Friday, May 26, 2023

Another Victorian Novel: Orthodox, by Dorothea Gerard

Review: Orthodox, by Dorothea Gerard

by Rich Horton

I found this slim novel at the St. Louis County Book Fair. It is a British Library facsimile reprint of the first edition, from Longman's, Green and Co., in 1888. I could not resist a Victorian novel by a woman of whom I had never heard. And it is quite short (not quite 40,000 words) so it wouldn't take up much of my time anyway.

Dorothea Gerard was born in Scotland in 1855. Her father was a Colonel, and maternal grandfather a somewhat notable inventor, Sir John Robison. She spent several years in Austria as a child, and upon her mother's death in 1870, moved there again to live with her sister, who had married a Polish cavalry officer. The two sisters began collaborating on novels in 1877, and had some success with Reata and The Waters of Hercules and other books, written as by "E. D. Gerard". (Emily also published non-fiction, notably a couple of books about Transylvania, and its legends, which are said to have inspired Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula.) Dorothea also married a military man, an Austrian officer who eventually became a Major General, and was given the title "Longard de Longgarde", so that some of Dorothea's later novels were published as by "Dorothea Longard de Longgarde". 

Dorothea largely stopped collaborating with her sister upon her marriage; and she was a very prolific author in her own right. Her novels were often, not surprisingly, set in Eastern Europe where she lived; though she always wrote in English. According to Wikipedia, her later books often were published by the German firm Tauchnitz, and marketed to English travelers and expatriates. She died in 1915, having lived in seclusion for many years after the death of her husband and her sister.

Her novels often seem to have been romances, apparently set among the Eastern European upper classes. She was politically conservative, but had a reputation for addressing controversial subjects, in particular prejudices across divides of class, nationality, and ethnicity, and also antisemitism. This is interesting in the context of the novel at hand.

Orthodox opens "I propose to tell the story of how my friend and comrade, Rudolph von Ortenegg, fell into the hands of the Jews ..." This did not seem terribly promising. The narrator is a 23 year old Polish officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, stationed in Poland. His friend Rudolph is the only son of an old German aristocrat, and he grew up in near isolation, so his social skills are minimal, and he has some ideas that the narrator thinks are foolish. Among these is disgust at the mistreatment of the local Jews -- which disgust the narrator finds shocking, for in his view why shouldn't one treat vermin like vermin.

Things get worse when, by chance, they encounter an astonishingly beautiful young Jewish woman, Salome. Before long Rudolph is smitten, and so too, it seems, is Salome. Against his friend's advice, Rudolph and Salome begin to plot a way for them to marry -- which of course will involve Salome converting to Catholicism. Naturally her family are aghast at the thought of this (and so too will Rudolph's father be) -- their only ally is Salome's spunky younger sister Surchen. But Rudolph manages to spirit Salome away to a nearby convent. All seems to be going well -- but Salome's father has different plans.

As I've described this, it seems nice enough, and arguably a somewhat "anti-antisemitism" book. But -- it's not, really. (Maybe it is relative to many of Gerard's contemporaries, I suppose.) Although Rudolph is quite sincere in his belief that the abusive behavior of the Polish Christians towards Jews is terrible, his primary motive for improving their lot is to convert them. And the book itself -- and its narrator -- lean in a wholly unchallenged way fully into the most offensive descriptions of the Jewish characters. They are all money grubbers, and sinisterly clever, and dishonest. Salome's sister Surchen is perhaps the most appealing character in the book -- she is as I said spunky, and quite intelligent -- but she is depicted as doing everything she does to make a bit of money. There are constant slurs as to hygiene and so on; and even the praise of some of them (for example, of Salome's beauty) is heavily tinged with Orientalist cliches. Add to that the character of Salome herself -- she is weak and really sort of a cipher -- Rudolph appears to care only about her looks. I don't know how accurate Gerard's depiction of Orthodox Jewish customs in Poland at the time is -- perhaps it is quite accurate, and as such the women seem quite oppressed -- only, I think the same could likely be said about Christian women in Poland in that era.

All in all, not a book I can recommend. I will say that Gerard could write, and with considerable wit. I dare say some of her other novels might be more palatable, but this one was -- well, offensive is the main thing.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Review: Granger's Crossing, by Mark W. Tiedemann

Granger's Crossing

a novel by Mark W. Tiedemann

Blank Slate Press (an Imprint of Amphorae Publishing), St. Louis, 2023, Trade Paperback, 376 pages, $17.95, ISBN: 978-1-943075-75-1

a review by Rich Horton

Mark W. Tiedemann is a St. Louisan, a photographer and was a long-time bookseller at Left Bank Books. He has published ten science fiction novels and dozens of short stories. Granger's Crossing is his first venture into historical fiction. (He's also a friend of mine of long standing, and the leader of an SF book club in which I participate.)

Granger is introduced as a Lieutenant in the Continental Army in 1780, having crossed into St. Louis -- then a Spanish territory -- to investigate the disappearance of his friend, Ham Inwood, who had come to a certain Don Diego Cortez's property to investigate reports of a man hiding out there. What Granger finds is his friend's murdered body, and some further mysteries involving Cortez's horses, his brother, and some gold. Back in St. Louis after another man is shot, Granger meets an intriguing married woman named Martine, and vows to return -- either to solve his friend's murder, or to see if there's a future with Martine. 

But the War intervenes, and it is not until it is over, and the United States are officially independent, that Granger can return. He sets up a business in Cahokia, and before long is dealing in St. Louis. He tries to reconnect wtih the now widowed Martine, but she is acting oddly distant. His attempts to investigate Granger’s friend's murder meets resistance, suggestions he should go back East, and even threats. Don Diego Cortez's fiancée arrives from Spain, and questions arise about Diego's identity -- could he really be his twin brother instead?

Granger -- still a young and somewhat callow man -- realizes he needs to make some decisions. He becomes a Spanish citizen so he can move to the St. Louis side of the river. He lets Martine know of his interest in her, even as she is being courted by another man, and as she is about to lose her home, as her husband's sons from a previous marriage will get her property. Granger ends up buying Martine's house, but realizes Martine needs space to make her decisions. And Granger doubles down on the search for the reasons for Ham's murder.

This is a compelling novel, mixing a fascinating historical background that is not widely known --St. Louis under Spanish rule -- even to a long-time St. Louisan like me. There are a couple of interesting mysteries to resolve, and an alluring romance. St. Louisans will recognize a number of names: Gratiot, Chouteau, Cerré, etc; and some of the geography, including nods to towns like Cahokia and Cape Girardeau. I was invested in Granger's quests -- for Martine, and for Ham's murderer; and the solutions are satisfying. This is a novel about American history, and St. Louis history, that fascinates on those grounds, and Granger's personal story is also involving.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Resurrected Review: Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Here's another review resurrected from my old website and the SFF Net newsgroups. This one appeared back in 2004.

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Eos, New York, NY, September 2003, 464 pages, Hardcover, US$24.95, ISBN:0-380-97902-0
a review by Rich Horton

Paladin of Souls is Lois McMaster Bujold's latest novel, her third fantasy, and a fairly direct sequel to The Curse of Chalion. It seems that Bujold's energies are now focussed on her fantasy secondary world, centered on the Royacy of Chalion, which has certain similarities to Renaissance era Iberia. At any rate, I understand that her next novel will be another Chalionese book. This seems a good choice -- I liked both The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls better than her most recent Vorkosigan book, Diplomatic Immunity.

Paladin of Souls is the story of the Dowager Royina Ista of Chalion, mother of the new Royina Iselle, and widow of the late, cursed Roya Ias. The Curse of Chalion covered the events leading to the lifting of a terrible curse on the royal family of Chalion. Ista, who bore bravely years of living under the curse, with a terrible load of guilt and fear, as well as the burden of a loveless marriage and possession by a god which made her essentially insane, is now free of that. But her family and retainers are very protective of her -- her regained sanity remains in doubt, and she has lived a very circumscribed life. As the book opens she is chafing under what is in essence imprisonment, and she conceives the notion of a pilgrimage, ostensibly to pray for the birth of a grandson, but in reality simply to get out of her household for some time. She recruits, partly by accident, a new attendant who is actually a not very wellborn young woman named Liss,distinguished mainly by her horsemanship (she is a courier); and a priest of the Bastard to guide her pilgrimage: a young, fat, irreverent, and rather lusty fellow. She also accepts the protection of a group of soldiers led by two brothers, Ferda and Foix.

What she had hoped would be an interesting journey rather quickly turns dangerous. There are rumors of a great outbreak of demons, and disastrously one soon possesses Ferda. Then they run into a raiding party from the neighboring princedom of Jokona, who are adherents to a (mutually) heretical form of the Chalionese religion. They are rescued by a local nobleman, a great fighter and very handsome man named Arhys. At Arhys's castle, Ista finds a very jealous wife, and a severely ill half-brother, and, worse, indications of more aggression from the Jokonans. All this is surely tied to the infestations of demons ...

I thought it quite well done. Ista is an affecting character. The magic system/religion that Bujold has worked out remains interesting and a good source of plot conflicts. Perhaps Ista's powers seem to scale just a little conveniently to match the needs of the plot -- ever a problem with fantasies. But I enjoyed reading the novel, and I was surprised at several turns (if at other times things worked out a bit routinely). It is another fine story from Bujold.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Old Bestseller Review: The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni

Review: The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni

by Rich Horton

Not all countries have a "national novel", but apparently Italy does -- Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi, 1827, revised 1840.) This was its author's only novel, though he also wrote poetry, plays, and nonfiction. He had a rocky life in some ways -- his mother apparently had little to do with him, and left his (much older) father when Alessandro was 7. He did rejoin his mother, in Paris, at age 20, and made a happy marriage to a Swiss Protestant woman. But against this happiness, an apparently happy second marriage after his first wife died young, the success of his novel, and the birth of nine children, one must set the fact that seven children died before adulthood, both his wives predeceased him, and his health was poor for the last few decades of his long life. He wrote nothing more after the revised version of I Promessi Sposi appeared, and died in 1873 at the age of 87.

The Betrothed is considered Italy's "national novel" for a few reasons -- one is its sprawling plot, set during a few eventful years in the early 1600s; and its themes: the depredations of local tyrants, the folly of rulers, the ravages of war and plague. In addition, it was published as the desire for Italian reunification (that would culminate in the Risorgimento in the 1860s) was growing, and it was a major influence in the coalescence of the various Italian dialects into an accepted national language, based on the Tuscan dialect in which Manzoni's revised version was published. At his death, he was so celebrated that Verdi's Requiem was written in his honor.

I read the novel in Bruce Penman's translation, from 1972. I also read passages on my Kindle from Alexander Colquhoun's 1951 translation. Not long after I bought the Penman book, used, a new translation appeared, by Michael Moore. I have only sampled that one briefly -- it seems fine, if perhaps leaning a bit more into 21st century turns of phrase than I might prefer. The general feel of the prose is not dissimilar from Penman's, suggesting that both have captured at least to some extent Manzoni's Italian prose. The Colquhoun was less successful, to me -- for one thing, it seemed (mildly) abridged; for another, Colquhoun made the curious choice to Anglicize some names -- so for example the chief villain, Don Rodrigo, is called Don Roderick in his version. (This was a disappointment, for I am a great fan of Colquhoun's translation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, which I would think another candidate for the "Great Italian Novel" (and also its author's only novel, and, indeed, about the Risorgimento.))

The Betrothed is the story of two peasants, from the village of Lecco (near Milan), Lucia and Lorenzo (called Renzo), who wish to be married. There should be no bar to this union -- the families are happy with it, and Renzo has a good job. But the most powerful man in the area, Don Rodrigo, decides he wants Lucia, and he pressures the weak local priest not to perform the wedding. With the help of a worthy nearby monk, Father Cristoforo, the two lovers are able to evade a plot of Don Rodrigo's to kidnap Lucia, and the two escape to different places: Lucia to the protection of a convent, and Renzo to Milan. 

Don Rodrigo is still searching for them, and they have their own troubles. Renzo reaches Milan as a famine continues, and he gets involved in riots, as starving people are convinced that the bakers are hoarding bread. He ends up framed as an inciter of the riots, and has to escape to Bergamo, which is under the rule of Venice. Meanwhile Lucia is working for a nun called the Signora -- an unhappy woman who was forced into the convent by her parents. This all ends up badly as the Signora betrays her location to Don Rodrigo.

Events of wider significance intervene -- in particular, war comes to Milan, and in its wake, the Plague. Meanwhile Don Rodrigo has hired a notorious criminal, here called "The Unnamed", to kidnap Lucia, with the unfortunate aid of the Signora. And Renzo has found a good position in Bergamo. But Renzo is still threatened with arrest if he enters the territory of Milan. Their relationship is further complicated by the circumstances of Lucia's escape from the Unnamed -- which seemed to her (and probably was) an answer to a prayer, which included a promise to the Virgin Mary that she would remain a virgin. Renzo and Lucia -- both unlettered -- exchange communications which are amusingly confused.

The climax of the novel is several wrenching chapters detailing the effects of the Plague. As has been noted by many readers, some of the responses to the Plague depicted here resemble only too much some of the responses to COVID. But the Bubonic Plague (at least prior to antibiotics) has far worse effects than COVID, with fatality rates on the order of 25%. And Milan is hit hardest. Manzoni is darkly satirical in portraying the political responses, and affecting in portraying the ravages of it, and the heroism of some, including Father Cristoforo. And towards the end Renzo, having survived his own bout with sickness, comes to Milan in search of Lucia ...

The Betrothed actually only covers a smallish amount of territory in Northwest Italy. But its real scope is vast. Manzoni observes the abuses of the powerful, the follies of those in the middle, the occasional stupidity of everyone. He also portrays people of great courage and virtue, many of them churchmen -- such as Father Cristoforo and a major character I haven't mentioned, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo. (Borromeo is an actual historical person, the nephew of St. Carlo Borromeo. There are many churches named for Charles Borromeo, including one just a couple of miles from my workplace. There are numerous other historical figures portrayed in this book, including the Signora (aka the Nun of Monza) and the Unnamed.) Manzoni views with his sympathetic but satiric eye the folly of politicians, and of mobs. It must be said that Renzo and Lucia are thinnish characters -- sweet and honest but not all that interesting. But Manzoni's portrayals of a host of other characters are fascinating, often hilarious, often piercing: Don Rodrigo, the Unnamed, Don Abbondio and his housekeeper Perpetua, Father Cristoforo, Donna Prassede (the silly and meddlesome woman who takes in Lucia after her rescue) and Donna Prassede's pompous husband. Like many great novels, The Betrothed mixes comedy and tragedy seamlessly, and in the end, I think, achieves its apparent goal of portraying a nation aborning, a people coming to consciousness of a possible unity that wouldn't happen for more than two centuries.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Review: Ledoyt, by Carol Emshwiller

Review: Ledoyt, by Carol Emshwiller

by Rich Horton

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) was one of the greatest of SF writers, though she never quite got the recognition I felt she deserved -- and much of that she did get came late in life. There are many reasons for that -- she didn't start publishing until in her mid-30s, she stopped for a few years when her kids were young, her vision was very individual, and thus hard for many to get a grasp on, she wrote a fair amount outside the SF field. Another reason, though, is that she wrote mostly short fiction. She published only six novels, the first (Carmen Dog) in her late 60s, in 1988. Her last three were published in her 80s. All too often, it's novels that get the attention.

What about those other two novels? Well -- there's a story there too. Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill were published in 1995 and 1999, respectively. (In Emshwiller's 70s.) And -- they are not SF. They are Westerns, and not really conventional Westerns. Ledoyt is set in the first decade of the 20th Century, and Leaping Man Hill is set after the First World War. And they aren't shoot 'em up Westerns -- they are about families, about making a life in remote parts of California before anything much like modern technology had arrived. All this is not to say there's a lack of action -- there's plenty. There are fights, shots fired, rape, people dying. There's also sex and partying and honest work and weather and childcare advice from the 19th century. And that's just in Ledoyt.

The novel is set mostly between 1902 and 1910. We begin with Lotti, a 14 year old girl, writing in her journal, dated 1910, "it all began in the spring of 1902." What began? Well, that's when Beal Ledoyt, whose brother T-Bone is a neighbor to Lotti's mother, Oriana Cochran, shows up looking for work. T-Bone suggests he help out Mrs. Cochran, who came from the East a few years before with her young daughter. It's clear that a) Oriana comes from money; and b) that she's fleeing something traumatic. And, very quickly, Mrs. Cochran and Beal Ledoyt are in love. Oriana, who is about 30, is something of a beauty, and has been courted by several men in the neighborhood (I say neighborhood but there's no city, just people farming) and has shown no interest in them. Ledoyt is a few years older, has never stayed in one place for long, is very ugly, often drunk -- and also pretty capable. Lotti takes to him at first, but gets weirdly jealous when he and Oriana, unexpectedly to most everyone, marry. And Lotti's jealousy propels much of the plot.

The point of view jumps between Lotti and Oriana and Beal and eventually Lotti's new brother Fayette. It also jumps back and forth in time, though it's not entirely non-linear. (The 1910 thread, in particular, always moves forward.) It's clear from the beginning that both Oriana and Beal are severely scarred from their childhood, and in bits and pieces we learn why and how. Lotti, too, is a piece of work -- she's convinced she was adopted, and wants to find her real family. She is unsure of her mother's love, in part because of how hard her mother has had to work, and in part ... well, we see why. She takes to Beal right away, tries to help him, decides she'll be a better man than any male ... and also she fancies Beal in a childish way so is furious when he marries her mother. In their tiny house she sees what they do in bed and that confuses her too. After Fayette is born, he follows her everywhere, and she's not exactly nice to him.

Oriana and Beal both have a hard time trusting themselves -- neither sees themselves as worthy of the other. Each believes their dark histories (not at all their own faults) have ruined them somehow. And they react in different and painful ways to the children they end up losing -- a normal part of frontier life, I suppose, but no less difficult. 

I'm making the story sound like a dreary Theodore Dreiser novel or something -- and that's not at all true. Yes, there is pain, there are deaths, there is violence. But there is at bottom love, and much happiness, and family being family. Ledoyt's family -- T-Bone and his wife Henriette and their children and other relatives -- are stable and helpful and loving. The voices of everyone are wonderfully captured, and the novel is suffused with humor. As I said too, there's plenty of action, culminating in a desperate winter trek over the hills (mountains?) in terrible weather, and an encounter with a violent criminal ending with a courageous rescue. And ... well I won't say what's next, but this in the end a realistic and moving account of frontier life -- and love, very much love -- in the early 20th Century. And it's Carol Emshwiller, so it's witty when it needs to be, profound when it needs to be, and wonderfully written.

Emshwiller's novels have in one sense been very well served by their publishers, in the sense that the books have been nicely presented -- but with one exception, each one first appeared from a small press: The Women's Press, Mercury House, Small Beer, and Tachyon. (The one exception, Mister Boots, marketed as YA, appeared from Viking, and was reprinted by Penguin/Firebird, which also reprinted The Mount.) All those small presses are, if you'll forgive the word, classy, and to some extent prestigious -- but there books still probably don't sell quite as well. And Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill are out of print. This is a complete shame and I hope some wise publisher rectifies this situation soon.

(There is a wonderful review by Ursula K. Le Guin of Ledoyt at Strange Horizons, written back in 2000. I didn't read it until after I wrote the above. But it's very much worth reading.)

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Review: North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Review: North and South, by Mrs. Gaskell

by Rich Horton

Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born in 1810. Her father was William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister and writer on economic subjects. (Stevenson, by the way, resigned his position as minister on conscientious grounds: remember this in view of events in North and South!) Elizabeth married a Unitarian minister, William Gaskell, in 1832. They eventually settled in Manchester. She wrote and published poems (with her husband) and some non-fiction beginning in the 1830s. Her first short story was published in 1847, and her first novel, Mary Barton, in 1848, which made her name as a writer. Other important works are Cranford, Sylvia's Lovers, Cousin Phillis, and her last novel, unfinished at her sudden death in 1865, Wives and Daughters; as well as the first biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë. 

North and South was first published in Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words, in 20 parts between 1854 and 1855. Dickens is supposed to have suggested the title (Gaskell was calling it Margaret Hale, after the heroine -- in this case if perhaps no other regarding the novel, Dickens was right.) The preceding serial was Dickens' own Hard Times, and both Hard Times and North and South are "industrial novels", and are set in lightly fictionalized versions of Manchester. This caused Gaskell some concern, as she didn't want to duplicate any of Dickens' plot points. Gaskell also battled Dickens over the length -- she thought it would be in 22 parts and felt that she was forced to rush the ending, and the book version not only extended the ending and added bits throughout, it also added chapters at the front. It is MUCH the superior version. I have the print edition pictured above, but I actually "read" the novel by listening to it, in Claire Wille's effecting narration.

The novel begins as preparations continue for the wedding of Margaret Hale's cousin Edith. Margaret is now 18, and has spent the last several years in London with her mother's sister, Mrs. Shaw. Margaret has been happy enough there, but in general she is impatient with the rather shallow and fashionable life her aunt and cousin lead. She is ready to go back to her parents' place, in the small country parish of Helstone. Her only intellectual equal in her social circle is Edith's soon-to-be brother-in-law, Henry Lennox, an ambitious young lawyer. The wedding goes off well, Edith and her new husband head to Italy where he is posted, and Margaret returns to Helstone, where her father is Vicar of a small church. Mrs. Hale is a pleasant if rather inconsequential woman, given to complaining that her husband has not been given a more prestigious living. Margaret, however, loves the town of Helstone, and its people, and quickly settles back in. Two events disturb her peace, however: Henry Lennox comes to visit, and he asks her to marry him. Margaret is taken aback -- she has not thought of him as anything but a friend. He is abashed, but vows to try again after some time, as there is no one else Margaret cares for in that way. Then, more shockingly, Mr. Hale announces that he has decided, for reasons of conscience, that he must resign his position -- he has become a Dissenter. (It's not clear if his inclinations are Methodist or perhaps Unitarian (like Mrs. Gaskell's father and husband.)) This will result in even further reductions in their income, and, it soon becomes clear, a move to the industrial northern town of Milton (in a fictional county called Darkshire -- a name perhaps a bit too much on the nose.) This move has been recommended by Mr. Hale's old college friend, Adam Bell, who has property in Milton, and who believes that Mr. Hale can make a living as a tutor to some of the ambitious young men in town, or their children.

The move is accomplished (mostly through the efforts of Margaret and of Mrs. Hale's redoubtable maid Dixon.) Life in Milton is less pleasant than in Helstone -- the air is smoky, the people are constantly bustling -- all what Margaret calls "shoppy people", and the Hales' finances are less certain. Mr. Hale has one particular favorite student: John Thornton, who rents the property on which he has built a cotton mill from Mr. Bell. Mr. Thornton is a truly self-made man -- his father had lost all his money and committed suicide, and his mother had by pure force of will brought up John and his younger sister Fanny. John started as a draper's clerk and was eventually able to take over the cotton mill and make it a success, and he, conscious of his lack of education, is reading the classics with Mr. Hale. They become friends, and sometimes discuss their differing philosophies of life -- Margaret joins in these discussions occasionally, somewhat  repulsed by the commercial ambitions of Mr. Thornton but slowly realizing that his ambitions are more than simply to make as much money as he can.

Margaret also makes the acquaintance of a Nicholas Higgins and his sickly daughter Bessy, who live not far from the Hales' place. Margaret befriends Bessy, who is dying because of the cotton fluff she inhaled while working in one of Milton's many factories. Margaret comes to realize something of the conditions of life for the working class -- and makes friends as well with the prickly and irreligious Mr. Higgins. And she learns that the workers in Milton have formed a union, and that they plan a strike. Margaret hears as well from Mr. Thornton that he and his fellow mill-owners know of the strike, and are determined to resist it -- in part because their businesses are suffering. 

Thus the mainsprings of the novel -- a depiction of life in the industrial North, and its effect on those who live there (with an implied contrast to the more bucolic South); and also the (obvious to the reader) growing attraction, both intellectual and physical, between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. (A love story that has been compared, in a slightly inverted way, to that of Pride and Prejudice.) The strike comes to fruition, and a climactic event involves Margaret, by accident at the Thorntons' home, protecting John from violent strikers. John misinterprets, or at least overinterprets, her actions, driving the love story in one direction. Meanwhile, a series of at least six deaths convulse the personal lives of the main characters -- beginning with Bessy Higgins ... and, well, I'll not list the rest. There is another major plot point involving Margaret's older brother Frederick, a Navy man who became involved in a mutiny, and as a result is living in exile in Spain. This leads to a nearly catastrophic action by Margaret which severely impacts her relationship with John Thornton; and also to the re-entry of Henry Lennox, who tries to help Frederick clear his name.

The novel unspools beautifully ... Margaret needs to move back to London, after a cathartic reacquaintance with Helstone. Henry Lennox is back in the picture. Nicholas Higgins finds himself in a curious way again a parent; and also, in a curious way, an ally of sorts to John Thornton, as John's business is severely threatened. Margaret and John both labor under the burden of realizing they have seriously wronged the other (at least in their heads) with no way of resolving that. Henry's efforts to clear Frederick's name bring him back into Margaret's orbit -- but not quite as he hopes.

I won't say the novel is perfect. There is an array of coincidences, each in itself plausible enough but in toto a bit of a stretch. The optimism about labor/management relations that eventually arises is -- let's just say, the way one might hope things could be but not entirely the way things have worked out (though, to be honest to some extent they have worked out this way, just more slowly.) And the ending -- even with Gaskell's revisions -- was just a tad abrupt for me. But -- I absolutely loved it.

To begin with -- Margaret Hale. I don't know if this is just me drinking Gaskell's Kool-Aid, but I admired Margaret about as much as I have ever admired a novel's protagonist. She is -- and I believed this, that's the point -- supremely intelligent, morally upright, beautiful (and it's hard to truly portray this in prose, but I bought it), willing to recognize when she's wrong and to change, hardworking, not at all egotistical. I think she's one of the great women in fiction, and not well enough known for that. The novel is also socially conscious, and at the same time inquisitive -- willing to present two sides of an issue, willing to tolerate ambiguity. It is honest. It is generous. As much as we like the main characters, we like others -- Nicholas Higgins, justifiably bitter but also honest and willing to learn; the cranky maid Dixon, jealous of her rights but amusing and true -- and the likewise cranky Mrs. Thornton. Adam Bell, the lone truly comic character in the book (though Dixon has her moments) -- but also a deeply loving man, aware of his weaknesses but not really willing to change. Henry Lennox -- a brittlely intelligent man, constrained by his social milieu to limit his sympathy for those not his equals, and perhaps by the end understanding this. 

Gaskell engages, perhaps not as deeply but still intriguingly, with religious differences as well. Of course there is Mr. Hale's crisis of conscience at the heart of things. With Margaret remaining a convicted Anglican. And Frederick, her brother, converting to Catholicism, perhaps for the love of a Spanish girl he meets. While Nicholas Higgins is unable to turn to God, given the unjust conditions he lives under, and especially how they impact his beloved daughter. 

(A minor point -- the chapters are headed with quotations from poems, some from anonymous writers, and many from Gaskell's contemporaries, such as Landor -- and George Eliot, whose first novel appeared a couple of years after North and South -- a useful reminder that Eliot was first known for her poetry (and criticism), much respected at the time but almost unread now.)

North and South grabbed my attention from the outset, and never let go. I looked forward to reading (hearing) it desperately. Gaskell's prose is impeccable, if never as perfect as Eliot's, nor quite as clever as Mary Elizabeth Braddon could be. I was brought to tears over and over again -- at acts of heroism, at tragic events, at inspirational moments. Every character seemed real, though some were perhaps less deep than others -- Margaret's cousin Edith, and indeed her mother, were perhaps a bit too much types -- but believable types. It's a wonderful novel, and in recent decades it has claimed its deserved recognition at last -- I can only say, if you like Victorian fiction at all (and you should!) -- you must read this novel.