So many readers suggested North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell in the comments during the Birthday Soiree that I decided to read it over Christmas. I can see why many fans love the book and suggested it but I was also stunned by how different it was from Jane Austen’s own work. Somehow, I thought it would be written in the same spirit as Pride & Prejudice. Clearly this was naive; Gaskell is a different writer with different concerns and — this is crucial — from a different era not only in English literature but of women’s literature as well.
What a difference a few decades make. Pride & Prejudice was published in 1813. North & South was published in 1854-55 and was originally serialized in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words. While comparisons between writers and times may be naive, there was such a stark contrast between the way women’s concerns are portrayed by these authors. In particular, in North & South, the character of Margaret Hale is the epitome of Victorian womanhood, who flinches from even respectful male admiration. She has two suitors, Harry Lennox and John Thornton, who each propose to her and whom she not only rebuffs, she is physically repulsed by their proposals. Despite being strong and intelligent, and physically so courageous that she takes a rioter’s rock that was meant for Thornton, she grows ill and enraged at the thought of their love.
As with many things Victorian, this is actually kind of neurotic and it kept me from liking Margaret as much as I wanted to.
Now take her counterpart, Lizzy Bennet. Lizzy is never once physically courageous — we are told nothing about her physique (Gaskell frequently describes Margaret’s strength, her arms, her imposing presence). She may even lead a more sheltered life than Margaret did (well, especially since Margaret does walk around pretty freely). Yet she is more matter-of-fact about sexuality and married life than Margaret is. She turns Darcy down because of the insulting way he proposes to her. Whereas to Margaret, the proposal is the insult.
How can we know this about Lizzy when Austen’s characters barely touch one another? It’s the absence of Lizzy’s concern when she is naturally attracted initially to the handsome Wickham. He’s a rogue and a troublemaker, a complete bad boy, and she likes him.
Yet, take a look at everything that Margaret accomplishes! She befriends a small family and helps keep it together during hard times, she keeps a riot from growing worse, she keeps her family together through selfless self-denial (another Victorian virtue), and for all of this she ends up a wealthy woman. Lizzy doesn’t really do much.
The difference in the portrayal of women is really astonishing, as I said. Sure it may be a difference between authors — Gaskell was a writer and a thinker among a group of writers and thinkers who worked to improve the lives of the poor. She was married to a minister, and Austen’s father was a minister though, so in that sense, perhaps they had quite a bit more in common. Perhaps in Austen’s time, ministers really were just paid employees of the church (hence the term living, and the fact that Wickham almost got one, though he would have made such a bad minister as to be laughable. Can you imagine?)
But it was just 40 years. Forty years difference between the two authors and there is so much difference in the portrayal of society and women.
I’m glad I read North & South, and will probably dip into more of Gaskell’s work. It is not fair, perhaps, to say that Austen is the “better” writer, since those kinds of comparisons, especially based on this admittedly simplistic comparison, really are so subjective as to be useless. All I can say is, I admire Margaret Hale a great deal, but I also feel a little bit sorry for her. She had spunk, but she was emotionally crippled by the times in which she lived.
And I feel a bit sorry for Lizzy too — she had so much less freedom and scope for self-determination than Margaret Hale did.