by George du Maurier. Source: Wikipedia.|
Margaret is the daughter of a clergyman who resigns his living in Helstone, in rural Hampshire for reasons of conscience: they move to the industrial northern town of Milton. The move represents a rupture of all that Margaret loved and valued, and she is somewhat repulsed by what she sees as the ugliness of Milton and the subservience of the bonds of human warmth to the diktats of trade. She makes regular visits to the mill-workers, who are a little dubious of the rather patronising nature of her kindness, and she passionately expresses their point-of-view during a strike to the mill owner, Mr Thornton. All the while, Margaret is desperately homesick for her charming life at Helstone: everything that is wrong with Milton is, at least implicitly, wrong by comparison with the idyll that was her home. And, of course, everything that appears to her to be wrong with Mr Thornton is bound up in this sense of homesickness and dislocation. The North seems to Margaret to be a place so caught up in the making of money as to drown emotional engagements: she sees masters and workers incapable of communicating with one another, despite, or perhaps because of, a much greater degree of mobility between classes and constant competition. As she remembers it, the South was a place where rich and poor treated one another with compassion and human kindness, despite, or again perhaps because of, more rigid hierarchies. Margaret’s nostalgia for her Hampshire pastoral idyll is really not about social equality: she hates the exploitation of others in industry, but the order she nostalgically uses to critique it is one of unbending social ranks.
But Margaret is only 19 at the start of the novel – and, in many ways, she grows up far more than do her parents over the course of the story. She learns to value Milton life and its ways. She learns, very painfully, what was misplaced about her judgements both on Milton and on Mr Thornton. As the value judgements she passes on the North become more complex, so too does her nostalgia for the South. And when, near the end of the novel, she returns for a day to Helstone with an elderly friend, she is shocked and dispirited to find, not only a rather obnoxious new vicar and his family in her old home, but a level of superstition and prejudice amongst her erstwhile neighbours that her nostalgia had somehow managed to obscure.
It is only in the final pages of the novel that we learn that Mr Thornton, who has loved Margaret confusedly but unstintingly, has visited Helstone himself. He realised the extent to which Margaret felt rooted in, and identified by, this place. He gathers some flowers, which he keeps sentimentally in his pocket book. It’s a very lovely moment, but it’s complicated by the nuancing of Margaret’s own attitudes to Helstone by this point in the novel. She now sees the extent of her idealisation of the place, and the values which she seemed to long for have been reshaped by both her experience and simply by growing up.
In many ways then, this is a novel really built around the theme of nostalgia. It is both the stimulus and the frame for the social critiques which lie at the heart of the narrative. But nostalgia is also a journey. The feeling itself is shifting and catches the light from different angles as the novel progresses. Margaret never stops loving her first home and all that it seemed to represent, but she learns to cast that love differently and more expansively as new experiences burst into the frame.