14 June 2012

Victorian Industry: Return to Milton-Northern

Trade paperback, 480 pages
Published 1996 (content: 1854-55)
Acquired January 2009

Previously read February 2009
Reread April 2012
North and South
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Every time I read an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, I fall in love with its protagonist, and declare that she is the best protagonist in all Gaskell.  So, as I read several Gaskell novels in succession this spring, Mary Barton was quickly dethroned by Molly Gibson, who was in turn supplanted by Margaret Hale.

What I love about Margaret (and thus North and South) is how Gaskell shows that inaction is actually an incredibly difficult action to perform.  Margaret is often put into situations where she must not say or do anything, and yet she wants to so much.  Us enlightened twenty-first century folks are quick to criticized the Victorian concept of the "angel in house" because women can do more things than manage a kitchen, but Gaskell takes a different tack here, showing how awful and unfair it is to put someone into the position of being the emotional support for an entire family.  Yet Margaret bears it with as little complaint as possible, managing to be successful in most cases.  It's hard work, but she manages to do it, and we love her for it.

I find that I enjoy Gaskell's implicit social commentary.  Rarely does any Gaskell character come out and say something like, "I think the strictures against female action are wrong," but instead she has a series of awful complications ensue from those strictures.  When you sit down and think about it, you realize that if women were allowed to express themselves more readily, much of this novel would never have happened.  (Good for the characters, I suppose, even if it is bad for me.)  Margaret may be in an unenviable position, but we're never tempted to dismiss her as whiny or lazy thanks to the way Gaskell sets it up.  We're also kept well aware that there are worse positions in life to be in than Margaret's.

I also have to say that this is without a doubt the sexiest of Gaskell's novels.  Margaret's arms-- oh my!  And let us not forget that delicious silence...

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