As I'm a student with limited funds, buying all of my (literally hundreds over the course of my degree) books can rack up to become quite expensive. So, every year I take a trip down to an incredible secondhand bookshop in a small seaside town called Bognor Regis. This shop is genuinely my favourite place in the world - I could spend hours there. It's called The Paperback Exchange and works on the basis of you bringing books in to the store to buy secondhand books at a reduced rate. The prices are so crazy I've even got a couple of Shakespeare's in here for 20p! Books are rated on their quality, and I think this copy of North and South cost me about £1.20, but compared to the £7.99 it costs new, and the £2.81 it costs as a minimum on Amazon, this was a complete bargain! You can grab a copy yourself for £5.99 here.
Over the last couple of years, I've read a fair amount of 19th Century fiction, some good (Wuthering Heights is still in my top ten) and some bad (Mansfield Park, I'm looking at you), but I have to say that North and South fits into the former category. It does something which most 19th Century authors seem to fail to do: create a believable heroine. It's also a book which I've found incredibly relevant to the modern woman, and feminist, as well to evaluating the way in which business owners currently see their employees.
Margaret Hale, the protagonist of the novel, has been living in high society in London with an aunt for a number of years. However, as her cousin Edith gets married and moves away, Margaret returns to her home in the idyllic country Hamlet of Helstone with her mother and father. Her father, a parson, begins to entertain doubts in his faith, which force him to give up his position in the village. Out of shame, and a lack of necessity for living there anymore, the family move to Milton, an industrial town in the North. Here, Margaret must learn a great deal about herself, as the town strikes her with many a tragedy. Class and gender become intractably embroiled as she becomes more and more integrated with the rough society of Milton.
Margaret Hale is truly an inspiring female character for the 19th Century novel. Unlike other "feminist" novels *cough* Coelebs (I think I still have nightmares about that one), North and South really examines what it means to be an independent woman. Margaret shows extreme strength of mind and body, at times proving that she is as powerful, if not more powerful, than several men in the novel, especially her father. She makes her own mind up as to who she will not marry, and does not let her decision be swayed by wanting motherhood or protection for the future. She also bears the greatest weight of emotional stress in the novel, as everyone seems to use her as a dumping ground for all of their problems. However, she does not faint and cry like Fanny or Edith would, but keeps going and gets done what is necessary to get done. Moreover, she engages with the class structure in an incredibly unique way. It is ultimately Margaret who ends the strike, by obstructing the path of the debris flung at Mr Thornton, and Margaret who leads to the working men being given luncheon by Mr Thornton. All in all, she is a powerful voice for change: her voice will be heard, she does have power over her own mind, and most importantly, she will not engage with the stereotypes of the woman of sensibility.
Have you read it? What did you think?