Caution: Spoilers and Snark abound!
I’m afraid this review will not be popular with fans of the author, or those who see classic literature as unassailable. But after slogging through this book (especially so soon after discovering Villette, a truly excellent classic!), I feel obliged to warn potential readers, and let those who were disappointed with the book but wary about criticizing a classic know that they aren’t alone.
So, then: a recipe for North and South:
- Add one romantic plotline borrowed straight from Pride and Prejudice, only the leads’ arguments are about labor relations. Also, after the disastrous proposal scene, don't let him write a letter and so keep the relationship on hold until the last two pages. (These reviews
lay out many more similarities between the two books that I have not repeated here.)
- Add some poor families/dying children borrowed straight from Dickens, only keep the deaths off-page.
- Add at least 6 character deaths, almost all off-page. The deaths and subsequent grieving can substitute for a plot throughout the second half of the book.
- Add 1 Mary Sue, otherwise known as Margaret Hale. Everybody must worship Margaret. Include sentences such as “Martha, like all who came in contact with Margaret.... felt it a pleasure and an honour to forward any of her wishes.” Ensure that even Lady Catherine.... sorry, Mrs. Thornton.... is melted by her lovely eyes and straightforward demeanor. Have characters berate each other for not singing her praises enthusiastically enough, then report the incident to Margaret with concern. (I am not making this up!) Also, describe her constantly. Like when she meets the leading man for the first time. Don’t describe him, describe her! Again!
- Add many interior monologues by the leading man detailing his feelings for Margaret. Think you have enough? Try doubling that. We want to know EXACTLY how in love with her he is.
- Add a handful of goofy, melodramatic scenes and startling coincidences. (I shudder when I think of that riot scene....) While these may threaten any feelings of authenticity the plot may have had, at least they'll keep it moving when you run out of deaths.
- Add 4 cups of tedium. Mix well.
- If you are Penguin Classics: sprinkle useless, spoiler-laden endnotes (such as, after Margaret shares her views of a subject in Chapter 1, “Margaret painfully revises her view of X after the deaths of A and B”) throughout. This is super easy to do because all you have to do is find really obvious points in the text and spell them out.
Voila! North and South.
In all fairness, and the reason I at least give 2 stars: there is some decent characterization here, particularly of the minor characters. There are some passages that make me think the author might have turned this into a decent social satire a la Jane Austen. And I’m willing to admit that the book might have been ahead of its time on some issues, like workers’ rights, although the bookjacket gave the impression there would be more of a social justice ethos, when it seemed to me just repackaged Dickens (who was its publisher) plus a strike. But was it ever a slog to get through! There just was not much tension in this book; even the romance wasn’t interesting until the last two pages, and by then it was too late.
So: apologies to any who loved this book and were offended by my irreverent treatment, etc. As for me, I’ll just read more Jane Austen. Or better yet, Charlotte Brontë.