Limitations of the serialised novel
North and South previously appeared in 20 weekly episodes from September 1854 to January 1855 in Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens. During the same period, Dickens dealt with the same theme in Hard Times, also a social novel, published in the same journal from April to August 1854 (Chapman, 1999, p. 26; Ingham, 1995, p. xii–xiii).
Dickens' Hard Times — which shows Manchester in a negative light and satirises it (as Coketown) — challenged Elizabeth Gaskell and complicated the writing of her novel. She had to ascertain, for instance, that Dickens would not write about a strike. Gaskell found the time pressure and technical constraints of serialised fiction particularly trying. She wanted to write 22 episodes, but was "compelled to desperate compression" to limit the story to 20. North and South was not as successful as Hard Times. On 14 October 1854, after six weeks, sales dropped enough that Dickens complained of Gaskell's lack of flexibility (intractability), resisting demands for conciseness. He found the story "wearisome to the last degree" (Chapman 1999, p. 28).
Choice of title
Imposed by Dickens, the title focuses on the differences in lifestyles between rural southern England, inhabited by affluent landed gentry and agricultural workers, and the industrial north, populated by capitalist manufacturers and poverty-stricken mill workers (Ingham, 1995, p. xii), the north-south division being more than a mere geographical difference. The story however centres on haughty Margaret Hale, who learns to overcome her deep prejudices against the North in general and the charismatic manufacturer John Thornton in particular. Elizabeth Gaskell would have preferred to call the novel Margaret Hale, the heroine's name, as she had done in 1848 for the novel Mary Barton, but Dickens prevailed, saying in a letter dated 26 July 1854 that "North South" seems better. It encompasses more and emphasises the opposition between people who are forced by circumstances to meet face to face (Ingham, 1995, p. xii).
Later, in December, working on the final chapters of the novel at Lea Hurst, the family home of Florence Nightingale, near Matlock in Derbyshire, Gaskell wrote that she would rather call her novel Death and Variations, because "there are five dead, each beautifully consistent with the personality of the individual". This remark, although probably a joke, emphasises the important role of death in the unfolding of the story. Death affects Margaret profoundly and gradually encourages her independence, allowing Gaskell to analyse the deep emotions of her female character (Matus, 2007, p. 36) and to focus on the harshness of the social system through the death of Boucher and Bessy.
Publication in print
Chapman & Hall (London) first published the novel in 1855 as two volumes of 25 and 27 chapters. The same year, Harper and Brothers released it in New York and Tauchnitz published the more complete second edition in Leipzig as part of the Collection of English Writers. Many editions appeared during the lifetime of the author (Easson and Shuttleworth 1998,p xxxvi).
The text in the book, particularly the ending, differs significantly from that which appeared in the serialised episodes. The author includes a brief preface in the book stating that, due to restrictions of the magazine format, she could not develop the story as she wished and, consequently, "various short passages have been inserted, and several new chapters added." Gaskell tried to eliminate the limitations of a serialised novel (Letter to Jameson, cited by Alison Chapman 1999, p. 27) by elaborating on events after the death of Mr Hale and adding four chapters: the first and final ones, and two new ones on the visits by Mr. Bell to London and by Margaret and Mr. Bell to Helstone. This edition also adds chapter titles and epigraphs. The preface concludes with a quotation from the conclusion of the Middle English poem The Churl and the Bird (spelling modernized) by John Lydgate.
Loreau and Mrs. H. of Lespine, "with the authorization of the Author," translated the novel into French using the first revised edition. It was published in Paris by Hachette in 1859 (Easson and Shuttleworth 1998, p. xxxvi) and reprinted at least twice: in 1860, under the title Marguerite Hale (Nord et Sud), and, in 1865, under the title Nord et Sud.