The influence of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice on North and South is frequently emphasised. In 1988, Rosemarie Bodenheimer, in The Politic of Stories in Victorian Fiction, admits that, while preferring to study the novel's relationship with Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, she sees, in the "description of strong domestic qualities" and "social optimism," the plot of an industrial Pride and Prejudice. Patricia Ingham (Ingham, 1996 pp 56–58) also analyses and compares North and South with Shirley. Ann Banfield compares North and South to Mansfield Park, for two reasons: Margaret Hale, like Fanny Price is transplanted in a place she conquers, and the novel is built on an opposition of places, but in a larger scale.
The novel shows three beginnings, two of them not the real start to the story that is eventually told: the first with the wedding preparations in London, the second the heroine's return to Helstone, and the third, often considered the real start to the story tells of the departure for Milton in Chapter 7. The first chapters, according to Martin Dodsworth, are false leads on what the novel is about, not out of the author's clumsiness; instead, they tell the reader what the story is not about. Bodenheimer (p. 283), however, interprets these early chapters, not as false starts but as consistently showing Gaskell's theme of both societal and personal "permanent state(s) of change" and therefore, integral to the novel. These early chapters in different places have also been taken to mean a theme of mobility in the novel: In moving from one place to another, the heroine learns to understand herself and the world better and it advances Gaskell's intent to show Margaret's going where Victorian women were not supposed to go—the public sphere.
The beginning chapters of North and South seem to be a novel of manners in the style of Jane Austen (Nash, 2007) with preparations for a" good "marriage in London with a silly bride and a lively and intelligent heroine and, later, in the peaceful country village of Hampshire, a bachelor in search of a good fortune (Henry Lennox) woos and is rejected by the heroine (O'Farrell, 1997, p 58). But Deirdre David, in Fictions of Resolution in Three Victorian Novels, published in 1981, suggests that Margaret's abandonment of London society means she is not in her place in the South, and that her adjustment to the North is, therefore, not ironic (O'Farrell, 1997, p 161).
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a novel of manners, but in the broader context of an industrial novel about inhabitants of the Black Country, where young girls like Bessy die of " cotton consumption", capitalists disregard legal obligations, and workers refuse prophylactic facilities, instigate strikes or create riots (O'Farrell, 1997, p 58). The novel could be criticised, as Martin Dodsworth did in 1970, for giving the love affair precedence over the industrial context and for dwelling too much on the emotional conflict between Margaret and Thornton. But North and South is not simply an industrial Pride and Prejudice: Margaret, by speaking, asking questions and giving advice (outside the role of a Victorian woman from a good family), acquires stature and a public role, thus challenging the notion of separate spheres (see Masculine and Feminine Roles above) (Stoneman, 1987, p. 167). Although aware of her social and cultural superiority, she befriends Bessy Higgins, a young woman of the working class, gradually abandons her aversion to Shoppy people and, recognising the qualities of Thornton, crosses the boundaries between social classes, to consider herself "not good enough" for him. And if the novel ends in Harley Street, where it started, Margaret's estrangement from the vain and superficial world of her cousin Edith and Henry Lennox is better emphasised—she chooses Thornton and Milton (Pollard, 1967, p. 111).
Blunders and gaffes
As the chapter titles First Impressions, Mistakes, Mistakes Clared Up, Mischances, Atonement indicate, the novel is punctuated with blunders that Margaret commits or with problematic situations involving other characters that create misunderstandings (O'Farrell, 1997, p. 67). Some of Margaret's blunders stem from ignoring customs, some from not understanding them, and still others from rejecting the social customs of Milton, e.g., frank and familiar handshake. Other characters fail to carry out important actions: Dixon fails to tell Margaret that Thornton attended the funeral of her mother, Mr Bell dies before he could explain to Thornton the reasons Margaret lied. Margaret feels misunderstood and unable to take control of her life and explain a world that she herself does not understand (O'Farrell, 1997, p. 67).
Other gaffes are due to Margaret's ignorance; accustomed to the chic salons of London, she is not aware that she is seen as wearing her shawl "as an empress wears her drapery" (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 7) or serving tea with "the air of a proud reluctant slave." She receives proposals of marriage awkwardly: the declaration of Henry Lennox is "unpleasant" and makes her uncomfortable, but she feels "offended" and assaulted by that of John Thornton. She naively believes one can negotiate with the rioters, is unaware that she and her brother Frederick look like a loving couple on the platform of a train station (O'Farrell, 1997, p. 68). Bodenheimer (1979) sees this "mistakenness" as having a purpose: "In its every situation, whether industrial politics or emotional life, traditional views and stances break down into confusing new ones, which are rendered in all the pain of mistakenness and conflict that real human change entails." (Bodenheimer, 1979 p. 282). It is, perhaps, for this reason that Margaret's blunders do not always have negative consequences (O'Farrell, 1997, p 163) : when she admits she is disappointed that Thornton has refused to hire Higgins, she is ashamed that he heard her remark. But Thornton, in fact, reconsiders and eventually offers Higgins a job; in the final chapter, she does not seem to realize that a" simple proposition" to bail out the factory (mere business arrangement), could hurt the pride of Thornton or be seen as shocking from a "lady." Once again, Bodenheimer interprets scenes like this as "deep confusion in a time of personal change and revision" (Bodenheimer, 1979 p. 293) that happily brings the lovers together (O'Farrell, 1997, p 163).
Style and narrative
The first description of Marlborough Mills in Chapter XV is through the eyes and thoughts of Margaret and the omniscient narrator not only delves into the inner thoughts of her main characters, she also occasionally directly interjects her observations (Bodenheimer, 1979, pp 293–300): Thornton "thought that he disliked seeing one who had mortified him so keenly; but he was mistaken. It was a stinging pleasure to be in the room with her [...]. But he was no great analyser of his own motives, and was mistaken as I have said (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 29). The narrative sometimes slips into free indirect discourse. Thus, the silent remark of Mrs. Thornton, when visiting the Hales, "Flimsy, useless work" as she observes Margaret embroidering a small piece of cambric.(Gaskell, 1855, chapter 12)
Bodenheimer (1979, particularly pp 299–300) believes the narrator is keenly interested in the psychology of her characters, their hidden inner selves, how their contentious interactions with others unconsciously reveal their beliefs and how the personal changes they go through reflect how they negotiate the outside world. Matus (2007, pp. 35–43) also focuses on Gaskell's depiction of "interiority," or psychic process particularly as expressed in dreams and trances such as Thornton's dream of Margaret as a temptress or the "trance of passion" of the rioters. The phrase "as if" comes up very often (more than 200 times, in fact) suggesting a reluctance on Gaskell's part to appear too definitive in her narration (O'Farrell, 1997, p 16); for example, "Bessy, who had sat down on the first chair, as if completely tired out with her walk" (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 11), or" "[Thornton] spoke as if this consequence were so entirely logical") (chapter 19). This phrase is mostly used when exploring the sensations and feelings of the characters: "As if she felt his look, she turned to him" (chapter 22); "He had shaken off his emotion as if he was ashamed of ever giving way to it" (chapter 28); "She lifted up her head, as if she took pride in any delicacy of feeling which Mr. Thornton had shown" (chapter 39). Gaskell uses it when exploring, for example, the unconscious process that allows Thornton, whose suffering in love disturbs his composure and his control of his feelings, and leads him to communicate with Higgins (Matus, 2007, p 40): "and then the conviction went in, as if by some spell, and touched the latent tenderness of his heart" (chapter 39).
Style and language
According to Bodenheimer, the narrative in the novel may sometimes appear melodramatic and sentimental ( e.g., But, for all that—for all his savage words, he could have thrown himself at her feet, and kissed the hem of her garment(chapter 29)), particularly in the riot scene, but she also sees Gaskell's best writing as "done with the unjudging openness to experience" that she shares with D.H. Lawrence (Bodenheimar 1979, pp. 296–300). Matus also finds Gaskell's vocabulary "Gothicized" in descriptions of the characters' agonised inner life—their responses of suffering and pain—that may appear melodramatic when taken out of context. In fact, however, "the language of shock and horror is absorbed into the realist texture of the novel's narration" and is consistent with the extreme conditions in the external world presented in the novel (Matus, 2007, p. 39).
A number of writers of the 19th century were interested in specific dialects of their native region, the Scottish for Sir Walter Scott, the Irish for Maria Edgeworth. Mrs. Gaskell, influenced by the work of her husband, does not hesitate to put in the mouth of the workers of Milton dialectal expressions and vocabulary of Lancashire, Manchester, more specifically, but without however going so far as Emily Brontë in her transcription of the particular pronunciation of Yorkshire or Dickens in the syntax of the fishermen of Yarmouth in David Copperfield. Gaskell developed a reputation for the skilful use of dialectal forms to show status, age, or intimacy between speakers (Ingham, 1996, p. 62).
Margaret's adaptation to the culture also happens through language (Ingham, 1996, p 62-63). When her mother reproaches her for using the horrible words of Milton and the vulgar provincialisms like slack of work, she responds that since she lives in an industrial town, she must use its words, when called upon to do so. She gives as an example a word that may be vulgar but which she finds expressive: knobstick. She also uses a local term (redding up, meaning tidying) when she talks to Boucher's small children to do something that she suggested towards redding up the slatternly room.
Gaskell begins each chapter with a poetic quote to accentuate a relevant theme such as: interior conflicts ("My heart revolts within me, and two voices / Make themselves audible within my bosom. Wallenstein. Chapter XVIII), dualities (On earth is known to none / The smile that is not sister to a tear. Elliot. Chapter XXI), courtship, duty, suffering, steadfast courage, honesty, time and change, and other relevant themes.
Elizabeth Gaskell lived during a time of great upheavals resulting from the industrial revolution and was very much aware of the difficult conditions of daily life that it caused and the health problems suffered by the workers of Manchester North and South has been interpreted by Roberto Dainotto as "a kind of apocalyptic journey into the inferno of the changing times—modern poverty, rage, desperation, militant trade unionism and class antagonism" where the strike described bears resemblance to the Preston strike which occurred the year before the novel was published. The strike's slogan was "ten per cent and no surrender" and it was led by George Cowell and Mortimer Grimshaw. It was a hard and long strike that lasted nearly seven months from September 1853 to April 1854, but failed to succeed.
The unfolding of a strike is described in detail in the novel, showing intelligent leaders like Higgins, the desperate violence and savagery of the rioters and the reactions on both sides (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 17). From the eyes of Margaret, a horrified and compassionate outsider witness, Gaskell shows the real social misery in the slums Margaret visited, miseries that were included in the rare depictions of the dark world of workers contained in official Parliamentary Papers (or Blue Book), with suggestive illustrations that resulted in the Factory Act of 1833.
Gaskell also uses one of the causes of conflicts between masters and workers, the installation of ventilators in the carding rooms to show the cupidity of one and the ignorance of the other in making social progress difficult (Navailles, 1983), and calls attention to the extremely strong anti-Irish prejudices in the city where the Irish constitute a very small minority. She exposes the beliefs and reasoning of the manufacturers in Thornton's defence of a theory close to social Darwinism: capitalism as a natural, almost physical, obeying of immutable laws, a relentless race to progress where being human is sacrificed, the weak die, whether they are masters or workers (Gaskell, 1855, chapter 15). Mrs Thornton also expresses how the middle class viewed the working class: a pack of ungrateful hounds (chapter 15).
Elizabeth Gaskell's position
North and South belongs to the canon of Condition-of-England novels also known as social-problem novels, industrial or social novels that analyse social realities of the Victorian era, offering first-hand detailed observations of industrialism, urbanism, class, and gender conflicts. It attempts to respond to questions posed by changes going on at the time (Nash, 2007,p 96) and takes a position in the debate between, on the one hand, individual freedom of workers championed by the liberal economist John Stuart Mill—author of The Claims of Labor, an Essay on the Duties of the Employers to the Employed published anonymously in 1845—and developed by Thornton in Chapter 15 and, on the other, the responsibility of employers to their employees, promoted by John Ruskin and Arthur Helps. It represents a certain concept of paternalism, challenging the strict cutoff between public and private sphere, freedom and responsibility, workplace and family life, trying to define a balance in relations between employers and workers (Stoneman, 1987, pp 118–138). Through Margaret and her father, Gaskell criticised the autocratic model that infantilises workers and is defended by Thornton who does not feel accountable to his workers for his actions or his decisions. She advocates for an authority that takes into account the needs of workers, a kind of social and economic contract like the one advocated by John Locke in Two Treatises of Government, where masters and workers are in solidarity. After the strike, Thornton finally acknowledges that "new forms of negotiation between management and labor are part of modern life" (Bodenheimer, 1991, p 61) and the strike that caused his ruin was "respectable" because, if the workers are dependent on him for their pay, he depends on them for manufacturing his product (Nash, 2007, p. 107).
In the class struggle which results in some being victims (e.g. Boucher and Bessy), Gaskell does not offer definitive means for conflict resolution (Ingham, 1996, p 71): Thornton's best expectation on the question of strikes, for instance, is for them to be no longer bitter and venomous. He and Higgins both reach a level of understanding beyond the mere "cash nexus" through Margaret's ongoing involvement in the process of social change (Stoneman, 1987, p. 137) by urging communication between masters and workers. If the holders of economic power agree to talk to their workers, to consider them as human beings, not tools of production, this may not eliminate social conflicts, but will reduce their brutality (Stoneman, 1987,p 134). The main protagonists go through personal transformations that unite them in the end (Bodenheimer, 1979), what Stoneman calls a "balanced emancipation (Stoneman, 1987,p 138)."
Catherine Barnes Stevenson thinks Gaskell may have found the issue of women doing factory work problematic: she often referred only to "masters and men" and used one dying factory worker (Bessy) to represent women workers who, in fact, constituted more than half of factory workers at the time. This relative silence on the female factory worker may merely reflect, according to Stevenson, the writer's struggle with the "triumph of the domestic ideology" among the middle-class of the mid-1800s. On the other hand, Gaskell hints at the difficulties families like the Hales have keeping female domestic workers (like Dixon) in their proper subordinate place and becoming almost like members of the family (i.e., blurring class differences), a scenario confronting industrial workers, as well (Nash, 2007).