I’ve read nearly everything that Jane Austen has ever written, but I read my first Elizabeth Gaskell novel (North and South) just this year. And yes, it was after I watched the 2004 BBC mini-series version with Richard Armitage that is currently on Netflix. *swoon*
It didn’t take long for me to understand why North and South is often compared to Pride and Prejudice.
These two famous works (for which their authors are best known for) have a very similar plot: A female protagonist (neither poor nor wealthy, but very proper) misjudges a wealthy & prideful man. The man falls for her wit and strength and subsequently proposes. Protagonist rebuffs the proposal only to later realize she had him all wrong. Man saves our leading lady from some misfortune that causes her to realize she is in love him. They make up and live happily ever after together.
However, despite these similarities (to which many Austen-ites cry foul!) Austen and Gaskell (and these stories) are quite different in a number of ways.
Austen fans have been known to accuse Gaskell of plagiarism. I personally believe this to be unfair. Though Pride and Prejudice is famous for this plot, it’s actually a fairly common plot in literature. Variations can be found in many different works from this time period as well as present day. Aside from the basic plot, the novels themselves (especially the writing style) are quite unique.
Jane Austen is more famous, and almost universally considered to be the better writer of the two. She also had a harder road ahead of her as a female author in her time. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that Austen laid much of the ground work for later female writers like Gaskell. Elizabeth Gaskell no doubt benefitted from this as she was writing 40 years later.
I would also argue that Austen created a better protagonist. Elizabeth Bennet is far more endearing and likable than Margaret Hale. It’s really no surprise that Lizzy has been beloved and adored by readers for generations, while few have ever heard of Margaret Hale.
But at risk of starting a riot, I have to admit that I think there were several things Gaskell does better than Austen. (*gasp*)
Both authors are giving us a story brimming with social commentary, but where Austen writes about the gentry and includes servants only as one dimensional characters that we know little about; Gaskell writes about both the rich and the poor and gives voice to the working classes.
Gaskell writes in the industrial genre, which many Austen fans will not like. It’s not as picturesque. It’s much harsher. Many pages are dedicated to things like the early formation of unions and strikes, but I admire her for that. The characters have depth. The commentary feels poignant. You come to understand both the worker and the master. Margaret is a stronger and more independent character than Lizzy. She’s a lady, but she’s more in charge of her fate. In the end, she saves her suitor, not the other way around. And to be honest, I kind of liked Mr. Thornton better than Mr. Darcy because Mr. Thornton (while similarly severe and honorable) is self-made and subject to financial uncertainty. He’s a more complex character. I enjoyed reading North and South despite the occasionally tedious moments.
Unlike Austen, Gaskell gives a more Downton Abbey-style look at society. A peek both upstairs and downstairs. But again, to be fair to Austen, this was a bit more acceptable (though still edgy) forty years after Pride and Prejudice was first published.
I still believe Pride and Prejudice is the better book, but when it comes to the BBC mini-series, I think Gaskell comes out on top.
I know, I know. Austen fans adore the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, but overall I think North and South was better because of the compelling, realistic myriad of characters and real life issues (watching your children starve to death strikes me as worse than fearing they’ll never marry).
Okay and sure, I found Richard Armistace’s Mr. Thornton extremely attractive. More attractive than Colin Firth. Who knew a dwarf king could look so sexy with a clean shave?!
In the end, I must advocate for loving both. I have to wonder if it’s even a fair comparison considering their writing is separated by 40 years. It’s an interesting conversation, but you don’t have to choose. You can like both! I mean really, how many handsome Victorian leading men do we have in the world of literature to day dream about?