North and South

August 16, 2014

I have been listening to North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell through Craft Lit.

iListenNorthandSouthCraft Lit is a weekly podcast featuring an audio book reading with commentary, hosted by Heather Ordover.  The books are all out of copyright books in the public domain, mainly Victorian fiction such as Dracula, Jane Eyre, The Woman in White and currently North and South.  Heather introduces and concludes each chapter with historical and literary context.  It is a fascinating way to listen to a story, even one you might have read often.

I fell in love with Craft Lit listening to Jane Eyre, a story I have read hundred times.  I had not realised just how often I had skipped over biblical and French bits I didn’t understand.  Heather researches every foreign language bit, every biblical reference, every reference to an arcane bit of costume.  The story became fresh and new and the experience changed the way I approach reading and listening.  It has got me paying attention and being curious.

And now I am falling in love with North and South, a novel I had never read before and got so compelled by, I had to borrow a copy and read fast to the conclusion just for narrative closure! 

North and South was published in 1855 after being serialised in one of Charles Dickens weekly journal, Household Words.  Set in a fictionalised Manchester, North and South tells the story of the meeting of the industrial north of England with the pastoral gentility of the South of England through the complex relationship between John Thornton, a mill owner and Margaret Hale, a dissenting clergyman’s daughter.

800px-Manchester_from_Kersal_Moor_William_Wylde_(1857)Manchester, from Kersal Moor, William Wylde (1857), image from Wiki Commons.

The contemporary discussion of the cotton industry, class and the burgeoning labour movement is just fascinating.

The book contains the best description of the psychology of the Industrial Revolution I have ever come across as John Thornton speaks of Milton (Manchester) and the invention of the steam hammer to Mr Hale,

And this imagination of power, this practical realisation of a gigantic thought, came out of one man’s brain in our good town. That very man has it within him to mount, step by step, on each wonder he achieves to higher marvels still. And I’ll be bound to say, we have many among us who, if he were gone, could spring into the breach and carry on the war which compels, and shall compel, all material power to yield to science.

Gosh, there is everything in there: the Victorian ideal of the self made man, conquest of nature by science, the belief in the inevitability of progress and the incredible optimism in technological innovation.

Photocopy_from_Evan_Leigh's_Modern_Cotton_Spinning_(Vol_1),_Manchester,_1873_(PL_XXI);_illustration_of_turbine_and_belt_system._-_Harmony_Manufacturing_Company,_Mill_Number_3,_100_HAER_NY,1-CEvan Leigh, Modern Cotton Spinning Vol 1 Manchester, 1873, image from Wiki Commons

Something that struck me as I was reading and then listening to the book, was the sustained theme of pride and independence of the male Manchester weavers distilled into the character of Nicholas Higgins.

When Margaret first meets Nicholas and his daughter, she asked to visit them in the charitable way she was used to doing with poor parishioners in the South.  However, instead of being grateful and humble, Higgins says roughly ‘I’m none so fond of having strange folk in my house’.

It is only when he sees that she is embarrassed by his answer, he softens and offers, ‘Yo’re a foreigner, as one may say, and maybe don’t know many folk here, and yo’ve given my wench her flowers out of yo’r own hand; -yo may come if yo like’. Whilst still rejecting her charity and his servility, Nicholas pities this middle class woman and concedes to her visiting them.

This kind of class challenge seemed suprising until I came across E.P. Thompson’s account of the Manchester weavers in  The Making of the English Working Class which I have been dipping in and out of whilst listening to North and South.

He includes some testimony from Manchester cotton weavers to a Select Committee in 1823.

…no man would like to work in a power-loom, they do not like it, there is such a clattering and noise it would also make some men mad; and next, he would have to be subject to a discipline that a hand-loom weaver can never admit to. [my emphasis]

Modern_Power_Loom-marsdenFrom Richard Marsden, Cotton Weaving: Its development, principles and practice, 1895 from Wiki Commons

Prior to industrialisation cotton spinning and weaving was a cottage industry located in the regions around Manchester.  These weavers considered themselves independent artisans.  With the expansion of the cotton industry in the latter half of the eighteenth century, more and more farmers became part time weavers attracted by the high wages.  As mechanisation was introduced and looms were organised in factories, the status of these artisans declined to that of ‘hands’ operating a machine.

And yet it seems the vestiges of the this independence and pride remained.  Manchester became the crucible of the Trade Union and Suffragette movements, a place of radical ideas. It is where Robert Owen, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels developed their theories on labour.

IMG_3705With wondrous synchronicity, My Man recently brought home this children’s book by Scholastic called You Wouldn’t Want to be a Victorian Mill Worker – A Gruelling Job you’d Rather Not Have.

Within these pages, you can see the squalor in which the mill workers lived, the cost of food relative to wages, the hours of work and punishing labour. The hardships children underwent working in the mills are described in horrifying detail.  Here is an illustration of the cotton fluff children breathed into their lungs, which often, as in the case of Bessie in North and South, resulted in a lung condition they died from.

IMG_3707I didn’t expect to enjoy North and South so much, it was such a suprise to me. I had only read Gaskell’s Cranford, a very intimate portrayal of a tiny, quiet world. North and South is so large in its themes, a gripping story set within graphic, raw descriptions of class conflict, poverty, violence and social change.

It also documents an historic period of transformation in textile production…from one of cottage industry to the culmination of specialisation and mechanisation of spinning and weaving.  This transformation was so successful that even in the 1880s, revivals of  hand spinning skills were being organised lest traditional handicrafts be completely lost. In Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, Patricia Baines describes one such hand spinning revival in the Lake District in England called the Ruskin Linen Industry of Keswick.  It was apparently the only enterprise that Ruskin ever lent his name to.

Ah, North and South has led me a merry dance! A great read and a great listen on Craft Lit. Thank you Heather Ordover.








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  1. What a wonderful post – well-written and thoughtful, as usual. Thank you so much for sharing this. You’ve also given me an idea for a post I am going to research for September. 🙂 I spend half of my life downloading classics to my Kindle from Project Gutenberg, but I love the idea of audio with additional historical and contextual information. My specializations in economics are economic history and applied microeconomics (labour), but unfortunately am employed in the latter field, in part as there are very few jobs for economic historians these days in my part of the world. In fact, as the economic historians retire they are being replaced with experts in trendier fields. It’s like pulling teeth to get people to even think about institutional history, for example, going back to the early twentieth century, let alone to earlier periods. Sad!

  2. The BBC did a four-part series of ‘North and South’ and is available on Netflix. I just re-watched this (I watch it about once a year along with Jane Eyre)because it is such a beautiful story. Anyway, the movie does an excellent job of depicting the working conditions in the mill and the air filled with cotton fluff floating around. And Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton is an added bonus.
    I love reading your blog…thank you for sharing

  3. Hi Rebecca,
    Audio books are such a pleasure! This one sounds fantastic.
    Thanks for this extra information about a novel that is one of my favourites since I was introduced to it in uni days- decades ago! I have read it many times and others of Mrs Gaskell, including Wives and Daughters- for which there is a good BBC series. You might also like George Eliot’s works, in particular Middlemarch, Adam Bede and Silas Marner, if you haven’t already made forays there. So much to enjoy.

  4. What a fantastic read. You have inspired me to find some recorded books to feed my mind of an evening. I’ve been very pre-revolution North in my night-time activities- sanding, painting and mending bits around the house. I think my brain needs a bit of gentility! xo

  5. –And thank YOU!

    It’s so nice to know that you’ve already finished the book! Isn’t the Marx/Engels bit fascinating?! I was waiting til the end to get into that, but it makes so much sense. I’ll be telling folks on the ‘Cast to come read this, if that’s okay? And get that children’s book! (I’ll give it to Thing 2 so he can stop moaning about having to clear his place at the table!)

    Thank you so much for your kind words. Knowing it’s something people love keeps me doing it.
    All the best,

  6. Thank you, Rebecca, for doing the history behind another great book. North and South sounds so relevant in this time of the mechanization of thought through clever apps and sites.

    I’m not opposed to clever apps, but I mourn the dying art of hand skills in my own field of graphic design. Students now have never hand-pieced a layout and that is loss akin to never having warped and woven on a hand loom. I have experienced the sense that the hand balances the mind and I’m sorry to see folks miss that experience.

  7. I have yet to read North and South but I have seen the mini-series and fell in love (despite the bit of corniness). Reading this made me think a little about the current situation of the Harris Tweed cottage industry and how in recent years it is harder and harder to convince new weavers to dedicate their lives and time to this trade. A fascinating textile history both past and present, what a wonderful post, thank you! xo

  8. I have been meaning to get in touch, Rebecca, and say a big big thank you for this introduction to Craftlit – it took me quite a while to actually follow up this blogpost, but I finally got started a couple of weeks ago with Herland, which is the most extraordinary novel – I’d never heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman before. As you say above, Heather Ordover is brilliant in setting the books in their time, and also drawing together all the comments to her podcast, Absolutely fascinating listening, and I can’t wait for Sense and Sensibility. And what a heavenly way to set aside a little time for spinning, knitting, sewing….etc! So a very big thank you.

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