North and South

by Elizabeth Gaskell
480 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

An absorbing romance and social commentary of the Industrial Revolution.


When Margaret Hale's father leaves the Church of England on a 'matter of conscience' and moves his wife and daughter from their southern home of Helstone to the northern manufacturing city of Milton, the worlds of North and South clash. Margaret has never mixed with what she calls "tradesmen," but in Milton she finds herself drawn into the conflict between workers and masters. The stubbornness and hardships of workers like the man Higgins and his daughter Bessy capture Margaret's heart, but at the same time she is drawn to manufacturer John Thornton.


There are several themes in "North and South." The most obvious would be the difference between the agricultural, slow-moving South and the fast-paced and industrial North. Another theme is the conflict between those who run the mills in Milton and the lower class who work in them, and the prejudice on both sides. Masters oppress their workers and the workers 'strike' (stop work), but even after Margaret comes to understand both sides of the argument, she recognizes the wrong of both masters and workers.

Margaret has a very acute sense of right and wrong, and repents when she finds herself committing a sin. She is also proud through the majority of the story, which she regrets. The Hales uphold the sort of moral structure outlined in the Bible (see Spiritual Content); Mr. Bell, a friend of Mr. Hale, jokes about how he keeps his conscience in a box and never lets it out.

Spiritual Content

Elizabeth Gaskell was a Unitarian, meaning she did not believe in the divinity of Christ or the message of salvation intrinsic to the Gospel, and this can be seen in the "spirituality" of the Hales. Mr. Hale disagrees with some of the points of the Book of Common Prayer, which all Anglican ministers had to conform to and sign, and so he left his parish; the points he disagreed with are not mentioned. He is, basically, nothing more than a moral man, and once or twice says that something is "the Christian thing to do." There is talk of God's sovereignty and eternality, and when Margaret tells a lie she prays and repents of it. However, at this point she seems more worried about what another person thinks of her than what God thinks.

Bessy Higgins has read the Bible and frequently quotes Revelations, her favorite book, and speaks of how she longs to go to Heaven. Her father does not believe in an afterlife and also disagrees that God would ever make some men masters and some workers.


There is a good deal of talk about the mutiny that Frederick, Margaret's brother, took part in years before the story takes place, and of the court martial and death certain to await him if he returns to England. One man knocks another down in self-defense, and the latter falls and dies. One character kills himself by drowning and his body is graphically described.

Drug and Alcohol Content

One drunkard factors into the plot, and different kinds of wine are common beverages at or after supper.

Sexual Content

The story is a social commentary mixed with romance, or a romance mixed with social commentary, depending on how you look at it. Early in the story a man proposes to Margaret, and there are two other proposals later on. After she is seen walking at night with her brother, who is not known to be in England, John Thornton's mother questions Margaret's character.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Higgins says "G--" and "d---," and also swears once "by God." "Slatternly" is used.


"North and South," probably Gaskell's most famous work, depicts the dramatic differences between the north and south of England during the Industrial Revolution, and brings those two cultures into collision with the characters of John Thornton and Margaret Hale. Gaskell's sketch of the sort of life she saw in the real industrial city of Manchester, placed in the fictional town of Milton, is intriguing, moving, and provides food for thought. Drawing from its setting in the smoky, dark city, the story is mixed with a heavy dose of gloom, so it is not exactly a light, fluffy read; however, it does have intrigue, romance, history, and plenty of conflict to keep the reader going through most of the story. The latter chapters tend to drag, but the ending is fine and conclusive.

Fun Score: 4
Values Score: 3
Written for Age: adult

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