North and SouthNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

ever read a book that misses perfection by some short mark, and you just wanna go, AUGHGHGHGHGHGH!!!!!!

this is one of those.

it’s Austen with actual working people in it, England in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. there are factory masters, young workers dying of lung ailments, strikes, organizing, class conflict, and … romance. it’s a view into a historical moment far too quickly passed over in most classic lit: when we began to become what we now are. the view from both sides of that razor’s edge are illuminating–how working for money rather than working for a living* became the norm, and how the capitalist class rose.

this book manages an evenhanded approach in part because there is romance afoot. our young (sometimes snooty) heroine, a member of the gentry (not landed, alas), falls in station in life. she and family move to an industrial town, a town of mills and soot and smoky skies and rough workingmen. in it she meets one of the town’s leading mill owners, a man not entirely young but stuffed full of the pride of the “self-made man.” of course there are sparks, and misunderstandings, and yearnings unfulfilled.

these romantic travails are nicely balanced by far more quotidian concerns: a strike, an accidental death, inquiries by the police, and scandal. it’s the strike and the organizing by workers that take up by far the majority of the distractions from romance.

the main characters are well-drawn and thoroughly believable, even when they’re being twits. maybe especially then. the not-so-major characters, in particular the working-class folk, are not quite so well-drawn, and in the end they are a bit too middle-class in their thinking. maybe that’s how it was, i don’t know; maybe being British trumped all other concerns. as i said, it’s an area far too lightly covered in classic literature, and there isn’t so much to compare it to.

the book tends to ramble a bit, and there’s a tad too much swooning and heaving breasts (both male and female). but the scream doesn’t come until the end.

SPOILER***SPOILER***SPOILER***SPOILER***SPOILER

here’s the thing: when our mill master’s business goes kaput, our heroine wants to save him. and fortunately, she can do it! altho fairly penniless at the beginning of her family’s troubles, they have all fortunately died off and an old family friend took her under his wing, and promised her his money, and then he too exited stage left. so the heroine has the money to save the hero! it’s a nice reversal, but damn, were there no other ways for brits to avoid perdition than by inheritance? dickens usually wraps things up that way. austen’s heroines marry money. ugh.

having got that off my non-heaving chest, tho, i will say that this book is entirely worth the time. i listened to the audiobook, and believe me, it was a LOT of time. but i am so glad for the rare opportunity to see the first fallout of the Industrial Revolution fictionalized–i only wish there were more like it.

* working for a living used to mean a living: a house, food, such medical care as was available, all varying hugely in quality and adequacy and dependent on the generosity of the landowner. but still. people once upon a time did not work for cash–they worked for the whole enchilada, and often were born, educated, did work, and died on the same plot of turf.

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