Teaching 'North and South'

A Labour of Love

Labouring through Tess of the D’Urbervilles in matric is the reason my husband proffers for not reading novels today.  He describes the book, one which for many is a great classic, as a boring book about a milkmaid who falls pregnant and dies. I often reflect on his response to literature when reading the latest novel set for matric, especially if it’s a classic.

The truth is that I really didn’t expect to enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North and South, as much as I did.

I had never encountered her as a writer and was expecting her novel to be long, drawn out and difficult to read. On the contrary, I was quickly drawn in to what is an intricate plot with twists and turns, worthy of a BBC TV series (which it is!) In fact, I hardly noticed the old fashioned language or references to events and associations unfamiliar to modern readers. I was intrigued by the descriptions of Victorian life and the issues (many still relevant today) that plagued Victorian society. I was in awe of Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrayal of a woman like Margaret Hale, a woman who rejects the female stereotype of the time and steps out of the passive role expected of a female. Most of all, I was delighted to indulge in a beautifully written love story.

Of course, my enjoyment of North and South is no guarantee that students will feel the same way. Since it is a love story with a female heroine, I especially wondered if male readers would enjoy the novel. I did a quick search for reviews written by males and found slim pickings. On Goodreads, someone called Blackie gives the novel a five-star rating while Barry Piers comments that ‘It's Pride and Prejudice for Socialists.’

A more substantial review comes from author, John Purcell**, who describes North and South as ‘a work of the highest order’. According to Purcell, Gaskell’s writing is accessible to all and her novel can be read on many levels by a vast array of readers.

An interesting point made by Purcell is that Gaskell’s novel is ‘thoroughly modern’ in the way it adheres to a realistic representation of life, in its belief that honest reporting can effect social change and in its preoccupation with the relationship between the middle classes and working classes. He goes so far as to say: ‘In 1854, Mrs Gaskell did something spectacular, something which has gone unnoticed, in writing North and South she gave the world the first great novel of the 20th century.’

Perhaps, in a different time and place, Gaskell might have achieved more recognition for her novel.
Certainly, teaching the novel today is worth the challenge presented by the language. Learners will recognise familiar themes: geographical and class differences, gender inequality, the question of legitimacy when rebelling against authority, the role of the church and religion in society, the nature of love and marriage, ways of dealing with grief and finding hope.

It was Gaskell’s intention to inspire readers to do something purposeful with their lives and students, even if they struggle with English, will gain new insights from studying the novel. In fact, with the imaginative approach of a good teacher, the positive outcomes of the book might well convert someone who has grown to hate novels.      

** http://www.johnpurcellauthor.com/north-and-south-by-elizabeth-gaskell.html

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