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North and South: ‘A little fierce incendiary’

By Vanessa Pupavac

‘Church and King, and down with the Rump!’ So toasts the aristocratic grandfather in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South. ( ) But Gaskell’s 1855 novel engages with building a modern industrial nation, and specifically rejects the political and social order embodied in the old Cavalier anti-parliamentary toast. Her engagement with the challenges posed by industrialisation has insights for today’s global North-South relations and their future direction. Consider the current civil unrest in Hong Kong (, or the growing strikes in China questioning the official representation of the harmonious society ( This month’s opening of the newly restored Elizabeth Gaskell House ( is therefore a good time to open North and South to more readers. What is to be found there? Gaskell’s plot has strong parallels with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where a parson’s daughter from the South of England overcomes her prejudices towards a factory owner from the smoky industrial town of Milton in Darkshire.

But similarities of plot are belied by their radically different social visions, which they draw from their immersion in the social and philosophical debates of their day. (Don’t fall for the idea of a parochial Miss Austen ignorant of contemporary political conflagrations.)

Overall Austen’s novels offer a conservative vision of moral and social renewal against the ‘reform or revolution’ threats posed by the Napoleonic wars. Namely a revitalised order organised around an alliance of the middle classes with a reformed landed gentry leading agricultural improvement, a Church of England renewing its national moral and spiritual role, and a military with naval pre-eminence, themes developed more fully in her novel Mansfield Park. So whereas the military was dominated by the aristocracy, the navy was more closely aligned with the rising middle classes and the nation’s expanding international commercial interests.

Conversely Gaskell, writing against the background of social strife and Chartism, envisages the need for union between the middle classes, manufacturing classes and working classes.

Indeed the very plot parallels between the two novelists show Gaskell systematically challenging key planks of Austen’s social vision.

First we have our heroine’s marriage to the Cromwellian republican-leaning manufacturer Mr Thornton, rejecting marriage in the military aristocratic circles of her wealthy cousin. Along the path of their love, our heroine overcomes an aristocratic disdain for manufacturing and trade, and embraces its creative energy, but seeks to soften its hard cruel edges.

Second we have our heroine’s father resigning from the Church of England and his comfortable living. Instead he finds spiritual and intellectual inspiration among the dissenting factory owners and factory workers of the dark satanic mills.

Third we have the heroine’s brother leading a naval mutiny and becoming a wanted criminal facing court martial and execution if he returns to Britain. Instead he joins a trading house in Spain and finds greater prosperity in exile than he would have done as a naval officer. His story represents a decisive break with the post-Trafalgar romance of the navy under Nelson expressed in Austen’s novels.

Gaskell’s protagonists identify with a forward-looking, energetic, inventive, creative, industrious, industrial nation displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition. This ‘progress of commerce’ is seen as forging a more egalitarian prosperous nation, overcoming social misery and injustice. And in this new emerging order, her characters assert a strong sense of independence, freedom and dignity, and purpose in their lives. The people of her fictional Milton display a ‘rough independent way’ unwilling to subordinate themselves to the strictures and hierarchies of traditional domestic service or agricultural labour. The industrial changes therefore foster new social demands and conflicts. Gaskell doubts these conflicts can be eradicated, but hopes closer personal interactions might render these conflicts less bitter and their resolution more just.

But how much do we share this dynamic vision today? Culturally we seem to have more in common with the heroine’s dispirited mother laid low by her sensibilities. Indicatively, whereas a strike is the watershed event in North and South, more days are lost in Britain today to sick leave than strikes. ( Our risk averse culture would shrink at the ‘fierce incendiary’ spirit identified by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Review on the novel’s publication in 1855. This spirit seeks ‘to defy the old limits of possibility’ both of nature and given social status. They are creatures on the move, not content to sit passively. So while our reading of North and South tends to emphasise place, the novel concerns new mobility, new encounters, and communication among people, as Alan Shelston, editor of Gaskell’s works, reminds us.

So how might we retrieve the shock of the industrial in experienced by Gaskell’s first readers of her novel? This imaginative leap is made harder by how the North and the South have reversed their connotations in our imaginary. Today it is the south that commonly represents brash vulgar economic growth, while the north has become the receptacle of ideals of authenticity and tradition. We tend to forget that the novel celebrates industrial invention and its potential to offer improved living standards and freer lives – if married to recognition of our interdependence and responsibility towards each other.

Today’s best equivalence would probably be a story set in a Chinese industrial city like Shanghai or Ningbo. And the story would involve a heroine, who works for a Western environmental NGO or development aid NGO promoting income generation through traditional handicrafts – basket or rug weaving perhaps? – confronting the energy and cleavages of Chinese industrialisation. The Gaskell Society tells me that a recent Chinese translation of North and South has been inspired by parallels seen between nineteenth century industrial Britain and twenty-first century China. And a similar restless energy simmers among the people less willing to submit themselves to unjust authority in both mainland China and Hong Kong. But as we see in the current Hong Kong protests, the prejudices of Hong Kongers towards the ‘vulgar’ mainland factory workers stands in the way of building stronger solidarities whose combined forces would have better chances of realising their political and economic demands. (

Gaskell, under pressure from Charles Dickens to complete the novel, resorts to the favourite Victorian plot device of a lucky inheritance securing a happy fictional resolution of the economic clashes she explores. Reality does not have this fictional magic wand.

Meanwhile Britain is busy transforming what’s left of its industrial past into the heritage industry, while often showing cultural aversion to industrial development elsewhere. But Gaskell’s North and South is a novel negotiating the future. And we should toast the spirit of ‘That man’ and ‘That woman’ in Gaskell’s work.

Vanessa Pupavac is currently writing a book on Shakespeare and international politics. Her previous book Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance was published by Palgrave.

 Vanessa Pupavac was speaking at the Manchester Salon held at the newly opened Elizabeth Gaskell House on 8 October 2014. The event was part of the Manchester Literary Festival.


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