Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Austen's Influence on Gaskell: N&S parallels to P&P

Let me tell you about a love story between a woman and a man whose initial encounter was marred by prejudice, misunderstanding, and pride to such a degree that it was a very long road before they were able to finally come together in complete understanding and equality and shared passionate love.

When she first meets him, she is struck by his stern demeanor and although she acknowledges his power among men and his intelligence and good sense, she believes him to be a proud, disagreeable man and laughingly states that she could never consider him as a husband and mocks the idea that he would ever think of her as wife.

From his first meeting her, however, he is thrown off-guard by her openness—she looks directly at him, as if challenging him, and this is so provocative that he finds himself, in his own words, “bewitched” by her, though those in his immediate circle harbor a jealous dislike of her that they make no attempt to hide. The lady, however, is not only unconscious of the affect she has had on the man, but unwittingly reinforces his feelings by continuing to act in a very open, direct way with him, which causes him to believe that she is not only aware of his feelings but welcomes them.

Their relationship in the early stages of their acquaintance is characterized by verbal sparring, in which he says something that provokes her, and then he prods her to explain herself more fully, inevitably ending with them misunderstanding each other even more than when they began talking. In fact, the man accuses the lady of persisting in misunderstanding him.

This situation comes to a head when the man proposes to the lady. Unfortunately, the lady has recently heard information from a third party that prejudices her even further against the man, and she angrily refuses him and tells him that his proposal offends her. After he storms away, she realizes how deeply he must love her if he would ask her to marry him despite the certain objections of his nearest relations. She has vanity enough to be somewhat gratified that she has inspired such feelings in such a man but is not softened enough to perceive that she has any real affection for him. He is deeply hurt and frustrated by her refusal—he had found himself unusually tongue tied and inarticulate when he was expressing his feelings as he was overcome by the strength of his passion for her, and he is ashamed of having let her cause him to lose his temper.

The man then attempts to redeem himself by refuting her accusations of his character, and the lady comes to be thoroughly ashamed of having misjudged him so severely. This shame forces her to reevaluate how she has viewed him and treated him and this puts her on the road to liking and esteeming him. The man is further frustrated by his belief that she loves someone else, and though this jealousy torments him it also inspires him to try to rise above it and open his mind and heart in the ways that she accused him of being closed and hard. When he learns of a situation in which she would not only be greatly distressed but acutely embarrassed and even damaged in society, he quickly and quietly takes action to completely alleviate the situation, without expecting or even wanting her acknowledgement or thanks.

Finally, she initiates the conversation that enables him to convince her that his love for her is not only real and present but has deepened since the time of his proposal, and she is able to show him that she now loves him as well.

You all know that to be the basic outline of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but it also happens to be the basic outline of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. Most who are familiar with P&P recognize many echoes of the older story in N&S—not only the evolution of the relationship between the principal couple (i.e., Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and Margaret Hale and Mr. Thornton) as outlined above, but also in certain somewhat parallel characters (e.g., Lady Catherine and Mrs. Thornton; Caroline Bingley and Fanny Thornton) and technique (e.g., Marlborough Mills embodies and reflects the character of John Thornton in much the same way that Pemberley embodies and reflects that of Mr. Darcy both to the reader and to Margaret/Elizabeth). I’ll post more in a future blog on similarities in language as this one is getting longish.

All this said, I don’t want to suggest that in N&S Gaskell simply retold or reshaped P&P into her own setting and time--fanfic it is not. Margaret is not an Elizabeth, and Thornton is not a Darcy, though I believe the men are more similar as characters than Margaret is to Elizabeth, and while both authors deal with the notions of pride and prejudice extensively, they diverge significantly in other themes and tone. Nor do I want to suggest that the strong parallels in N&S to P&P are coincidence or evidence that Austen modeled her story on an earlier archetypal story that Gaskell is also tapping into.

I have a notion that Gaskell consciously used the story arc of P&P for N&S because she desperately wanted to produce a novel that was popular with the middle-class reading public and she looked to what was then and has remained one of the most popular English novels. Though she was proud of her work in Mary Barton and Ruth, she was clearly frustrated by the bitter criticism she received from a variety of reviewers and friends. I have a couple of ideas as to who might have helped her look to Austen for inspiration, but I'll save that for another blog when I've had time to do a bit more research.


  1. Interesting theory Jane. The main difference between the two must be that in P&P it is the man who believes he is the social and intellectual superior while in N&S it is Margaret who believes she is morally and socially superior to Thornton, even though she is no match financially. It gives quite a different dynamic to the story.

    I don't personally see much similarity between the two men: Thornton is intellectually curious and needs to be mentally and physically busy, while Darcy seems to me very incurious and passive. Give me Thornton any day. :)

  2. Thanks for your comment, Louise. I've heard from several people that they see Darcy and Margaret as having more in common than Darcy and Thornton, but I really have a hard time wrapping my mind around that...maybe it's the gender thing that I can't reconcile.

    I rather like Thornton myself :)

  3. Jane:
    How pleasantly surprised I was when your essay on: "Austen's Influene on Gaskell: N & S parallels to P & P" popped up! I have just finished reading N & S and all throughout the reading I kept seeing things in the plot and details of the story that made me think of Elizabeth and Darcy in P & P. I had been mulling this idea over in my thoughts for several days now, and so just went to my laptop and typed in :similarities between etc...
    I was fascinated to read your analysis and am now on a mission to re-read N & S and pick out as many threads and details in the story to support this view.
    Thank you for sharing your insights!
    Happy reading!
    Barbara A. Kidder

  4. Hi Barbara - I would love to hear your additional insights on P&P and N&S as you reread N&S. It's certainly an interesting task to look at the parallels and why they might exist. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the comment.

  5. I found N&S very similar to P&P as well -- and I enjoyed it, although it is much more sad -- of course, it also felt more realistic to me.

    I just started Mary Barton so can't on that one.

  6. I've just found this post via a link on a later post of yours! I'm not familiar with N&S, nor indeed with any of Gaskell's novels, but your review certainly makes me want to try it - yet another book to add to my ever-growing reading list :)

  7. Tracy - you can't go wrong with N&S and Wives & Daughters, definitely the best Gaskells. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. I became introduced to N&S through the mini-series and was struck with the P&P similarities. I've been itching to read the book ever since. I'm so happy to have found you on twitter and now here on your blog!

  9. Michelle - thanks for visiting my blog. I enjoyed visiting your website as well, and look forward to chatting with you about books on Twitter, etc.