North and South is not a book I would have picked up without the prodding of an online book club, but I’m glad I did. It’s one of those nineteenth-century novels I managed to miss in the course of getting an education, but it’s not by one of the big-name authors of that era — Dickens, Austen, either of the Brontes. It’s by Elizabeth Gaskell, a well-known Victorian writer but not one who makes the first tier of must-read 1800s novelists today.
North and South is set against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. Margaret, the main character, is the daughter of a clergyman in the south of England. When her father’s religious doubts lead him to abandon his career in the Church, he instead takes a post as a private tutor in a manufacturing city in the north. Margaret’s prejudices against manufacturing, cities, and people who’ve made their money in trade are all tested by the people she meets in her new home — particularly the strong-willed and enigmatic factory owner Mr. Thornton. Well, you can see where this is going, can’t you?
Sure, there are lots of Victorian-novel cliches here, including a romance between people who initially can’t stand each other, and more tragic deaths than you can shake a stick at. What made North and South really interesting to me, though, is that while it was a slower read than a historical novel written today and set in that same era would be, it has a kind of authenticity that a modern writer can’t quite capture. Margaret’s initial class prejudices, as when she dismisses some of her neighbours as “shoppy people” with whom one wouldn’t associate, ring true because Gaskell was writing at a time when her readers either shared those prejudices, or knew people who did.
Reading novels will always be my favourite way to learn about other times and places, and while there’s a lot to be said for the historical fiction I love, it’s often worth taking the time to read a book that was written long ago, just to really immerse yourself in the past. North and South gave me that experience, and I’m glad I read it.