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.