We pigeonhole—all the time. It is a natural tendency, a mechanism for us to make more sense of our world and help us cope with it better, particularly when experiences or things we encounter are new, strange, or don’t quite seem to fit. Margaret of the North—even in my mind—does not fit too snugly into one of the main categories novels are often forced into. But if I must make a choice, I would have to say that the novel does seem a little more literary than genre, given what I wanted to do with it. I was more concerned with character development than on nail-biting or heart-tugging plot (the element that often breaks or makes a genre novel). Plot-wise, this novel will not satisfy those who want action or a run-up to a climax that ends in some happy or tragic resolution. Instead, it proceeds in as natural a fashion as I could imagine life to happen. The most “thrilling” thing about it is the specter of a mean mother-in-law.
And yet, for most of us, doesn’t life, in fact, unfold this way? Plagued by mundane concerns that can be wearisome and monotonous, but hopefully punctuated by moments of utter joy or quiet happiness; conflicts that pester within or between us, sometimes relieved by unexpected meetings of hearts and minds that can endure but are more likely to be fleeting.
A consistent thread weaves through most of Gaskell’s books and I believe it stems from her concerns as a woman of her times, when industrialization was changing England radically. But this thread is lost or drowned under the much more vocal voices of the male-oriented society of her time.
A lot of Gaskell’s books bear the names of her heroines as titles. But Charles Dickens, who first published the novel, from which Margaret of the North takes off, thought a shift in focus emphasizing the stark contrasts between North and South England was more appropriate than Margaret Hale; hence, North and South. No doubt he also thought that the new title was more in keeping with the interests of the male-dominated society at the time, concerns that were also regarded as more relevant and important. But I think this change took the focus away from Gaskell’s deep preoccupation with women’s issues (evident in letters she wrote to friends and family), which were then ignored, seen as frivolous or, worse, assumed as nonexistent.
Victorian women generally were pampered and infantilized, their main functions confined to keeping house, bearing children, and being gracious and pretty enough to adorn a man’s image. Gaskell showed me, with at least three characters in North and South—Mrs. Thornton, Margaret, and the maid Dixon—that that was not the case.
Gaskell’s novel has been described as a romance set against a backdrop of occasionally violent strikes as the working class fought for their rights against tyrannical masters. I look at mine as a kind of Victorian feminist bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) couched in romance. To me, the romance is not only in the love between John and Margaret but also in the adventure and excitement that Margaret goes through as she discovers herself and fully realizes her womanhood. It is a journey that happens quietly and mostly internally.
Margaret moves from an idyllic Southern village to a harsh bustling Northern city. There, she confronts not only her place in a rapidly changing society but also her growing awareness of her persona as a woman, one with compelling sexual, familial, and self-actualizing needs. One who wants a voice and makes a mark. By refocusing on Margaret’s journey into a fully evolved, involved individual, I meant to pay homage to Ms. Gaskell and return to the themes that underscore her concerns about being a woman, those we now construe as gender issues.
Some literary scholars have noted the “interiority” of Gaskell’s characters—their frequent engagement with their thoughts and feelings. This is true of both Margaret and John who goes through his own trajectory of growth, developing his soft spot and tempering his alpha male. But it is not true of practical and staunch Mrs. Thornton who, in my mind, was the symbol of the dying old order (symbolized by ending the novel with her death). Perhaps, this is my bias, but I think this characteristic of introspection is essential to psychological growth.
Modern readers will find the story slow and even long-winded because I go into the character’s thoughts a lot. But introspective people do turn things in their minds over and over. Sadly, I think, our world of high-tech, instant information delivered in small bytes is shredding our attention span, literally, to pieces, making us impatient with the investment of time and reflection required in knowing ourselves and growing.
Posts on themes, characters, and what led me to write the book are in this section:
Margaret of the North, Related Posts
Excerpts and related Articles. From here, you can read the first chapter and get a sampling from three other chapters of the book.
Some Reviews can be found here.