Elizabeth Gaskell: Jane Austen’s Plagiarist

I almost didn’t finish reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.  I started reading it after watching the miniseries Cranford, which is based on three of her novels.  It is a charming series with Judi Dench.  I recommend it.  I do not, however, recommend North and South unless you are a serious and dedicated reader.  Here’s why.

It’s boring.  Although the novel is ultimately a love story, there are a lot of pages (more than 100 of them) concerning unions, strikes, and workers’ rights.  I know these issues are important, especially since the idea behind the novel’s title is juxtaposing the genteel and garden-like south with the industrialized north of England.  However, I did not care for them as part of the novel.

Margaret, the main character, has moved from Helstone, a strangely ironic name for a place that is described as Edenic.  She ends up with her parents in Milton (also seemingly Biblical because of John Milton’s masterpiece Paradise Lost), yet Milton is industrial, dirty, and the air is constantly described as bad for health.  These two areas are polar opposites to promote the story line, which is that Margaret must choose between two suitors, one of whom seems to represent the life she knew in Helstone, and the other, Mr. Thornton, represents Milton; he is a manufacturer there.  This is where all of the union talk comes in.  Margaret makes friends with one of the workers and acts as a sort of intermediary between Mr. Higgins and Mr. Thornton.  The result is pages of yawn-inducing union talk.

The result is also tension between Margaret and Mr. Thornton, that, as readers, we know is supposed to be sexual tension, but it falls flat.  The two are described as having pride and prejudice, eerily and annoyingly similar to Jane Austen’s most famous novel, published first in 1813.  Mrs. Gaskell, the name she published under, obviously copied Austen’s idea, as North and South was not published until 1855.  Imitation is the highest (or sincerest?) form of flattery, but why does Mrs. Gaskell have to do it so obviously and almost plagiaristically (is that a word?).  Margaret and Mr. Thornton do not come close in depth and feeling to Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.  The comparison, once made, just disappointed me and caused me to compare one great novel to one that isn’t so great.

Elizabeth Gaskell, public domain image

The other thing I disliked about this novel, and I guess it is common to work by Mrs. Gaskell given the story lines in Cranford, is the fact that so many people die.  I guess this isn’t valid criticism, for one could argue that any good drama features a certain amount of death or that the deaths are accurate to the time in which Mrs. Gaskell was writing.  However, dear Margaret, our boring protagonist, loses her mother, her father, a best friend, and a godfather in the matter of a few months.  And these aren’t the only deaths in the book!  Perhaps this was the only way to conjure up sympathy for Margaret, but as you can see I don’t have much affinity for her, even after slogging through 425 pages dedicated to her trials and troubles.

There are some gems hidden in the midst of all the things I disliked.  One line says, “All young ladies eat confectionary till wisdom comes by age” (356).  That made me laugh.  And although I consider myself to have some wisdom at my age compared to other times in my life, I still haven’t given up sugar.  Another funny part is at the end, when Mr. Thornton and Margaret make jokes about what their relations will say when they find out, that yes, they end up wanting to marry each other.  How obvious a plot turn, one that I actually did not want to see happen.  Another laugh out loud line says of Captain Lennox, “I doubt this smart captain is no great man of business.  Nevertheless, his moustachios are splendid” (356).  Who knew that having fantastic facial hair can make up for one’s deficiencies in brains?

Photo by Alan Light; I guess mustaches DO make up for a lot!

Perhaps my favorite line is when Mr. Thornton realizes his affections for Margaret.  He is described “as dizzy as if Margaret, instead of looking, and speaking, and moving like a tender graceful woman, had been a sturdy fish-wife, and given him a sound blow with her fists” (204).  Wow!  What an amazing and romantic way to describe the strong love one has for another.  (Not.)  I hope my husband never felt that my affections for him were similar to those of a coarse fish-wife!

The one enlightening part of this story is the idea that stems from Margaret pining for her home in Helstone.  Yet, when she lived there, she always wanted to leave it to explore the world.  Her mentality illustrates the trap many of us fall into with believing that the grass is always greener on the other side.  Although it definitely sounds greener given that Helstone is a garden paradise while Milton has bad air and smoke stacks everywhere, Margaret learns that good things can be found right where one is planted.  This is a lesson I need to take to heart.  If we aren’t satisfied with what we have now, we’ll never be satisfied with more.  Sometimes this is a good thing, to have ambition, to strive for excellence, or to gain more intellectually.  However, it can also drive one mad with envy.

My overall thoughts on this book are to skip it and read Pride and Prejudice instead.  Jane Austen is wittier, more skilled at developing romantic tension, and more polished at writing overall.   I’m glad to have been associated with Mrs. Gaskell through her writing, but I think I will stick to the excellent BBC miniseries being made of the rest of her work.  I just finished watching the four-episode series of North and South, and I have to say I enjoyed it more than the book.  Margaret didn’t appeal to me more than she did in the novel, but Mr. Thornton did.  He is played by Richard Armitage, and Brendan Coyle (of Larkrise to Candleford and Downton Abbey) is featured as Nicholas Higgins.  If that doesn’t convince you to watch, I don’t know what will!  However, nothing will convince me to recommend the book to you.

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29 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell: Jane Austen’s Plagiarist

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  1. I am soooo glad you feel this way about this book! I had to read this as part of my theory class in Newfoundland. I felt exactly the same way! I was excited to read it and thought it would be fabulous and then I just felt like it was flat and un-exciting. A few years later a good friend recommended it to me just raving about how fabulous it was and that it was just like Pride and Prejudice! I thought maybe I had missed the mark, but you have made me realize that, no, I didn’t miss the mark, the book is just not good.

    1. I’m glad you agree too! I always hesitate to be so blunt about my dislike for a book when it’s supposed to be a classic or when it is by a “forgotten” female author, but there’s a reason why she’s not as famous as Jane Austen! Sometimes we just have to admit that. I wonder if her other work is better. Have you read anything else by her?

  2. Ah. Elizabeth Gaskell. I read “North and South” a few years ago, and it was a lot of hard work. I didn’t hate it, but it most certainly was NOT my favorite book. I agree, the miniseries is better and more enjoyable than the book. However, allow me to suggest her other novel “Wives and Daughters”. The miniseries that BBC made for it is amazing, and I would actually recommend watching it before reading the book, especially since Mrs. Gaskell never actually finished writing the novel. She came close, but died before it was done. Sad, but true. She’s created some really great characters in that book though, so I think it’s worth looking into. 🙂

  3. I had the recommendation to watch the mini series and leave the book alone. I loved the miniseries and thought one day I may give the book a go anyhow. When the opportunity came to read it, I confess I only made it through a third of the way then and gave up. As Pride and Prejudice is my all time favorite book, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment! Give me Jane Austen!

    1. I think about a third of the way through was where I wanted to quit. That’s where all of the union talk starts. I kind of wish I had quit, but then I couldn’t have written about it, so I guess there’s a bright side! 🙂

      1. I got the audio book so that I could finish it – because reading it constantly put me to sleep.

        I had to read Ruth for a graduate class, and it was better. I don’t believe it’s been produced as a movie or mini-series, however. I guess I should check on that.

        I agree that the mini-series with Richard Armitage is infinitely better than the book. In truth, the screenwriter took the best parts of the book and incorporated them into the mini-series, and left everything else out. That’s what makes it so much better.

  4. Allow me to preface that I love both “Pride and Prejudice” and “North and South”. I cheerfully admit to similarities in the relationship between the respective heroes and heroines. I also agree that “Pride and Prejudice” can be (and frequently is) considered a more enjoyable read than the latter. But I must say that I actually liked all the union and industrial talk in “North and South”. I found the book very intellectual- not only in regards to the above but also in its other philosophical discussions and musings that take place over the course of the novel. I especially love how Mrs. Gaskell includes intelligent points for both sides of every argument. And while I admit that Margaret Hale is not the sparkling, engaging heroine that Elizabeth Bennett is, I nevertheless find her to be a strong and compelling character for whom I feel more than a little sympathy… and not just because she has loved ones dropping like flies. But, “de gustibus…”, right?

    Also, that mustache quip gets me every single time! ^_^

  5. Thanks for this post. I just read “North and South” a couple weeks ago and was terribly disappointed by it, especially by the fact that it took 424 pages for Margaret and Mr Thornton to get together — and then the book ends! Gaskell just seems a bit too prudish and prissy to make a good, gritty Victorian novel. You’re right that it doesn’t compare to P&P. I am planning to watch the BBC version of N&S this weekend, which I’ve heard is much better than the book.

    1. I’m glad I am not alone. Sometimes I think about this post and wonder if I was just being mean or in a bad mood! I liked the BBC version much better than the book. Of course, I just love those sorts of miniseries. Have fun watching it!

  6. Lol! Obviously, North and South isn’t for everyone. It really shines when you’ve taken the time to digest it slowly and is even better the second, third or fourth time around. There’s so much depth to the story and the development of Margaret’s character and changing affections is so subtle MANY people miss it who rush through the book after having been thrilled by the BBC miniseries. I admit, it’s my favorite take-with-me-to-a-desert-island book. I love the passion and beautiful prose in Gaskell’s writing. She writes human emotion so well and writes fascinating characters. (I can empathize with Margaret throughout – poor girl is put through a lot.) I adore the love story but I also love the way the story is plunged in the gritty reality of life in that industrial age when class, religion, economy, roles of women was all in turmoil and society was reeling from the changes. I love that the story includes all walks of life and gives so many ideas to ponder about our progress (or not) in our own modern world. These human and society issues are still with us. P&P, to me, is a completely different story and style and is much lighter fare (which is OK, when you’re in the mood for it!) with a more limited scope.
    I’m much more fascinated by Thornton than Darcy. Oh, that’s another favorite thing of mine from N&S: Gaskell lets us get in Thornton’s head. Sigh. What a delightfully angst-ridden place to be! 😉

      1. And it’s perfectly ok some people just don’t enjoy it! We’re not all required to like the same things. I happen to live the combination of all the elements involved in this story and the social history. Wading through Victorian prose isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
        I think, though, that Gaskell should be given more credit for developing ber own original story. Her intention was to write a story about a girl from the agricultural south who is suddenly forced to learn her new surroundings and live in the frenzied pace of the industrial north. It would go without saying such a plot would include the girl bringing her assumptions and prejudices from her upbringing with her. In this story the clash between the hero and heroine is so much more than a mere personal slight and misunderstanding. If Gaskell has rewritten P&P, then she has broadened and deepened the themes and given it a breath of Bronte-like passion.
        You will, of course, forgive me for defending my favorite novel!

        1. Defend away! You obviously care for it much more than I do. I do enjoy wading through Victorian prose, however. Not liking this one book hardly qualifies me as not liking an entire genre.

          1. Have you read Middlemarch? A librarian friend of mine (who also loves N&S) says it’s one of her favorites. It’s quite a hefty tome and I’ve no idea if I will like it.
            I won’t pester you about Gaskell anymore. Btw, I tried to read Cranford and found it too boring to finish! It was so different from N&S.

  7. Love the cover on your copy of Middlemarch! I want that one! (Dresses look very mid-century) I’ll definitely have to read it now, as my British friend said basically the same thing: greatest English novel ever written.
    I can’t read any spoilers. I want to experience it for myself. Thanks for the second nudge.

  8. Late to the party, as usual. LOL

    I watched the mini-series before I read North and South and I loved it. A few months later, I read the book and I loved it so much more than the mini-series, I found myself angry with the production team for making so many changes to it!

    Of course, I saw some similarities with Pride and Prejudice, but didn’t think they were excessive. At the same time, I’m not typically one to get upset when I see similar themes and characters in different works. When I read P&P, several months before N&S, I was already familiar with the plot and the characters, since they’re soooo famous and there are a bazillion adaptations and reimaginings of the story. And I knew I liked Darcy. Then, I read him and loved him. Really, REALLY loved him. But when I read Thornton, Darcy paled – like looking from the moon to the sun (okay, that was a bit much). I felt like I understood him so much better and knew him so much better, it was impossible not to like him more than Darcy.

    I found that I generally prefer Gaskell’s style of writing to Austen’s. Although I really like Austen, she irritates me sometimes. Austen’s like a lovely pastry. It’s fun and light, but it’s not going to satisfy – there’s not enough substance there. She’s easy to read (if you have a dictionary handy) but she doesn’t let the reader go everywhere the reader wants to go. We never get inside the men’s heads, and that bothers me. I want to know what they’re thinking!

    And then – this is my pet peeve – she cuts off conversations and summarizes their endings in narration. It drives me crazy! I will never forgive her for not letting me read the words spoken between Lizzy and Darcy at the end of P&P. How am I supposed to watch the imaginary movie in my head while I read their words if their words are missing?! I want to read ALL of it! Not just the opening lines.

    So, I preferred Jane Eyre in that regard (looong conversations) and then, when I finally read it, North and South.

    Yes, the union stuff can get a bit boring if you’re looking for a straight-up romance. But it’s not a simple romance. There are a lot of things going on in N&S and while I understand those who feel bogged down by it all, I thought it was nice to get to know the characters in other environments and through other relationships and to see how Margaret and Thornton develop individually and together in that context. It was fascinating! It felt real – fully fleshed out – not anemic.

    So, although I liked P&P when I read it, I greatly preferred N&S. And, apparently, I need to read Middlemarch. LOL

    1. Oh yes, you certainly need to read Middlemarch! And I agree with you on Austen. The more I read of her work, the less I like and enjoy it. I think Pride and Prejudice was so great to me as a teenager, but now that I’m in my 30s, I just can’t get into those types of novels anymore. I do appreciate that Gaskell was Austen’s biographer. It is pretty cool connection the two have.

      1. Austen, Bronte, Gaskell – they’ve all written such memorable stories and characters. Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell were friends. Charlotte’s widowed husband asked Gaskell to write Charlotte’s biography.

  9. I completely agree with everything you said above. I too disliked the book but love the miniseries (I may watch it numerous times a year) but the book was blah and certainly not as intriguing as P&P.

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