North and South

North and South


Elizabeth Gaskell

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North and South Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born to William Stevenson, a civil servant and writer, and Elizabeth Holland Stevenson. Her parents had eight children, but Elizabeth, the last born, was one of only two who survived. Her mother died a little more than a year after Elizabeth’s birth, so the infant Elizabeth was sent to the country town of Knutsford, Cheshire, to be raised by her aunt, Hannah Lumb, whom she later described as “more than mother.” Elizabeth married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, in 1832. They settled in the rapidly growing industrial city of Manchester, where Elizabeth engaged in relief work among the poor and taught Sunday school. Elizabeth had four daughters, though her only son died of scarlet fever at nine months of age. She turned to writing as a distraction from her grief. Her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), drew attention to the plight of Manchester’s working poor. It also drew the admiration of Charles Dickens, who invited her to submit stories to his periodicals, Household Words and All the Year Round. Her most acclaimed novels include Cranford and the unfinished Wives and Daughters. She also authored a well-known biography of her friend, Charlotte Brontë. Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly in 1865 and was buried at Knutsford.
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Historical Context of North and South

North and South is set near the end of the Industrial Revolution, a transition to new manufacturing methods—including the use of machines, steam power, and the factory system—which began in the late eighteenth century and continued through the mid-nineteenth century. Many of these innovations occurred in Great Britain, whose commercial success—especially in the booming Manchester, nicknamed “Cottonopolis”—was at its zenith around the time Gaskell wrote. Whereas landed aristocracy had dominated England’s social structure for centuries, wealthy industrialists, like Gaskell’s John Thornton, increasingly rose to prominence. Although the Industrial Revolution contributed to more employment opportunities and an overall improvement in standards of living, the working class—which included women and children—often contended with poor working conditions, long hours, and low wages. Trade unions emerged as a way for workers to collectively bargain for improved conditions, sometimes through labor strikes (work stoppages).

Other Books Related to North and South

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854), based in fictional Coketown, a Northern England industrial town, satirizes some of the same themes of class conflict and industrialization that Gaskell explored a year later in North and South. Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) features a couple who, like Margaret Hale and John Thornton in North and South, are divided by issues of class—the industrialist Robert Moore initially rejects the poor Caroline Helstone (whose surname shares the name of Margaret’s birthplace in Gaskell’s novel). Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) is based on Engels’ two-year stay in Manchester, and it critiques the living conditions of industrial workers in ways that anticipate Gaskell’s portrayal of life in Milton.
Key Facts about North and South
  • Full Title: North and South
  • When Written: 1854-1855
  • Where Written: Manchester, England
  • When Published: Serialized in Household Words in 1854-1855; published in novel form in 1855
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Setting: The fictional town of Milton-Northern, England, based on Manchester.
  • Climax: The strikers riot at Marlborough Mills.
  • Antagonist: John Thornton
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for North and South

Tongue-in-Cheek Title. Gaskell joked that she might as well have called the novel Death and Variations because so many of the story’s characters die in rapid succession—each of them, she said, “beautifully consistent with the personality of the individual.”

Northern Dialect. Gaskell was fascinated by English dialects and was groundbreaking in her use of a carefully researched Mancunian (Manchester) accent in North and South, typically denoting class distinction.