North and South by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Illustration to the North and South (novel by ...

Illustration to the North and South (novel by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, I have still been reading.  But no, I did not find the precious time to blog about the books that have filled my summer and autumn months.  LIfe took an unexpected turn for the hectic over the summer period but all has now returned to a, more or less, even keel as far as home and work are concerned so I am back to nearly normal routines.

So, to the book.  This book was a downloaded freebie ebook from the Guttenberg Project that I read on my iPad over the course of many weeks.  I generally have a few ebooks on the iPad, usually free classics, just in case of an unexpected book emergency – that would mean being somewhere without a work of fiction in hardcopy format.  I much prefer an actual rather than virtual book, however when faced with a choice between virtual or non-existent I will pick virtual every time.  I also have to confess to not reading this one on the train. Are there never any book emergencies on the train?  Well yes they do occur, but I refuse to use my iPad during high school rush hour.  This book was read over several weekends spent in rural Buckinghamshire when left to my own devices and nothing in particular to do other than work on the thesis.

Now, as far as North and South goes I thought I had read this book before.  Not so however.  I was only a short way into the book when I realised that I was confusing it with another of Gaskell’s books, Mary Barton, which I had read when a teenager as part of my secondary school English literature reading.  I have also read a fair few Victorian novels by Gaskell, Austen and the Brontes, among others and as time has passed I must admit to conflating some of them together, particularly if they were required reading. I read these books now, despite the fact that at times I find the language and style challenging, as I am fuelled by the conviction that, poetic licence aside, there is, on some level, a degree of contemporary social commentary going on in this genre of book.  A commentary that provides a little window that looks upon the way people lived in the past and the conditions under which they lived.  What made me pick this one up over the summer? I can’t actually remember now, I expect it was something I saw in passing, or some random trail of internet links.

North and South was Gaskell’s fourth novel but her second industrial (or social) novel – the first being Mary Barton. Both novels examine issues of employee-employer relations set against the backdrop of Manchester, or Milton as it is called in North and South.  However, whilst Mary Barton is focused on the working classes and their issues in North and South Gaskell turns her attention to the industrial ruling classes and the mill owners.  The protagonist of the book is Margaret Hale, the daughter of a Church of England clergyman, who has spent her formative years with her Mother’s wealthy sister in Harley Street, London.  On the marriage of her cousin Margaret returns to the family home in the rural New Forest village where her Father is vicar.  Not long after returning home however, the Rev. Hale, having become a dissenter, leaves his Church living and moves the family to the northern town of Milton to take up tutoring wealthy industrialists.  Margaret finds the move north quite an unsettling experience at first, however she eventually meets some of the local working class and learns to appreciate the difficulties they face in their lives.

While the Hales are living in Milton there is industrial unrest between the mill owners and the workers who eventually go on strike, a reflection of the industrial unrest that occurred in the Lancashire mill towns that Gaskell would have experienced first hand.  The fictional strike culminates in something of a riot at Thornton’s mill, owned by one of Rev. Hale’s pupils not particularly liked by Margaret.  During the ruckus Margaret, who was at the mill on an errand for her ailing Mother, is injured after coming to the aid of Thornton.  Thornton realises his love for her and proposes, Margaret declines.  Not long after the strike Margaret’s Mother dies, closely followed by her Father.  Being left alone Margaret returns to the home of her Aunt in Harley Street.  However, Margaret soon inherits property and wealth from a friend of her Father.  She discovers she is Thornton’s landlord, who is now in financial difficulties.  Margaret comes up with a business proposal for Thornton which she puts to him.  At this point both Margaret and Thornton realise they love one another and decide to marry.

The book is very much one of contrasts and tensions.  A very clear contrast is that between the rural and industrial.  First we have the rural, bucolic, south that Margaret returns to after her cousin marries juxtaposed with the grimy industrial north where Margaret moves to after her Father becomes a dissenter.  There are also stark contrasts and differences between Thornton and Margaret, which is at the heart of their not getting on and being at loggerheads for much of the plot. Both characters are world’s apart in background and in attitude.  Margaret is from a more genteel way of life whereas Thornton is a self-made factory owning man.

However, the key contrast for me is in the representation of Margaret Hale with respect to the other female characters, in particular her family, who are represented as being quite faint hearted and delicate.  Margaret’s character however was much stronger, often she being the one that both her Father and her Mother relied upon.  In fact it is Margaret’s strength of character that Thornton finds so attractive and what made me like the book.  Margaret Hale has a strong character, unusually so, it would appear for her time and place.  However, I have many reservations about the weakness of the so-called fairer sex in past times.  History, and literature, being written in the main, by men is not overly concerned with, or about, women.  As such, I feel sure that women were depicted as items of ornament with dull and uninteresting characters.  It is only when we read the likes of Gaskell that we get full-bodied women such as Margaret Hale.

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I finished reading this book back at the end of April.  It has taken me quite sometime to finish the book. It has also taken me quite sometime to put my thoughts about this book in order too.

I started reading it as “a training it home” read from University.  But as I have only been attending sporadically for meetings it was, at times, picked up quite briefly and then put down again for considerable periods of time.  However, despite finding the book tough going I finally got through the last few chapters away from the train in the cosy confines of Costa doing my Sunday morning church run stint.

The Unlit Lamp was Radclyffe Hall’s first book, however it stands in the shadow of The Well of Loneliness, her most well known novel.  The book is the story of Joan Ogden who aspires to a university education to become a doctor, and to set up home with her governess and subsequent friend, Elizabeth.  However Joan’s dreams and aspirations are thwarted, first by her father who feels it unseemly and unfeminine for a girl to pursue a medical career, and then by her mother whose continual “touch of the vapours” command all of Joan’s time, attention and energy until she has nothing left of herself.

It is one depressing book, and the ending was without doubt not unexpected.  Ok, yes I looked ahead, I always do, half the fun of reading is seeing how the journey pans out from a known beginning to a known end point anyway.  But this ending was always on the cards, whether I had checked out the last chapter or not, in fact I read the last chapter precisely to see if my prediction would be thwarted.  Joan was always going to do the dutiful daughter thing and stay with her mother despite Elizabeth willing and wanting Joan to come live with her and pursue a fulfilling life as a doctor. And, also despite Richard, a mutual friend of both Joan and Elizabeth, desperately wanting Joan to marry him and follow him into the medical profession.  Clearly, although not spelt out, the character of Joan clearly reads as a lesbian so she was never going to marry Richard.  Apparently Radclyffe Hall did not think that Elizabeth and Joan were a lesbian couple. But they read like that, or if not a couple then certainly as lesbians. Or, at least Joan does as Hall paints a clear picture of Joan’s short cropped hair, masculine tailored clothes and ties.

However, it did seem, albeit briefly, that just, very possibly, Joan would leave and pursue her dreams with Elizabeth. But that was not to be the case. Joan remained with her mother, forgoing a university education and the possibility of a career and the future financial security this path would bring.  Instead Elizabeth moves on and tries to forget Joan, marrying Richard’s brother and moving abroad.  Whilst Joan spends her life taking care of her mother when in reality the mother could have looked after herself quite well.  In the end when her mother dies, a middle-aged Joan is left to find a way to make her own way in the world without the skills and training that she might have had to assist her and so has to look to low paid, caregiving work.

The crux of the book is in the battle between Joan’s mother on the one hand and Elizabeth on the other for Joan’s love and attention.  As the story unfolds key episodes from Joan’s life form the cloth with which the women cross swords for Joan’s future.  Each little battlefield bringing with it the possibility that Joan will make a move towards the bright future she longs for, but time and again each drama plays out onto the side of family duty and obligation.

Clearly, through-out the book Joan is marked out as different, with her manner of dress, the career aspirations of her youth and so on.  However there is more there, a lesbian undercurrent that Hall articulates much more clearly in the later The Well of Loneliness, which is apparent in the difficulties that Joan has in her fruitless attempts to leave home in order to live with another woman – why is this such a difficult thing to do if done in all innocence?

Overall I found the book maddeningly frustrating.  The ending was predictable, however the agonising, the miserable lesbian angst just prolonged the agony.