North and South

Critical reception

In her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell, a collection of essays representing some of the most current scholarly work on Elizabeth Gaskell, Matus (2007) stresses the writer's growing stature in Victorian literary studies and how she drew on her gift as an innovative, versatile storyteller to address the rapid changes that occurred in her lifetime. It was not always that way.[9] Her reputation after her death and until the 1950s was dominated by Lord David Cecil's assessment in Early Victorian Novelists (1934) that she was "all woman" who "makes a creditable effort to overcome her natural deficiencies but all in vain" (quoted in Stoneman, 1987, from Cecil, p. 235).

Contemporary reactions were critical (as were those for Mary Barton): critics who did not approve of Mrs. Gaskell's sympathies for the poor questioned if the struggles of working people of Manchester were a proper subject for a romance. A scathing unsigned critique from the publication Leader accused Gaskell of a number of errors about Lancashire that a resident of Manchester would not make; saying a woman (or clergymen and women) could not " understand industrial problems" and would "know too little about the cotton industry" and, therefore, has no "right to add to the confusion by writing about it" (Chapman 1999, p. 28).

Charlotte Brontë, after reading the fifth episode, expressed her doubts on the subject matter because she believed then that it was only about the church and "the defense of those who in conscience, disagree with it and consider it their duty to leave." She acknowledged, however, that her friend "understands the genius of the North" (Chapman 1999, p. 29). Richard Holt, in The Critical Review, while acknowledging some interest in the novel, complained that the plot is disjointed and the characters change by leaps and bounds, "in the manner of kangaroos"(Chapman 1999, p. 29). George Sand admired the novel as one that can interest gentlemen but still be accessible to young women (Chapman 1999, p. 82).

Gaskell's novels gradually fell into oblivion in the late 19th century although Cranford remained popular. Before 1950, she was considered a minor writer with feminine sensibility, albeit with good judgment. Archie Stanton Whitfield, in 1929, found her writings "like a nosegay of 'violets, honeysuckle, lavender, mignonette and sweet briar"[10] and Cecil (1934) asserted she lacked the "masculinity" necessary to properly deal with social problems (Chapman 1999, p. 39–40). But the tide turned in Gaskell's favour when, in 1950, a Marxist critic became interested in her description of social and industrial problems (see Moore, 1999[11] for an elaboration), and—realising that her vision went against the prevailing views of the time—saw it, instead, as preparing the way for vocal feminist movements (Stoneman 1987, p. 118)

In the early 21st century, with Gaskell's work "enlisted in contemporary negotiations of nationhood as well as gender and class identities" (Matus, 2007, p. 9), North and South — one of the first industrial novels describing the conflicts between employers and workers – is now seen as presenting not only a narrative that depicts social conflicts as more complex but also as offering more satisfactory solutions through its heroine, Margaret Hale, spokesperson for the author, and Gaskell's most mature creation.[12]

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