©2008 BBC Audiobooks Ltd; (P)2008 BBC Audiobooks Ltd
Eighteen hours and eighteen minutes of this felt like so much longer, somehow. And has led to a review-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-this that seems almost as long … And ranty. That might make up for some of the length. And that's one of the reasons for my rating to be three stars instead of two – along with the fact that Juliet Stevenson's performance elevated it all, say whatever else I will say, the book did stir up emotions. Though perhaps not the emotions Miss Gaskell might have intended.
One of the quirks of my memory is that, while I know I saw the miniseries based on this book years ago, and I seem to remember liking it, I remember almost nothing about it. I know both book and film garnered effusive praise in the online community I belonged to at the time, which is why I ended up watching it, and why I spent that Audible credit on Juliet Stevenson's reading of the book. A current friend praises Ms. Stevenson to the skies – and she couldn't be more right, the performance is superb. Past and present friends praised the book to the skies… and … I … don't know.
I did some thinking about virgin goddesses, listening to this book. Depending on how you read her, Diana always was a bit of a bitchy prig; look at what happened to Medusa. Diana was a warrior, and there's no questioning her scornful courage, but while her insistence on retaining her virginity was a perfectly laudable intent, her actions in defense of it were sometimes a bit over the top, by modern eyes at least. Look at what happened to Actaeon.
Which brings me to Margaret. Her pride and her prejudices make any given Jane Austen character look absolutely logical and open-minded. She lowers herself to visit the poor and mortally ill Bessy Higgins – when she remembers – purely because she is guilted and shamed into it, and then after a while her interest is caught despite herself. Her self-centeredness and reluctance to lower herself by entering the poor Higgins home is countered only by a bold – slightly marvelous – reminder from Bessy that, eh, she never thought Margaret would show up anyhow; resignedly, Margaret determines that she will not allow this lower class girl to be able to crow over her. Afterward, she forgets to go as often as possible, or finds excuses not to. In another arena: when her first marriage proposal comes – poor mistaken fool that the man was – he was just lucky she didn't have Diana's powers or he would have suddenly been standing bewildered on four cloven hooves wondering why all those dogs were starting to drool. Her reactions to both men who dare - dare - to tell her their feelings are the same: outrage, scorn, offense. How could they ever dream of considering thinking of telling her they loved her? The cheek! The nerve! The effrontery!
For most of the book I was hoping and praying that Margaret would find herself a withered spinster at fifty, petting her cats and trying to convince herself that's the way she wanted it.
After only a few chapters, I was beginning to worry. I don't like these people – not just Margaret, almost all of them. My impression of Henry Lennox was very good – him I liked, and it seemed obvious to me that he loved Margaret. Her reaction? See above: contempt complete with a curled lip. I was revolted. She's a Victorian innocent, and unsettled by her first candidate for the role of lover – I get that. But rather than behave graciously, as I thought she was meant to do as a Victorian innocent, she squashes him like a bug. A really nasty bug. But she hopes they can still be friends. I wanted to slap her.
Then comes the upheaval at home. After a few semi-blissful days back in her country home, her father – who has been acting oddly – drops a bomb on her (and only on her): he is at odds with his church, and although he loves his work, loves his parish, loves his people, he cannot continue to serve them. The reasons for this are not explained – I suppose it is assumed that the reader will understand. I don't, and I never did have the chance to research the apparent schism. Without more information about what could cause such soul-searching, Hale comes off as a selfish, weak, pig-headed fool who injures the parish he supposedly loves by abruptly leaving it to someone else, and who injures his family by the manner in which he does so. His wife is a discontented self-centered annoyance, and he – apparently terrified at setting off a hellstorm – shirks the duty of telling her of his decision for weeks. I waited. I had a feeling I knew what was coming.
Hale has dragged his wife to a country parsonage where she is miserable, but he is happy and does good work. I'm not going to denigrate his reasons for not being able to continue – I don't know enough about the situation, so while it looks like a very poor decision to me – he won't be doing himself, his family, his cause, or his parishioners any good by up and leaving – it might be morally sound. Whatever the situation, he does everything in the most frustratingly, infuriatingly sheepishly underhanded manner. If he had said "I'm the man of the house, this is my decision, I have no choice within the scope of my conscience, I'm sorry if it inconveniences you but if you love me I hope you will support my decision" – that would have been manly. This … this is like a five year old who tells a fib about how that vase got broken, and then develops a fever from the guilt and scares the household half to death before finally tearfully confessing. He goes about writing letters and arranging his resignation and securing a replacement, all the while moping about the house taking up dramatic poses of despair without telling anyone why. By the time he finally pulls Margaret aside and spills it, it feels like one of those scenes of a drama queen drooping about with the back of her hand pressed to her forehead, sighing tremulous sighs, trying to force someone to ask her whatever's wrong – and no one does, so she's finally driven to just come out with it.
During the conversation with Margaret, he evades the subject of her mother until she finally corners him into revealing that … well… no, he hasn't told her. He's been making all these plans for weeks now and hasn't told her. Was he waiting for her to rise to his bait and ask him? She's at least as self-centered as he is, so there was never a chance of that; my impression of her is that if someone were to come to her bleeding from a head wound she would get upset about the stains on the carpet, and then faint and expect to be tended to first. Regardless, he hasn't told her – and I waited. And finally, there it was: "If I tell you all, perhaps you could break it to her tomorrow?" And Margaret's response? Should have been "Oh, no. Not a chance, mister. You should have told her – never mind me – ages ago, and you're gonna suck it up and go tell her right this second. This is your mess – you deal with it." But no.
The weakness of the man, and the passive strength of the girl – because she has no choice. She *can't* say no, or he'll – sadly – think less of her as a daughter – and, worse, she'll suffer pangs of guilt for ages thinking of herself as a bad daughter. It's ludicrous.
"They were at the lowest now; they could not be worse." – Margaret, pondering on their situation after their move.
What a disgusting line. How dare she think so? I suppose there's irony in the sentence, because things certainly will get worse for them, but to be surrounded by the poor, who are as likely to starve to death as not, and – far from realizing how well off they themselves are in comparison – to count the presence of those poor as part of why their own situation has degraded… Thoroughly ugly and distasteful.
I just did not like any of these people. JohnThornton is the closest – he seems open, honest, straightforward – but he has his prejudices and harshnesses. He is one of the only ones I can find any respect for - and even he goes completely unreasonable and hard-headed about his employees, insisting that an employer must be a dictator, and ignorance is the best state for a worker - i.e., a stupid worker is a docile worker. I simply do not find him likeable overall.
Mr. Hale is impossible. He has no backbone whatsoever – he makes Kleenex look strong and upstanding.
As the tale wore on, I began to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Hale, but she was still too vain and ridiculous to really warm up to, and every time I started to she waxed selfish and stupid again and I wanted to smother her with her own lace-lined pillows. 'Why, I should not be ill—be dying—if he had not taken me away from Helstone, to this unhealthy, smoky, sunless place.' What a hideous, lingeringly painful thing to say. Then there's the whole state of affairs regarding Frederick, Margaret's brother. He was part of a (perfectly righteous, of course) mutiny, and is now living far away under another name because of a very real danger that the authorities will catch up to him and hang him. But his mother wants to see him. Now. 'I charge you, Margaret, as you yourself hope for comfort in your last illness, bring him to me that I may bless him. Only for five minutes, Margaret. There could be no danger in five minutes. Oh, Margaret, let me see him before I die!' An hour later: 'Oh, Margaret, I'm so afraid of his coming! If he should be recognised! If he should be taken! If he should be executed, after all these years that he has kept away and lived in safety! I keep falling asleep and dreaming that he is caught and being tried.' Stupid cow. Half killing your husband with guilt isn't bad enough, but now trying to get your son killed, then heaping guilt upon your daughter's head for doing exactly what you told her to do. Stupid, selfish, disgusting cow.
Other characters: Bessy Higgins I liked somewhat, but she is a bit of a scary fanatic who threatens at one point to kill Margaret and has an unhealthy fixation on the Book of Revelation; her sister Mary is a cardboard cutout only serving to be clumsy and timid and make Bessy look better; their father might be a good man – he tries, with the strike – and I liked him in some scenes as well, but he can't stay away from the bottle, and he's hard. Martha is an auld harridan, Fanny is one to love to hate, Mrs. Thornton was possibly the most likeable and sympathetic, in an odd love-to-read-about-you-wouldn't-want-to-know-you sort of way, and … I liked Henry Lennox, dammit.
How do I feel about Margaret? Let me put it this way. My maternal grandmother's name was Margaret. It disgusts me that this creature shares her name. I kept wanting to like Margaret, and then her lip would curl again for some reason or other, or she'd forget about Bessie again, and I was back to wanting to slap her. She is a prig and a ludicrous snob, and not terribly bright, and can be outright vicious.
"She, who had hitherto felt that even the most refined remark on her personal appearance was an impertinence, had to endure undisguised admiration from these outspoken men." "These outspoken men" weren't wolf-whistling, or propositioning her, or commenting on her breasts, or anything I would expect to be called "impertinent". No. They were, rather gallantly I thought, giving her genuine compliments. Someone, quickly, call the police.
"Margaret thought she had seen the face of one of them before, and returned him a proud look of offended dignity for his somewhat impertinent stare of undisguised admiration." But see, if no one ever looked at her or found her attractive I expect she would be offended about that, too.
It's odd, because I'd swear that at some point at least one character (undoubtedly female) dismisses Margaret's looks as not beautiful but distinctive – yet she is constantly, and I do mean constantly, praised as just stunning. It did not take long for me to weary of all the compliments lavished on Margaret – not by her father or mother or her unlucky swains, but by the narrative voice. "Sweet" and "sunny" and "stately" and "elegant" … There was one lengthy description of her more than midway through – which I can't find now – which raised both my eyebrows. It's another place where I questioned whether Gaskell was injecting irony, but doesn't seem to be… "She was so gentle and ladylike in her mode of reception that her visitor was somewhat daunted". Wha - ? Since when is haughtiness and disdain and a quick temper part of the definition of "gentle" OR "ladylike"? It baffled me that this sort of thing: "her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve" – was presented as if to say "isn't she wonderful??? Because – no. Cold may go hand in hand with serene, but it's not a great pairing; if "haughty" is "lovely" then it's not the kind of lovely that's admirable. It's just absurd. Her "sweet patience" and "sweet forbearance" and yet still "her regal composure"… She's cold. She's sweet. She's sunny. She's haughty. She's patient and contemptuous and regal and – wait. She's wonderful no matter what and everyone comes to love her – even Mrs. Thornton comes to respect her … the narrator adores her …
Margaret is a Mary Sue.
That goes a long ways toward explaining my loathing of her.
I feel a little stupid that I can't tell if Elizabeth Gaskell means it or is being ironic or sarcastic when she speaks of Mr. Hale being a kindly and big-hearted gentleman, and when she describes Margaret as "sweet" despite all evidence to the contrary; one of the very last adjectives I would ever assign to Margaret is "sweet". I can't tell if the depiction of Margaret as largely inconsequential among her aunt's circle yet so astoundingly snobbish in Milton is meant to be social commentary. I hope so. I do hope so.
But there doesn't seem to be any of that. I don't know if it's having a 2012 perspective on a book published in 1855, but … bleh.
Elizabeth Gaskell's skill as a writer is, for me, in this, wildly erratic. On one (virtual) page she will present me with a bit of business I can't help but enjoy – and then a few minutes later I'll be rolling my eyes again.
Speaking of eyes, this is a partial list of how Margaret's eyes are described (thank you, Project Gutenberg):
- her large soft eyes
- the pure serenity of those eyes
- her large grave eyes
- her beautiful eyes
- yo'r clear steadfast eyes
- yo'r deep comforting eyes
- the large soft eyes that looked forth steadily at one object
- those beautiful eyes
- her deep, serious eyes
- Her grave sweet eyes
I'm sure there's more. It was just hilarious after a while. I know: Victorian. Still.
Other problems I had with the writing, in terms of pacing and plot: There is immense buildup to Frederick's coming, and then to his first meeting with his mother – and then it's skipped over, and he's gone in a minute. There is buildup to Bessy's death – and we hear about it after the fact. Then it's pretty much over, and Margaret certainly doesn't go to the funeral.
In reading people's reviews of books from other eras, I tend to become annoyed with complaints about what are now seen as completely wrong-headed mindsets. Prejudices, discrimination, particularly chauvinism, use of words which are now verboten – it's baffled me in the past, because if a book is about another time period – much less written in another time period – the characters in it cannot be expected to embrace Equal Rights and Women's Lib and so on.
Suddenly, though, with this book I'm feeling exactly what I've criticized others for expressing.
The casual racism – I put a quote in the updates somewhere – and rampant elitism were ugly and pervasive. Basically, anyone who was not exactly like or higher in rank than Margaret was worth only contempt until proven otherwise. The Irish, the poor, the country folk of Helstone and the city folk of Helstone, people in other walks of life who don't try to better themselves and those who do – everyone. It was just awful that Margaret had to be subjected to living among these inferior beings.
However I feel about the book, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the narration. It was wonderful. Juliet Stevenson uses breath and silence and pause like no other narrator I've come across yet. It's exquisite. And her characterizations were perfect. I can still hear the lines I've quoted above – especially Mrs. Hale moaning Margaret's name – in Juliet Stevenson's voice; I can't imagine how much more I would have disliked these characters if I hadn't been enjoying the reading so much. Oh – one thing I particularly enjoyed was that Mrs. Thornton's voice was made deeper than John's. I thought it was perfect. Accents were wonderful, tones were perfectly suited to the characters, I loved everything about the read. Ms. Stevenson officially became one of the narrators I will follow anywhere: I'll listen to anything as long as it's in her voice.
Even Elizabeth Gaskell.
I hear voices. But maybe that's because there's always an Audible book in my ear.
Let's just say off the top that the narration of this book is 5-star worthy. It's perfect. As to the book itself ... not so much.
Since women aren't allowed to participate fully in life, you don't ever get a real view of life's events except the selection of flowers to go with a dress. I kept waiting for something big and it just never happens. It either occurs behind closed doors or in another location while the main character frets and pines.
I'm not necessarily drawn to books with lots of violence and death and gore, but I do like books with meat and depth. This just wasn't it for me. I wanted to love it and it's just WAY too sweet for my taste. Back to listening to books with some grit...
I'll read anything good. I'm easy that way.
I just this moment finished this gorgeous book and find myself in a dreamy sort of haze. I miss Mr. Thornton (did we ever know his first name?) and Margaret so much, I wish it had never ended. If only Ms. Gaskell had been willing to grace us with a follow-up. I guess I'll have to be content with the story as is, though I think the characters will stay with me for a long time.
I particularly enjoyed the turn of phrase she provided for the character of Mr. Bell. I find myself thinking of the book as a Dickens, which of course it is not, but it is that wonderful, creative and indicative of it's time. If only Ms Gaskell had been as prolific.
Julet Stevenson was a revelation. Her pacing perfection, her accents so many and varied that I forgot I was listening to a single narrator. I was immersed. She has my undying devotion.
Humanitarian Aid Worker living in Central Asia.
I enjoy Gaskell's work and I have read most of her books. I enjoyed listening to this audio version of North and South. It was well read and listening to the book being read rather than reading it silently to myself added a new dimension to it and brought out passages I had otherwise overlooked.
Similar to the language of Jane Austen but deeper and darker in its plot, themes, and character development (similar to the Brontes), with a completely admirable and sympathetic hero and heroine, this is my first Gaskell novel but definitely not my last. The writing is superb and the story is well developed with excellent characters and a unique and interesting setting (labor disputes in northern England during industrialization period). The narrator is outstanding, with excellent dialects and accents, distinctions between male and female voices, and moving emotional portrayals of important scenes and events.
If you loved Pride and Predjudice ... then you will love this. Juliet Stevenson gives a master class in narrating, capturing voices and characters impeccably. The story has all the twists, turns and tragedies of any good early nineteenth century book. Loosely based on her own life experiences Gaskell paints a wonderful picture of a gentle woman's trials and tribulations. A good listen.
Reading is one of life's greatest pleasures...and, now that I've found audiobooks, I can read even while performing mundane tasks!
I saw a movie version of this novel years ago and loved it so I thought I'd give the book a try. So glad I did! Gaskell's social commentary (about industry and commerce) reminded me of Dickens, and her portrayal of two lovers frustratingly kept apart by misunderstanding and miscommunication reminded me of Austen. The way the characters grew to understand themselves better also reminded me of Austen. As for the narrator, I love everything that I've heard from Juliet Stevenson. She reads like she wrote these characters herself. I loved everything about this listen and highly recommend it.
I have listened to this book a few times now and enjoyed it every time. The narrator makes a huge difference and Juliet Stevenson did really well on all the different accents. I loved how she made the book come alive in audio form. The book is very well-written! The contrast the between the way of life in the industrial north of England and the wealthier south in intriguing and educational while lending substance to the text.
Say something about yourself!Bayview N.S.W. AUSTRALIA
For so long did I endure. Over and over did I go back, checking that I had not fallen asleep and missed some small moment to encourage me to move forward.
And...the reward, after 18 hours of dedication, a paltry moment, when these two tortured souls, finally whispered, and I mean whispered, a brief encouraging moment of hearfelt intimacy. Oh, be still my beating heart. Thank goodness we have moved along a little since the author penned this work.
I gave one whole star just for the narrator, Juliet Stevenson, who is one of the best. She really performs every character, never indicating emotion, but always fully inhabiting each character. But this story was soooooo dated. Everyone is a type. If you want to read good Victorian lit, choose Dickens. Choose Bronte. Choose Austen (Stevenson's narration is best). This one was just a little too predictable for me.
Against the background of 19th century social divisions, Elizabeth Gaskell adds the extra twist of the great industrial North – rural South divide. It’s a tale of morals, a clergyman giving up his position when he begins to question his faith, and a wealthy industrialist who loses everything when he refuses to take a risky investment gamble. And running through it all, the fragile blossoming romance between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Superbly read by Juliet Stevenson, this gets five stars from me.
"A true classic"
Gaskell should be as well-known and loved as Austen, Elliott and Dickens, and our understanding of 19th century literature and its relationship to society is incomplete without her. Her observation, subtlety, craft and humour make all her works thoroughly engaging and enjoyable, and North and South is perhaps her masterpiece.
While the novel is often viewed as a picture of class struggle and the tension between tradition and progress in Victorian England, I believe both of these approaches to be simplistic. Throughout this expansive work, she asks the question, "When is it right to resist authority?" Those authorities which she challenges include the Church, the government, the army, class expectations, trades union and gender roles. Her answers are never simplistic, and the consequences of resistance are never easy.
The novel has also been criticised for its seemingly abrupt ending, where it has been said that it is all "resolved over tea". Understanding that the novel was written in serial form for Dickens' "Household Words" journal, and that he sprang the need for a conclusion on her at short notice goes some way to answering this criticism. But I think she brilliantly encapsulates the themes of business, economic life and the balance of power between men and women. Decide for yourself!
Juliet Stevenson seems to be the ideal narrator for 19th century novels, and this performance demonstrates why. She is animated without resorting to caricature, and her accents never seem forced or out of place.
One final health warning: this novel contains unreflective anti-Irish racism! It mirrors an attitude I have heard creditted to Engels before: an anger at the Irish workers brought over to break strikes in the mid-19th century. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that these Irish workers were fleeing a devastating famine brought about by English Imperialism. So be warned, and try not to let this deeply ingrained attitude spoil an otherwise brilliant novel!
I have seen several TV series based on Elizabeth Gaskell novels but this is the first time I dealt with one of her books. I loved it. Juliet Stevenson is a magnificent reader and I really enjoyed the voices and accents
"Gentle, pleasant listen"
North & South meanders at a gentle pace and is soothingly read by Juliet Stevenson. The tale doesn't seem terribly believable as whole life story but the events, situations and places are believably portrayed and described. This audio book choice for me suited in length, language and subject - a long, "nicely written" historical fiction.
I enjoyed this book from the very first pages, I think Elizabeth Gaskell writes in a very lush descriptive style. The story of this book almost echoes Pride and Prejudice, but I like how roles are reversed and Margaret has to save Mr Thornton in the end. There is more death than I would have expected, but I suppose as a result, more realistic of the time, life expectancy lower, people still contracting TB etc. To me the end was slightly unfulfilling, seemed a bit mashed into the last half hour, where the rest of the book had been so deep. Juliet Stevenson as always a fantastic narrator.
"A good listen"
Not one of the most marvelous classics I've ever listened to, yet 'North and South' definitely has that little something extra which makes it worth while. It was well narrated and partly very interesting. If you love Jane Austen and the like - this might be something for you!
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