Tag Archives: North and South

My Year in Books

Happy New Year, everybody! I wish you all the best for 2014!

As this is not just the time to look forward, but also to look backward, I thought I’d do a review of 2013 in terms of books I’ve read.

2013 was the very first year I’ve managed to keep a reading journal (yay me!). While I haven’t kept track of all the books I’ve read (for example, I don’t note down the books I read for university), I think very few have actually fallen through the cracks.


I went through three four five major gloms last year:

  1. I re-read a lot of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher books in January (she had a new one out in September: Murder & Mendelssohn – loved it!)
  2. In spring and summer I read and re-read most of Michelle Reid’s books. I even bought the M&B Special Edition set (because the books looked so pretty). Reid’s books are a bit of a hit or miss with me: either I really, really like them, or they fall into the meh category for me. One of my favourites of hers is The De Santis Marriage, which plays with the conventions of Italian tycoon stories. Here’s a very nice example:

    Lifting up her hand, she caught hold of his fingers and pulled them away from her mouth. “That was really good,” she commented. “Quite breathtakingly arrogant and rightfully proud of your mighty fine self, in fact, and it should really have put me squarely in my lowly place.”

  3. In May and June I read several of Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham mysteries. I thought the first three or so quite delightful – very entertaining, with a clever twist at the end – but eventually I figured that the “clever twist” is one of the characteristic features of those mysteries. (When an author insists on depicting his hero as a bit of an arrogant, know-it-all moron, he shouldn’t be suprised when said hero gets on readers’ nerves after a while.)
  4. In October I re-read all of Jacqueline Gilbert’s books. *happy sigh* They’re just so lovely! Old-fashioned, but really, really lovely. With grumpy heroes and all that! *another happy sigh*
  5. I also did a mini-glom / re-read of Dorothy Dunnett’s Dolly series once I realised they had become available as e-books. Her prose is – oh my goodness! – so, so wonderful! Take this sentence from Roman Nights:

    Every ruin is packed like a biscuit box.

    Or this:

    In Rome there is a pathological shortage of small coins. For change, the little shops tend to use candy.

    Or this:

    If a Roman junction during one of the four normal rush hours is suicide, a Roman junction while the traffic lights are off resembles nothing so muhc as a her of myopic rhinoceroses meeting eye to eye with a her of dim-witted elephants and attempting to copulate.


I had quite a number of those, alas. Several of the historicals I bought (luckily, I bought most of them cheaply or got them for free) were simply unbelievable: not only was the writing often stilted or the story mind-numbingly boring, no, several books also abounded with historical inaccuracies. As in: a debutante dances the waltz (!) at Almack’s in 1806 (!!!). *head desk*

I’m afraid even one of Michelle Reid’s books fell into the DNF category: I thought the The Italian’s Revenge was truly, truly awful (“thoroughly disgusted” I wrote in my nifty little reading journal). But then this was one of her older books (originally published in 2000), so this might have had something to do with it. Many of her later books have an underlying humour that I simply love!


At some point in September, I thought it would be nice to have a nice reading copy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South aka one of my favourite classics EVER! So I perused various different editions on Amazon and eventually stumbled across the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of Cranford. Oh my. I mean…. OH MY! Here’s what happened then (Part 2 of my September Book Haul):

Favourite Classic

And speaking of classics, my favourite work of 2013 in that category was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translation by Simon Armitage). I read it for the class on medieval literature I’m teaching this semesterand was thoroughly enchanted. There’s also an audiobook available of that translation, read by the translator himself – which didn’t work for me at all, alas. In fact, I had to switch off after a mere five minutes because I felt the desperate urge to throttle the narrator. Ugh. (Why couldn’t they have let RICHARD Armitage read the story? He would have done such a great job, I’m sure, and they would have sold oodles of copies. Hmph.)

Favourite Romance

Apart from my re-reads, my favourite romance of 2013 was Courtney Milan’s A Kiss for Midwinter, her Christmas novella from 2012. The premise is rather unusual, the hero is rather unusual, and the heroine is all prickly. Nice. 🙂

Favourite Books

But two most favourite books this year were Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (a book about books and the love for books and really strange bookshops) and Joyce Dennys’s Henrietta’s War (which I called “Cranford for the 1940s!” in my reading diary). I have to admit I was drawn to both books because of their beautiful covers (well, in Mr Penumbra’s case, I had to order the novel from Canada because all other editions sport rather ghastly covers) – I’m shallow like that. But it’s such a joy when something that looks so pretty turns out to be wonderfully written as well. I highly recommend both books.


So, that was my year in reading. Which books and authors did you discover in 2013? Which were your favourites? Which were the books that you re-read? Let me know!

Still Re-Reading N&S

Yup, I’m still at N&S (and am quietly freaking out about that final oral exam *sob*) (No, I’m not exaggerating: I’m already having nightmares about the stupid thing! As in, I’m in the exam and they’re asking me questions for which I’m totally unprepared. Or questions about books I haven’t read. Like Dickens. (I’m not a huge Dickens fan; I’ve read Oliver Twist ages ago + Mystery of Edwin Drood + beginning of Pickwick Papers + that’s about all I remember.) Or questions about those big, fat 18th-century novels, which I haven’t really read either. In other words: they’re going to find out that I’m a fraud. *sob sob sob*)

Okay, so I’m still reading N&S (and lusting after Mr. Thornton) (especially when I think of Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton!!! Yum!). You can, of course, read the novel as a romance, and if you do, the dynamics in the relationship of Margaret and Thornton make so much more sense. In many ways, the relationship resembles that in Pride & Prejudice: At the beginning, the hero is attracted to the heroine (against his better judgment), while she thinks he is some kind of lower life form that has crawled out from beneath a stone. Consequently, his first proposal comes as a shock for her and she rejects him (and takes the chance to tell him exactly what she thinks of him). Yet almost immediately afterwards, our heroine begins to wonder whether she has misjudged the poor hero (who’s broken-hearted; poor thing). Despite her rejection, he still cares for her, and when she / her family / her idiotic siblings run into trouble, he tries to help her. She realises that she has utterly, utterly, UTTERLY misjudged the poor man and herself (for she’s actually quite in love with the hunky hero), but she assumes that her hunky man now detests her and thinks she is the lowest of the lowest and will never ever speak to her again. But he does! (yay!) And proposes again!!! And they lived happily ever after. 🙂

But Margaret & Thornton’s story also reminded me of Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. As with Jessica and Dain, sparks fly whenever M. & Mr. T. meet. They’ve got these very intense discussions, arguments even, but Thornton simply can’t stay away and always comes back for more 🙂

*happy sigh*

And now let’s all say “Awwwwww!”

I know I’ve mentioned Gaskell’s NORTH & SOUTH several times when I first read it, but the novel is simply so good it deserves to be mentioned again and again and again and … well, you get the picture. 🙂

Though Gaskell complained that she had to hurry & shorten the ending so it would fit into the serial format of Dickens’s HOUSEHOLD WORDS, I still think the ending of N&S rather sweet and definitely worthy of a happy sigh or two.


Sill lower went the head; more closely hidden was the face, almost resting on the table before her. He came close to her. He knelt by her side, to bring his face to a level with her ear; and whispered – panted out the words: –

“Take care. – If you do not speak – I shall claim you as my own in same strange presumptuous way. – Send me away at once, if I must go; – Margaret!”

At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close.

*happy sigh*

A Heretical Thought

*whispers* I think I like Elizabeth Gaskell better than Jane Austen.

*looks around to see if somebody has sunk in a dead faint*

Truly, I love Austen’s novels (well, let’s say I love Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion – I don’t particularly care for her other “big” novels) (Emma gets on my nerves and Marianne’s selfishness makes me want to slap her at times) (see? see? total heresy!), but Gaskell’s writing is infused with more emotion, imo. Her characters are more endearing (Cranford, anybody?), and her love stories are more passionate (wheee! North and South!). The aforementioned sensuality adds a special something to her stories and makes them feel surprisingly modern. The emotions of Austen’s characters seem somewhat restrained by comparison. Indeed, if I had to choose between Darcy and Thornton, I would definitely take Thornton (especially if he looks like Richard Armitage!!!) (who cares about 10000 pounds per annum?).


Will I now go to romance hell?

More Thoughts on Gaskell

Another thing I really liked about N&S is that Gaskell is subtly subversive in regard to the description and characterisation of her heroine. At the beginning of the novel, Margaret expresses her impatience with all the “trifles” of the arrangements for her cousin’s wedding: “A sense of indescribable weariness of all the arrangements for a pretty effect, in which Edith had been busied as supreme authority for the last six weeks, oppressed her just now […]” (Chapter 1). She doesn’t really seem to be into talks about the latest fashion, about ribbons, frills, and what not.

After this glimpse of her character in Chapter 1, her physical appearance is then described in Chapter 2:

Sometimes people wondered that parents so handsome should have a daughter who was so far from regularly beautiful; not beautiful at all, was occasionally said. He mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and ‘an’t please you, sir.’

In other words, neither in appearance nor in temperament does Margaret fit the Victorian ideal of femininity: she might be pure (after all, she is terribly upset about being regarded as a desirable woman — think of her reaction to the proposals of marriage she receives from Henry Lennox and Thornton!), but submissive, decorous, frail or angelic she’s not. The quotation above clearly doesn’t only indicate that she enjoys intelligent conversations, but also that she probably is not afraid of butting heads with the person she’s having a discussion with. Thus it prepares the reader for Margaret’s heated discussions with Thornton later on in the novel.

The two of them engage in a verbal battle that is quite ferocious at times (when she rejects him, Thornton feels as she has “given him a sound blow with her fists” (Chapter 26)) and that contrasts with Henry Lennox’s empty flattery. While Thornton actually listens to Margaret and lets his actions be influenced by her, Lennox thinks her mind “could easily […] be led to embrace all objects on which he had set his heart” (Chapter 49). Both men liken Margaret to an empress, but whereas on Thornton’s part this is an expression of his admiration and his growing (or rather, instant) regard for her,* Lennox is clearly annoyed by what he sees as her inappropriate, superior ways: “She has been very farouche with me for a long time; and is only just beginning to thaw a little from her Zenobia ways” (Chapter 59). (Jerk!) This, of course, makes it more than clear that Thornton is the better partner for Margaret.

The extent of Margaret’s unconventionality first becomes obvious during the dinner party at Thornton’s:

She was surprised to think how much she enjoyed this dinner. She knew enough now to understand many local interests — nay, even some of the technical words employed by the eager millowners. (Chapter 20)

In other words, she is interested in what the men talk about. And what do they talk about? Milton politics.

Oh. My. Gosh.

A woman interested in politics!

This is subversive stuff indeed, given the Victorian ideology of the separation of the two spheres. The Victorians regarded life as being divided into two spheres, the public sphere and the private sphere. The public sphere is that of men — they venture out into the big world to earn money and to talk/make politics. Women by contrast occupy the private sphere; they’re responsible for the household and for the children. Because they’re so frail and ethereal, they must sheltered from the world outside. But in N&S Margaret clearly ventures beyond her own sphere, and never more so when she rushes out to face the rioters at Marlborough Mills and throws herself at Thornton to protect him from the angry mob.

Traditionally, Victorian heroines who dare to move beyond their proper place and beyond the Victorian ideal of femininity are cruelly punished for this transgression. (Just think of the Lady of Shalott, who has to die after she assumes a male subject position by looking out of the window of her tower!) In N&S, by contrast, the heroine is rewarded for her daring: by her very unconventionality she wins the love of powerful, passionate man, who respects her and listens to her.

So yay! for Margaret! And a double yay!! for Gaskell!


* See their first meeting in Chapter 7:

Her dress was very plain: a close straw bonnet of the best material and shape, trimmed with white ribbon; a dark silk gown, without any trimmin or flounce; a large Indian shawl, which hung about her in long heavy folds and which she wore as an empress wears her drapery. […] Mr. Thornton was in habits of authority himself, but she seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once.

Gaskell Wheeee!!!

I’ve just finished my preparations for my literature class on Monday — and I’m so exhilerated!

I think I’ve already mentioned that I’m teaching Gaskell this semester (and Gaskell beat Shakespeare! By miles!!!) and that at the moment we’re discussing North and South. The preparations this afternoon & evening were truly great as they allowed me to dig into the novel once again and to penetrate the web of story Gaskell spins. I love it when I can make a text my own this way. The rush this gives me is almost as big as the rush I get from a good day of writing: my skin tingles and I feel as if my body were filled with lots of bubbles. 🙂 So yay to Gaskell!!

I enjoyed how sensual the writing in N&S is: the author lovingly describes Margaret as seen through Thornton’s eyes and it’s quite clear that he’s physically attracted to her. Or in other words, that he’s got the hots for her. Take this description from their first meeting in Chapter 7:

[…] her full beauty met his eye; her round white flexile throat rising out of the full, yet lithe figure; her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve; her eyes, with their soft gloom, meeting his with quiet maiden freedom.

Or this, from Chapter 10:

She looked as if she was not attending to the conversation, but solely busy with the tea-cups, among which her round ivory hands moved with pretty, noiseless daintiness. She had a bracelet on one taper arm, which would fall down over her round wrist. Mr Thornton watched the re-placing of this troublesome ornament with far more attention than he listened to her father. It seemed as if it fascinated him to see her push it up impatiently, until it tightened her soft flesh; and then to mark the loosening — the fall. He could almost have exclaimed — ‘There it goes, again!’


In addition, there are quite a few Awwwww-moments in the novel, especially when poor John Thornton is struggling with his feelings for Margaret. Take this (he’s about to propose to her for the first time):

He dreaded lest he should go forwards to meet her, with his arms held out in mute entreaty that she would come and nestle there, as she had done, all unheeded, the day before, but never unheeded again. His heart throbbed loud and quick. Strong man as he was, he trembled at the anticipation of what he had to say, and how it might be received.

And after he has been rejected:

It would have been a relief to him, if he could have sat down and cried on a door-step by a little child, who was raging and storming, through his passionate tears, at some injury he had received. He said to himself, that he hated Margaret, but a wild, sharp sensation of love cleft his dull, thunderous feeling like lightning, even as he shaped the words expressive of hatred. […] She would not make him change. He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain.

If that’s not seriously Awwwww!-worthy, I don’t know what is.

What I found interesting was a comment from the essay “North and South: Varieties of Love and Power” by John Pikoulis, who regards the second proposal and the ending of the novel as weak:

To the end, Margaret regards her connexion with him as (the metaphor is unavoidable) busieness-like, and it is only when he sinks to his knees that he can coax her into laying her face, still covered with her hands as a final gesture of reluctance, on his shoulder; only when he has made the pilgrimage to Helstone does she agree to marry him. The object of his affections has become the tyrant of his conscience, as well as his landlord. […] [Margaret] has Thornton in her power and accepts him on her own terms. […] She takes Thornton as if they were friendly master and hand […]. The sin and sinner have been punished, Margaret’s suffering rewarded, but a mature relationship between a man and a woman avoided.

At first I was rather puzzled by this comment, because this is not how I’ve read the ending. But it took me some time to figure out why: I’ve read N&S as a romance. And then, of course, it makes perfect sense that Margaret accepts Thornton only when he is “tamed” (see Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ article in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women), only when it has become clear that she can assert a certain influence over him (he has, after all, listened to her and has begun to regard his workers as individuals). But even if he is brought low in the end and she has to help him (what’s the problem with that? other people’s heroes have been tied to rocks and have to look on while the heroine shoots the villain! *g*), he has not lost his edge, he can still be masterful: “Take care. — If you do not speak — I shall claim you as my own in some strange presumptuous way.” (Hey, he can claim me as his own any time! Especially if he looks like Richard Armitage! *ggg*) It’s a romance ending, of course it’s a romance ending. And all their (very sexy, very stimulating) verbal sparring throughout the story has shown that they are ideally suited: Margaret is interested in the politics of Milton, and Thornton is not only eager to make her understand him, but also actually listens to her. Which shows that he values her opinion. He is not Henry Lennox, who

loved her beauty. He saw the latent sweep of her mind, which could easily (he thought) be led to embrace all the objects on which he had set his heart. He looked upon her fortune only as a part of the complete and superb character of herself and her position: yet he was fully aware of the rise which it would immediately enable him, the poor barrister, to take.


No, no, Margaret needs Thornton. That they will be happy together becomes more than obvious at the very end for the novel ends with mutual teasing:

“How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?” she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. [And why the silence? Because they’re busy snogging!]

“Let me speak to her.”

“Oh, no! I owe it to her, — but what will she say?”

“I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, ‘That man'”

“Hush!” said Margaret, “or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, ‘That woman!'”

Now is that sweet or what?

Ze Kiss!!!

You know, there is a big advantage about teaching an undergrad seminar on Elizabeth Gaskell this winter: it gives me the bestest excuse ever to watch my favourite scenes from NORTH & SOUTH again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again …

Like this one: