North and South by Mrs Gaskell

published 1855







[A group of women are discussing shawls and marriage]

'Helen had set her heart upon an Indian shawl, but really when I found what an extravagant price was asked, I was obliged to refuse her. She will be quite envious when she hears of Edith having Indian shawls. What kind are they? Delhi? with the lovely little borders?'

[It is decided the shawls must be viewed.]

So Margaret went down laden with shawls, and snuffing up their spicy Eastern smell. Her aunt asked her to stand as a sort of lay figure on which to display them, as Edith was still asleep. No one thought about it; but Margaret's tall, finely made figure, in the black silk dress which she was wearing as mourning for some distant relative of her father's, set off the long beautiful folds of the gorgeous shawls that would have half-smothered Edith. Margaret stood right under the chandelier, quite silent and passive, while her aunt adjusted the draperies. Occasionally, as she was turned round, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the chimney-piece, and smiled at her own appearance there-the familiar features in the usual garb of a princess. She touched the shawls gently as they hung around her, and took a pleasure in their soft feel and their brilliant colours, and rather liked to be dressed in such splendour— enjoying it much as a child would do, with a quiet pleased smile on her lips.


observations: An earlier entry on this book looked specifically at the wedding mentioned above. 

I love Mrs Gaskell, and her Wives and Daughters (a very early blog entry) is one of my all-time favourite books. North and South was written 10 years earlier, and although it is a good read, you can see that she developed a lot between the two books: this one has too much author direction and exposition, the reader is frequently instructed what to think. I don’t suppose it’s anybody’s favourite book, but it is well worth reading.

Serious Margaret has the weight of the world on her - early on she feels ‘as if a thin cold cloud had come between her and the sun.’ She has rather feckless parents (Gaskell is always very good on dysfunctional child/parent relations), whom she ends up protecting and looking after. Her father is a Church of England parson who has Doubts – one of the bizarre things about the story is that we never find out what exactly his Doubts are, just that they are severe enough that he feels he would be hypocritical to keep his living. Almost everybody else believes he should live with his doubts, and keep the job. But no, the Doubts mean that the family of three has to move from an idyllic village in the New Forest in southern England, to the smoky dirty metropolis of ‘Milton-Northern! The manufacturing town in Darkshire’, in case you haven’t got the point. Here they will live in poverty, and Margaret’s mother – who had married beneath herself anyway, and resents this come-down even more – will waste away.

There is a handsome mill-manager: Margaret is very disdainful as he is in trade. The book is a kind of Pride & Prejudice in reverse as they have to overcome their misunderstandings: but there is also a lot about trade unions and strikes, which you can’t imagine in a Jane Austen novel.

Very surprisingly, there is much mention of a waterbed – last year I did a piece for the Guardian about book references that sound like anachronisms but aren’t: this one would have fitted right in. In another Guardian piece, I was rude about the idea of gentlemen reading aloud while women did embroidery, so I was glad to hear that:
Mrs. Hale had never cared much for books, and had discouraged her husband, very early in their married life, in his desire of reading aloud to her, while she worked.
There is still more to come on this book.

The picture, from The Athenaeum website is by Alfred Stevens – we mentioned before our theory that he kept a number of Indian shawls in his studio for sitters
.

Comments

  1. Moira - What an interesting portrait of a young woman who seems to bear the proverbial weight of the world on her shoulders. As I'm thinking of what you mention here, I'm thinking of characters like that in other fiction, who have to grow up too fast, so to speak, and take on responsibilities they shouldn't have to bear. I think it comes up frequently. Thanks for the 'food for the thought.' And I want one of those shawls. It probably wouldn't look well on me as I'm - er - vertically challenged. But still...

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    1. Tell you what Margot, when I find the source of beautiful shawls like that, I'll get one for each of us... I bet it will look great on you!

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  2. I can't read the signature or date on the picture, but it looks about 1880. The clothes seem old-fashioned for that date - but widow's weeds were old-fashioned, weren't they? Why is she gazing at a crumpled travel brochure? Or is it a bag that has held buns? I love Victorian puzzle pictures!

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    1. I think it might be flowers. She's got a secret, of course. She's going to have to think about something really hard, decide what to do for the best.... I once went to a *whole exhibition* of Victorian story pictures, it was small but immensely satisfying.

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  3. I like that picture. The books by Mrs Gaskell sound interesting, but I think I will let you inform me of them, and not read them myself. At least not for a while.

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    1. It'll be my pleasure Tracy! I feel I've added to your bookpiles quite enough.

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  4. Moira: It sounds like you are headed to India to search out shawls.

    The writer does well in the excerpt of describing the sensuous feel of a fine beautifully made and coloured shawl.

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    1. Do you want me to get you a shawl as well as Margot, Bill? Yes, Mrs G did a good job on what is really a small part of the story....

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  5. Normal service has been resumed......I'll avoid.

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    1. If only she'd been ironing or embroidering the shawl! - I feel that would have made it more appealing to you.

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  6. Moira, Do you remember the India muslin gown that Mr Peter brings - too late - for Miss Matty in Cranford? Clothes are always important in her novels. I love Wives and Daughters.

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    1. Yes indeed, she's careful and clever about clothes. And I always think W&D is the Gaskell-lover's Gaskell. Andrew Davies, who adapted it for TV, says it's a book that teaches us how to live. It's one of those phrases that doesn't stand up to rigorous examination, but you kind of know what he means.

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