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The HistoricalValueof ElizabethGaskell's

N.qrthand South

Patrick McEvoy-Halston
97t2576

History325
Prof.Grant
Nov.2811997
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What useis a work of fiction like North and Southasa historical sourcegf lhe socialimpact
of the IndustrialRwolution on England? It is a wort of the time, so perhapsa historiancould
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V seethenovelasa reflection
withNorthandSouth.
the
of Englishindustrial
society.Certainly
E cr.Ur'*fi**,
ofthe'old society'.,u/rft
historian
worddfind descriptions
"t,,.

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societyandHellstone'svillagelif{,andgrthe'newsociety]'yithMltbn.Thehistorianu/edd.-o
perhaps
typical,of thedifferentsortsof peoplethatcouldbe
alsoXintoduoed to characters,
enoountered
in bothlvorlds. Swely,sucha workis a goldmineof informationfor thehistorian
I|ol,rt,r,{^',

thetimel-pdt rrtat aboutthefactthatit is a wor* offiction. Is not fiction
seekingto understand
i"r 'r ' r' '{

thatdo notexist?Is it nota
like Milton, andcharacters
makebelieve,
' with.townnames
it\

limitcdin
by onlyoneperson,andtherebynecessarily
-,.' reflectionof thetimesasexperienced
-irL:-.:

al 'g

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iar-tt Ar s

breadth?.dtaintedreflectionat thatlfthe biasesthat an authorsurelyhas. beludhg the
A
of the clear view ofthe
unavoidablebiasof being someoneofthe time, lacking possession
outlinesof a period cflke

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that only temporaldistancecanprovide. Perhaps,the cautious-

historianmight well be carefulwith sucha work. This goldenteasure, despiteappeorances,
might well be falseto the core!
Ye! still, how well do thesecomplaintson tlre reflectivevalueof a work like North and
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4
gegh stand-closeexaminationl Thc criticism that it is a wort of fiction, mustbe viewed in the
A

ftom
desirea workof fantasyto allowescape
contextof thetimes,Ifthe writer'saudience
skeptioism
humdrumlives,assomenynovelsservein morerecenttimes,thensurelyenormous
mirrorof societywouldbe
towardsthenotionthata novclcouldserveasanaccurete
their
Whatif, though,thear.rdience
desiredtheirfictionto be 'real', to resemble
appropriare.
theworkto be
undentanding
ascloselyaspossible?Iftue, thenperhaps
ownexperienc€s
theinventednamesof placesandpeopledonot lie but
fictionalcouldbemisleading.Perhaps

-areflectan archetypeof what areessentiallytypical placesandpeopleonernightfind in England
duringthe IndustrialRevolution? How differentwould this be from a historianselectinga
subjectto studyfor its capacityto bestrepresentwhat is typical of a periodof time, be it a
certainwork of art, of architecture,etc.? By offeringa reflectionof an essenceof a certain
place,or class,perhapswc arebeingoffereda very valid form of truth.
Whataboutthe criticism thatthe truth to be found in a work of a novelistis necessarily
limited by beingthe work of only oneperson,offeringonly onepoint of view? If this is so,then
not only novelsare suspect,but so is any work of writing not blessedby beingthe productof a
collaborativeeffort. Would a historiandoubtthe work of H,, Perkin'sstudyof the time, Qri4ns
;I

OfMode.q Engli+hSocietyfor this r€ason.,Certainlythe historianwould take into accountthat
Perkit/ Oru*r from countlessotherstudiesdoneby countlessnumbersof otherpeoplein
Hl
t
t'
f
writing his book. I#'yernn offersthe historianhis voice,but his voiceinformedby the voicesof
,'./;.. :
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is quite familiar-widt;
worlds-she
North,apd
details
SoUth
The
is
true
of&.
Gaskell.
many.
same

surely,shehad;r r;;rlo

whengivingvoiceto

*rr, andknow#lv^*r,othe draws*

Thornton,the industrialist,Nicholasthe labourer,h{r. Lennoxthe lawyer,or Mr. Bell the
o

scholar.Her work,too, is informedby thevoicesof many

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To dismissthe work for beingof its time, andthuswithoutthe benefittime allowsto make

clear what is unescapablyfoggy to contemporaries,is also somewhatunfair. The novel cannot
offer temporaldistance,true,but the authordoesoffer the historiana certainsenseof distance.
which shouldbe considered.If a historianis willing to creditDe Tocqueville'saccountof the
natureof early Americansocietyascrediblefor offering a view from {r Oetachedoutsider,
I

perhapsthe historianwould creditE. Gaskell'sfictional accountof industrializingEnglandfor
the samereason. True, shewasat homein both north and southEngtand,but dfbeing a person

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onewayof livinBr
hasthesamechanceasDeTocquevilleffi to compare
of bothworlds,she
J
with anotherthat is substantiallydifferent. This allowsa sortof distance,a chanceto observea
L2e-*'''-"t
way of life as^ofdparticularsort,amongstothers, not limited asa firm nativemight be in being
/r

consciousof only one.
Surely,though,thereis someadvantageparticularto beinga work from a personof the time,
particularlyfrom an observerwith remarkableobservationskills suchasa novelistlikep.
Gaskell. If only a historianwft

would allow her observations
somecredibility,shehasmuch

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to offer. For example, North Erd So,uthoffers the readerthe acquaintanceof Nicholas,who the
readercomesto know asprizingthe freedomavailableto him in Milton. By comingto know
him, the readermight be convincedthat life in a northernindustrialtown might havesomemerit
evenfor thosewho workedin the pollutedfactories. The readermight be preparedto acceptthat
it maynot necessarily
be true thatthe only way to get peopleto live sucha liferis to offer little
choice. Ifthis doesreflecta truth, how elsebut from the closepersonalcontactwith a
lthu
labourerofferedby this novel,would hirtorianconvincehimselflherselfthat this might be true.
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thatsurelyevenstatisticsofone sortor anothercouldnotcompletely
Thisis anobstacle

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overcome.Thenasty,blach crowded,evil industrialtownas,in someways,good!

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Ye! still, thereis legitimatereasonfor doubtingtherpflectivevalueofa workof fiction,even
wouldbereceptiveto, andexpecta tue reflectionof
thattheaudience
onewherewe suspect
maywell notbeopento thedepictionof all
theirownworldfromtheauthor.Theaudience

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tuth. WithNorthandSouthfor example,thereisf t anymentionof sex.Shouldthehistorian :..tl
that thelivesof menandwomenin industrialBritishsocictywaseveryningf.
thenassume

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Gaskelldepicts,ontywitiiadditionof sex. this is suspec!surelysucha neatdivisionof E/a
'uf
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naturalimpulsefromall othersis hardto imagine. , f

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-+the reflectivevalueof a novel'swork,
Thereis alsoa moreprofoundreasonfor suspecting
than the limitations imposedon an authorby his or her audience.What if an authorchoseto
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depict his or her time, with the intentionof subtlyshapingthe depictionfor personalbenefiil If
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of IndustrialEngtishSbcietyasbathedin a conflict between
oneaccefit#' / Perkdns:view

then,knowingthemassaudience
dl8J*orts fromautho$ hke}f. Gaskell
warringideologies,
recdic{ perhapsthe historianoughtto considerthe work asa part of this ideologicalbattle.
Much of the novel is seenthroughthe perspectiveof MargaretHale, who the readerknows
belongsnot completelyto eitherNorthernor SouthernEnglishsociety.As shedescribes,and
of differentclassesshe
weighsthe relativemeritsof opinionsolthe variousrepresentatives
meets,the readermight neversuspectthat Margare! andher creator,might belongto their own
classwith their own selfrerving ideology.
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Margaretremindsthe readerof $- Perkinsdescriptionof membersof the professionalclass,
t

whotffi

respectability.
includqauthorswiththeirnewlyacquired
ff. Cattttt
LL)

,*u.tif rilii"r
description
doesnotmatchlS Perkins

herbeing
canhardlyimagine
t',

sawthemselvesashaving
but so muchelsefits. i,t pr*in saysthat professionals
disinterested,
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to keepsocietyfunctioning. In No4h and
importantservicesto perform,servicesneeessary
Sgu&, both the labourer,Nicholas,andthe industrialist,Thornton,cometo understand,to a
certainextent, eachother'sposition.This is throughMargaret'shelp. What seemsto be implied
bVF Gaskellis that without goodcitizenslike lvlargaret,reconciliationbetweenthe classes
i
migtrt be impossible,they woul$& understandeachother. Margaret]rowever,is blessedby
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comingto know them alloattunid to ttrc real merit in eachof their positionr]1"*' ihr^^
A
position of not beingdirectly involved. Is this depictiol;hen..thework of an
advantageous
ideologueshapingthe depictionof the confrontationbetweenemployerandemployeein a work

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of fictioq soasto placeparticularimportance
F^"role

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of thecducatdmiddtemaruthc

.p'(pofessional? Ifso,caatbowortbctnrebdtobct€flccdvcofsocialrealities?

t Pe
qucstiooablc
sc€m
o, nirtori",o{CIrittri
Firally,
ce bcmd€.It docs
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perticulady
a I'
of orthers,
thcopinioos
if a nowlir a mcans
tbougb,
f urhicbanrrlhor sbapcs

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novrlrvrittendruingftemiast@isisibclfa&ctof

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thc roleof thearlhor b hehing sbepcsociety,
hi!fioical vahn Undcrstanding
oonsiderabl€

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roor.NQIES

| , HaroldPerkin,Originsof ModernEnglishSpciety(NewYork Routledge
, 1969),p. 255.
) t Perkin,griginsof ModernEnglishSociety,p.259.

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Bibliography
Gaskell,Elizabeth.NorthandSoulh.Oxford:OxfordUniversityPress,1982,
Englis,h
t
SociEry.NewYork Routledge,l969
Perkin,Harold.Qriginpof Mpder.n

P. McEvoy-Halston
questions
in seeking to
This essay poses a number of relevant
assess the value of using a novel , such as North and South, Ets a
on
Revolution
source on the impact of the Industrial
historical
the
including
issues,
several
salient
It
addresses
England.
argument
The general
distance.
problem
and temporal
of
bias
the novel does have value
despite these problehsr
advanced is that,
in all sourcest
As noted on page 2t bias exists
to the historian.
a draw-back.
is not necessarily
and the lack of temporal distance
of
depiction
To serve as a useful source, it is argued, Gaskell's
(page 3)'
the period need only be accorded a measure of credibility
it can be employed
before
it has to be viewed as credible
Indged,
as a source (please see the comment in the nargin on page f): Yett
in the book as reliable?
view anything
why should the historian
to gauge the accuracy and representativeness
How is the historian
Sirnply because she lived
of the period?
depiction
of Gaskell's
through these events and wrote about them does not in and of itself
presented
Presumably thg
is trustworthy.
prove that the picture
and
reliability
historical
ascertain
the
can bnly
historian
with
of the novel by reading other sources in conjunction
veracity
corroborating
needs to obtain
The historian
account.
Gaskell7s
made in the paper on page 5t given
This point is finally
evidence.
of the argument being advanc€d, it needed to be made on
the logic
at the
on page 3 is structured
page i.
The way the discussion
page
point
5 is
made on
the general
that
inoirent it is nof clear
to be applicable.
recognized
out of the
is left
about sexuality
The fact that information
from the value of the book as a
detract
novel does not necessarily
are
and other topics
That this
source on the period.
historical
of
us a great deal about the sensitivities
not addressed can tell
Often lre
trade.
public
and the publishing
reading
the Victorian
from a prirnary source
can learn as much from what has been omitted
as vre can from what has been included.
sentences
style,
there are some incomplete
In terms of writing
Aim for a
in this paper and some of the sentences are ov€r-wordy.
of
effect
can have the
flowery
style;
crisp
writing
clear,
in
contractions
Avoid
points
being
advanced.
the
obscuring
Watch
(eg. , use rris notrr instead
of rtisn'trr ) .
writing
scholarly
for example, on page 4t there are several
use of the possessivei
trPerkiDt stt ,
places in whicn ttPerkinsrr needs to be repl-aced with
rrauthorsrt
ltauthor,
. Do not
with
sfr needs to be replaced
whereas
ttto easily
acceptrt
is
forn
of
a verb:
inf initive
the
split
|teasily
to acceptrr or frto
form is either
incorrect
i the correct
reference
in the first
Just on a point of style,
accept easilytt.
full
name he/she should be mentioned by his/her
to an individual
that
it is not necessary to use his/her
After
vLz. E. Gaskell.
of the same last
name, that is unless more than one individual
full
name is being discussed.

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