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  • Writer's pictureKeira

10 Terrible Reasons to Read 'North and South'

Updated: May 4, 2019

You know the drill. There are great reasons to read Elizabeth Gaskell's 'North and South'. These spoiler-y reasons are not those reasons. These are bad reasons.

No slavery

Maybe you, like me, grew up in the 80s. Maybe your first prickling awareness of something called North and South was a miniseries about passionate, racist slaveholders and cartoonishly boring Northerners. Maybe there were dodgy choices made by the costume department and maybe there were frequent cameo appearances by Patrick Swayze’s magnificent head of hair. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South has none of these things.

Gather 'round, my children and I'll tell you a tale of a time before sensitivity readers...

No public kissing

I’d better get this one out of the way. The North and South novel does not have a kiss on a bustling train platform. But it does have some poignant embraces, Christian names (well, just hers. Maybe she gets to call him John when they are wed?) and kissing in a room with an actual door. I put my case before you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Which pair of lovers would have a more satisfactory assignation?

“...after some time of delicious silence” is the “Yada, yada, yada” of its day.

In-law Relations: A Primer

At last John and Margaret are secured in mutual regard. But the final words of North and South point to trouble on the horizon. Mama Thornton isn’t going to regard her son’s bride as a bosom friend. But the text of the novel gives us clues about how Margaret might secure the grudging respect of her mother-in-law: Strike first and give no quarter.


Did you know that waterbeds were not a thing invented in the 70s to furnish the bedrooms of mustachioed bachelors? The Hales borrow one from the Thorntons for their invalid mother.

Dying on a waterbed sounds like a dreadful end.

Death with Dignity

Poor Spousal communication

You do not need to tell your wife that you’ve lost your job. You do not need to tell her that you’re moving her to the heathen North. You do not need to tell your husband that you are, for sure, dying. Mr. and Mrs. Hale may as well be locked in a bitter custody battle for all the talking they do through their sorely-put-upon child. (“Margaret, please tell your father that he has failed us as a provider and to pass the salt.” “Margaret, please tell your mother that her whinging is as painful as being stabbed in the ear and to pay a social call on Mrs. Thornton.”)

Boucher Bites It

There will never be a version of this book or miniseries that does not end in me cheering the end of Boucher. I am a terrible person. I feel bad about it but there you are. As soon as he’s found popped off, I’m like, “FINALLY”.

Dissenters/ Papists/Conversion in Cadiz

It’s getting so that upstanding Anglicans can’t walk around the neighborhood anymore. Mr. Hale has to leave his position in the Church of England over a matter of conscience, Higgins (the union fellow) is sort of belligerently agnostic, Frederick marries a Papist (Catholic) and the maid is terrified to visit Spain in the event of catching the conversion.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Helstone Blows

Margaret’s idealized Southern hometown is awful. They don’t even have a basic cable package.

Edith and Fanny

Margaret’s cousin Edith and John’s sister Fanny represent the old order of ideal womanhood (ornamental) in contrast to Margaret (capable), in such a stark way that I was reminded of 20th mid-Century convulsions about womanhood. Marilyn Monroe on one busty end of the popular spectrum and Audrey Hepburn on the end of the other. In our current climate, I know we’re not supposed to be rooting for one kind of lady over the other...

Girlfriends supporting Girlfriends

...but it’s hard not to pick a team here. Still, the pendulum is always swinging so maybe the lesson here is: Marry the Capitalist.

Mr. Bell

I expected Mr. Bell (old friend of Mr. Hale) to be an irritating non-sequitur but he proved adorable and amusing and resourceful. I would like an alternate history of Mr. Bell where he marries Aunt Shaw and proceeds to drive her out of her ever-loving mind. In my version, Aunt Shaw slowly puts down her proprieties and takes up nude gardening.

And the bonus terrible reason to read 'North and South'?

Richard Armitage

Sure, he’s not in the book but I dare you to read it without him planted firmly in your mind. It’s a long book.

Pace yourself

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