#TBT Elizabeth Gaskell Was Like Jane Austen’s More Political Cousin
I was assigned Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton in college and absolutely loathed it. “I get how influential the politics are, but the writing is awful!” I whined to my Welsh professor. He told me that Mary Barton was indeed an early version of Gaskell’s more successful and polished novel, North and South, and showed me a link to the BBC mini-series on Netflix. Richard Armitage’s chiseled jaw and broody expression greeted me. That image bought my literary loyalty to Gaskell.
North and South‘s reluctant Victorian romance between proud and aloof John Thornton and morally chivalrous Elizabeth Hale is comparable to Pride and Prejudice‘s classic Edwardian power couple, Elizabeth and Darcy. However, Gaskell and Jane Austen weren’t true contemporaries and it can be seen in the focus of the prose. Austen focused on the microcosm of women in countryside society, while Gaskell focused on how those women fit into the bigger picture of Britain’s social and economic movements. North and South focuses on the human trade-offs of the industrial revolution; that Miss Hale changes Thornton’s mind about how he treated his workers was definitely the A plot to the B plot of their budding relationship.
Austen’s work had more style, but Gaskell’s ultimately had greater substance.