I have been listening to a free audiobook version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and finding it curiously compelling – not for its plot or characters but because of the intriguing social attitudes revealed in the book (also available free to read online or download via Google). It starts as a conventional Austen-like romantic novel of manners. Then the heroine’s father, an Anglican clergyman, has a crisis of conscience (bizarrely, never explained in detail) and decides to leave the church and move from the (beautiful) South of England to the (smoky, ill-bred) industrial North (hence the title). To my surprise the daughter’s concern is not primarily over the loss of income or the change of location but over his leaving the faith – it’s hard to imagine now people teetering on the edge of modernity taking their Anglicanism so seriously.
When the action moves to the North, the mannered novel swerves Dickens-wards with a (rather generic) depiction of the suffering of mill workers but is much more directly politically-engaged than I remember Dickens being. It lays out three broad positions on the industrial revolution.
- Nicholas Higgins, whose daughter died from work-related illness and whose union struck to get enough food for its workers to eat, exemplifies ‘labor’ – worthy of compassion but misguided in his attempts to change the immutable system and prone to drink and violence.
- John Thornton, a mill-owner, represents capital. While he is seen as lacking compassion, there is evidently a strong if unwilling admiration by Gaskell of his (and capital’s) ruthless drive and enthusiasm and he is given some speeches which remind one of those uttered by Ayn Rand heroes to the effect that he only wants to leave his workers alone (to starve) and be left alone himself.
- Gaskell’s heroine, Margaret Hale, and her family take a hand-wringing Christian liberal position which I think we are meant to share – it’s too bad that the market crushes the workers in the North but it’s unavoidable and they should take up Christianity to help them bear their troubles without disturbing the social order.
I haven’t reached the end yet but I have a nasty feeling that with the marriage of Ms Hale and Mr Thornton we will be offered a sentimental ending wherein Thornton, influenced by his new wife chooses to help out the deserving poor among his grateful workers without altering his or his fellow mill owners’ Darwinian struggle to keep their profits up. Then again the novel has already contained a few surprises for me…