Book Review: North and South

I ordered North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell  from the library after watching the BBC’s film version. The movie takes a few liberties with the book’s original plot but is a great tale in its own right. Likewise, the actual book’s storyline is gripping, full of interesting characters and human drama. The author sweeps you through London, the quiet English countryside, and a rough burgeoning mill town. In many ways, the book is a slow brooding study on humans and hardship; some overcome it, some succumb to it, each individual handles tragedy in a different way. 

First serialized in 1854, North and South has a lot in common with the novels of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and Charles Dickens. Like Pride & Prejudice, it follows a man and a woman who begin their acquaintance in constant aggravation, follow a road riddled with reverses, and end the story thoroughly in love. Like Anthony Trollope, its characters perform before a backdrop of growing technology and industry, contrasted with traditional rural life. And, like Dickens, it delves into the hardships, joys, and homes of British citizens from all strata of society; mill owners and menial laborers receive equal attention. 

Unfortunately there’s a downside: The writing itself does not do the themes or characters justice. North and South is a classic, but a book’s seniority doesn’t guarantee its sentences. The actual writing isn’t bad, but lacks the beautifully turned phrases of more famous authors. Words fill every page (occasionally to excess) and dutifully tell their story, but no quotes beg for an underline, no passages leave you saying “she got that exactly right!” And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. We can’t all be Jane Austen or John Milton (thank goodness). Every era has popular stories that may not be the most brilliant broken down at sentence-level: think Harry Potter, or even (ugh) Twilight. Numerous mediocre phrases can still unite into a gripping saga, and North and South’s sweeping themes deserve a reading.

A final note: I don’t normally care what edition of a book I read unless it’s a translation. However, quality issues and serious textual errors riddled this version put out by Cosimo Classics in 2008. Not being familiar with Cosimo as a whole, I can only say this edition needed a few more editorial reviews before publication to correct the numerous typos, missing words, and jumbled sentences.

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