The smooth sea of that old life

Dear Elizabeth,

North and South (1854-1855) balances itself beautifully in a space where different types of conflict intersect: the clashes between manufacturers and workers; rural and industrial lifestyles; progress and tradition; economy and morality; paternalism and individualism; authority and conscience.

As the novel opens, our protagonist, the eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale, is about to return home to the rural village of Helstone, after having lived in London with her wealthy aunt Shaw and her cousin Edith for about ten years. Barely arrived at home, her life then takes another unexpected turn: her father, the village’s pastor, plagued by religious doubt, decides to leave the church as a matter of conscience, and becomes a dissenter. To make matters worse, she learns that her brother Frederick is doomed to live in exile in Spain, after having taken part in a naval mutiny.

Margaret and her parents then move to the North, and settle in the fictional industrial town of Milton, where Mr. Hale has found work as a tutor. Margaret initially takes a strong dislike for the smoky town, whose drawbacks seem embodied in one of her father’s pupils: the thirty-year-old John Thornton, a nouveau riche factory owner.

The novel traces Margaret’s gradual process of adaptation in her new surroundings: as she refines her understanding of labour relations, our protagonist learns not only to appreciate Milton, but also Mr. Thornton. Meanwhile, her friendship with a union representative, Nicholas Higgins, and his daughter, Bessy, provides Margaret with a ‘human interest’ in the town’s way of life.

In the characters of Margaret and Thornton, the novel explores not only the different lifestyles between rural and industrialized England, but also, more broadly, the conflict between tradition (the landed gentry in the South) and progress (the self-made manufacturers in the North).

The book does a good job at conveying the way the Industrial Revolution unsettled the old class structure and its cultural values, shifting the power from aristocratic landowners to manufacturers, and changing the relationship between the working-class and their masters: while the idea that the masters assumed an obligation for the welfare of the farmers was at the core of the relationship between the landed gentry and its tenants, the same idea was seen as a disruptive element in the relationship between the manufacturers and its wage-workers, which was based on the exchange of money for labour and on the independence between employer and employee, who were seen as equal before the law – equally ‘free’ to purchase what the other had to offer.

As an outsider, Margaret brings to the clash between manufacturers and workers in Milton her southern perspective: “I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own.” To replace class antagonism, she advocates for a balance based on solidarity, taking into account the workers’ needs, as well as the responsibility of employers to their employees. Against the naturalization of class exploration, Margaret advocates for a more nuanced view on poverty, merit, injustice, and bad luck. To the new forms of labour, new forms of negotiation and communication between masters and workers must be found: you represented this idea in the characters of Thornton and Higgins, who gradually learn to live with and understand each other.

The conflict between authority and conscience also looms large in the book: Mr. Hale breaks with the church; Frederick takes part in a mutiny; the workers go on strike to be able to feed their children; Margaret lies to a policeman; people of different classes break the protocol and become friends – you seem to want to bring all of these events closer, so as to make clearer their common core of individual struggle against some form of injustice and rebellion against authority.

At the same time, you seem to claim that the growth of individuality contributes to the rise of a fairer society, and vice-versa: so that justice, not authority, should be the balancing point of these two interdependent forces. Behind a love story and marriage plot, we have a nuanced portrayal of different forms of unresolved social conflict, balancing itself subtly between transgression and tradition.


Yours truly,


Václav Brožík, Woman in profile

“I know you despise me; allow me to say, it is because you do not understand me.” ― Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

The smooth sea of that old life closed up, without a mark left to tell where they had all been.” ― Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

“I value my own independence so highly that I can fancy no degradation greater than that of having another man perpetually directing and advising and lecturing me, or even planning too closely in any way about my actions. He might be the wisest of men, or the most powerful–I should equally rebel and resent his interference…”  ― Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

About the book

  • Oxford University Press, 2008, 452 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1854 – 1855
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • North and South originally appeared in twenty weekly episodes, from September 1854 to January 1855, in Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens
  • The novel was adapted for television in 1975 (IMDb) and in 2004 (IMDb)
  • I read this book for the Victorian Reading Challenge

8 thoughts on “The smooth sea of that old life

  1. One of my favorites — I love Elizabeth Gaskell and I really need to re-read this one, it’s been awhile. I remember loving it though.


  2. Lovely review, Juliana. This is a classic I’d really like to read, possibly later this year depending on how things ago. It sounds a little like some of Winifred Holtby’s novels, books like Anderby Wold and South Riding (which I’ve yet to get to).

    Liked by 1 person

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