‘North and South’ – Book of the Week

Just a quick one!

‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell particularly caught my eye as its perception of the North/South divide (in England) is still a widely discussed subject to this day. The North/South divide is a common phrase used and is the topic of many comical commentaries of English Society. The people of the North in the novel, as stereotyped today as well, tend to be; friendlier, drink more, poorer and tougher. Southerners are typically seen as stern, rich, well-educated, feeble and that stereotype of British people that America is in love with (think Hugh Grant). Though of course applying character traits to certain groups of people simply because they were born in Chelsea or York is hugely unfair and inaccurate, they are strong stereotypes which have lasted the test of time due to the relevance of ‘North and South’.

This book explores ideas of capitalism and socialism, left-wing and right-wing, class issues and cultural identity. Gaskell throws her hat into the ring of old money vs new money. A rich Londoner Margaret travels to the North and learns to see the beauty in the simplicity of the working-classes. She meets a business owner, Thornton, whom she expresses her distaste in his lack of welfare. He points out to her that he “started from the bottom now we here” (Drake) and that if he can do it with no help or handouts then so can anyone. This idea of a self-made rags-to-riches story is key in our social and political discussions nowadays. Lord Sugar of the UK’s Apprentice came from humble beginnings and now is a self-made billionaire. However, the argument could be made that perhaps people need a little boost in life to get them to where they need to be. Let’s take Donald Trump of America’s Apprentice (oh, and POTUS). Trump was given from his father a “small loan of a million dollars” and now is estimated to be worth $3.1 billion.

For Gaskell to summarise the debate of welfare would be to ignore the masses of pros and cons on either side and to close the book on one of the ongoing issues of the political sphere. I feel Gaskell used her novel in order to explore ideas on both sides, and exposed her characters to the other’s perspective. Although Gaskell lands on a fairly pro-welfare note by having Thornton increase the wages and working conditions for his employees, she does not overlook the importance of rugged individualism and self reliance. These issues explored are rather relevant even today, and that is why I recommend this novel to anyone interested in exploring politics in a narrative form.

 

Lots of love, Evie x

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