08 February, 2009

Reflections on Gaskell's North and South

From the back of this particular edition:

"Elizabeth Gaskell is one of the foremost novelists of the nineteenth century. Famous in her own day and admired by Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and Florence Nightingale, Gaskell was, for many, the social conscience of Britain as the full effect of the Industrial Revolution took hold.

Published in 1854, North and South is Gaskell's great novel of social unrest. Its themes of responsibility, duty, class, and gender in a changing society are mirrored in the day-to-day struggles of its heroine, Margaret Hale, as she adjusts to life in the norhtern industrial town of Milton."

I have read to page 178 out of 395 pages. I so enjoy Gaskell's writing. One difference that is very noticeable from the movie version: Margaret is the main narrator throughout the movie in the form of letters to and from her cousin, Elizabeth (whose voice we hear when Margaret is reading her letters).

And of course, there is so much more detail in the book; not to be missed. There are a few minor rearrangements of details from the book to the movie, but overall, I think the spirit of what Gaskell wrote is kept intact.

One scene in the movie that is *not* in the book is the scene early on in Milton where Margaret goes to the mill herself, looking for Mr. Thornton, and finds him yelling strictly at a worker for smoking in the mill. He is very harsh with him, much to Margaret's chagrin, but has to be strict, for smoking could cause the whole mill to go up in flames and everyone with it. This scene is not in the book so far.

Here I share a quote that I am replaying in my head. In context of the story, it is Mr. Hale's discussion with Mr. Thornton on how much control or "despotism" need be exerted over his workers, both on and off the clock; how much he is responsible to them after work hours in what they do with their time at home. It makes for interesting points on all sides. Anyway, I like the quote, then the subsequent story that Margaret (Mr. Hale's daughter) shares after he speaks.

From near the end of Chapter XV:

Mr. Hale answered--

'I dare say I am talking in great ignorance; but from the little I know, I should say that the masses were already passing rapidly into the troublesome stage which intervenes between childhood and manhood, in the life of the multitude as well as that of the individual. Now, the error which many parents commit in the treatment of the individual at this time is, insisting on the same unreasoning obedience as when all he had to do in the way of duty was, to obey the simple laws of "Come when you're called and "Do as you're bid!" But a wise parent humours the desire for independent action, so as to become the friend and adviser when his absolute rule shall cease. If I get wrong in my reasoning, recollect, it is you who adopted the analogy.'

'Very lately,' said Margaret, 'I heard a story of what happened in Nuremberg only three or four years ago. A rich man there lived alone in one of the immense mansions which were formerly both dwellings and warehouses. It was reported that he had a child, but no one knew of it for certain. For forty years this rumour kept rising and falling--never utterly dying away. After his death it was found to be true. He had a son--an overgrown man with the unexercised intellect of a child, whom he had kept up in that strange way, in order to save him from temptation and error. But, of course, when this great old child was turned loose into the world, every bad counsellor had power over him. He did not know good from evil. His father had made the blunder of bringing him up in ignorance and taking it for innocence; and after fourteen months of riotous living, the city authorities had to take charge of him, in order to save him from starvation. He could not even use words effectively enough to be a successful beggar.'

'I used the comparison (suggested by Miss Hale) of the position of the master to that of a parent; so I ought not to complain of your turning the simile into a weapon against me. But, Mr. Hale, when you were setting up a wise parent as a model for us, you said he humoured his children in their desire for independent action. Now certainly, the time is not come for the hands to have any independent action during business hours; I hardly know what you would mean by it then. And I say, that the masters would be trenching on the independence of their hands, in a way that I, for one, should not feel justified in doing, if we interfered too much with the life they lead out of the mills."

Good food for thought, these quotes...


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