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Elizabeth Gaskell is my new Jane Austen

Have you seen North and South? Not the Civil War miniseries from the 1980s, but the 2006 BBC production of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the Industrial Revolution? I watched it on Netflix last week, and was totally blown away. Why have I never heard of Elizabeth Gaskell before? I think I like North and South even more than Pride and Prejudice. That means a whole darn lot coming from me. As soon as I finished watching the last episode I started reading the book from the library. It was published in 1855 as a serial in Dickens’ magazine Household Words. Here’s a clip from YouTube:

For those of you Classical Education mothers out there, here’s a relevant passage from Gaskell’s book. John Thornton, the self-made man and manufacturer, who as an adult is trying to gain an education says this:

“That is true, — I had blundered along it at school; I dare say, I was even considered a pretty fair classic in those days, though my Latin and Greek have slipt away from me since. But I ask you, what preparation they were for such a life as I had to lead? None at all. Utterly none at all. On the point of education, any man who can read and write starts fair with me in the amount of really useful knowledge that I had at that time.” (p 86)

What was so thought provoking to me about North and South is that it is a Victorian book about the middle class. Gaskell poses major questions like: “What does it mean to be middle class? Does having money make you middle class? Does having an education make you middle class? If the only thing that places you in the middle class is money, and then you lose your money, are you still in the middle class? ” It is also heavily implied that an education is something that can never be taken away from you.

In modern terms, you could rephrase these questions into: “Why not just give kids an education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. These are the things they need to know to get a good job and make money. Why bother with history and literature at all!” (Just to be clear, that is certainly not my opinion.)

The most prominent plot point in North and South is of course the mill worker strike. That was a very timely book for me to be reading last week. Thankfully, my brother in law is back at work!

So blog readers, check North and South out from the library or watch the miniseries, and please share your thoughts!


  1. Jean says:

    I love this book, and also the movie except for that last bit which is really swoony except the swoon is ruined by the fact that they’re kissing in public and he’s in his shirtsleeves which makes him practically naked.

    I could write a big ol’ novel about classical and practical education but it would probably be really boring :).

    • jenbrdsly says:

      Spoiler Alert! I was definitely bothered by the kissing in public part too, because that would so never happen in 1855! But I liked that the scene took place at a train station half-way between North and South. I thought that was a great touch.

      I also can’t help but think how incredibly modern the book is in that Gaskell basically turns fairy-tale endings on their head by having Margaret be essentially proposing at the end of the story and coming in to the rescue. Yes, there was a mildly unrealistic plot device (inheriting money) that made that happen, but Jane Eyre used that trick too, so it’s really no big deal.

      What a great role model for women though. Wow!

      Oh, and I could write a whole dissertation comparing John Thornton to Ayn Rand, but I won’t. 🙂

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