North and South vs Pride and Prejudice: the battle of the century!

I have to admit, when I first came to the end of North and South I eagerly turned to the next page and thought, is that it?

I think that my initial surprise was due to the fact that throughout the entire novel I was subconsciously comparing North and South to Pride and Prejudice and the ending above all highlights the fact that despite superficial similarities, the two novels are very different.

In Pride and Prejudice, the novel ends in a scene of cosy domestic bliss; Lizzie and Darcy happily ensconced in the drawing room at Pemberley, discussing their love affair, and the loose ends of the other characters neatly and pithily wrapped up (with one exception, but that’s a topic for another day). By contrast, North and South ends with the mutual understanding of their love and imminent marriage by Margaret and Thornton, and we as readers can only imagine what comes next. There is humour in the ending of both novels, but where Lizzie and Darcy’s marriage is looked upon favourably as an advantageous match (except by Lady Catherine, but who cares about her), Thornton and Margaret wryly comment on how both of their families will react with horror at their engagement.

If we look at the culmination of both novels outside of the very last scene, more striking differences emerge. There is the loose end of Henry Lennox for one; he is not as repugnant as Lizzie’s former suitor Mr Collins, but nor does he find an appropriate partner by the end of the novel. You cannot help but feel some sympathy for him, especially as he is the one who literally draws out the proposal that will financially link Margaret to his rival-not that he has any prior inkling of this-Mr Thornton as well as proving the catalyst for their marriage. However, if we see Henry Lennox as a somewhat sympathetic character this simultaneously gives more importance to Margaret’s choice of Thornton and her personal agency in the novel. Of all the men Lizzie has to choose from Darcy is clearly the only real choice from the reader’s perspective, however, Margaret actively chooses Thornton from her personal preference of him over other eligible men rather than say, him not being the ridiculous Collins or the rakish Wickham.

Both Pride and Prejudice and North and South are novels very much concerned with money and class but the different ways in which they deal with these issues lies at the root of their essential difference. The lovers in both books initially dislike each other, but grow to realise that their first impressions were flawed, as well as personality changes on both sides taking place that make them more suited and receptive to each other. In Pride and Prejudice, it is literally their ‘pride and prejudice’ that Lizzie and Darcy need to move past to realise in each other a perfect partner. Thornton and Margaret’s personal evolution throughout the novel, however, is explicitly linked to class relations, as she loses her class prejudice against “shoppy” people and he forms closer bonds with his working class employees and introduces welfare provisions for them. A review on Goodreads puts it best: “It’s Pride and Prejudice for Socialists.”

The wealthy Darcy is Lizzie and her family’s saviour through his role in saving Lydia’s reputation, which involves paying Wickham off, as well as being a suitably advantageous match for Lizzie in her mother’s eyes. And who can resist the romance of the line “her heart did whisper that he had done it for her”? However, I couldn’t help but love the inversion of this trope in North and South, as Thornton’s first declaration of love is sparked by Margaret’s physical defence of him, a scenario unimaginable in Austen, and his second by her proposal of financial investment into his mill, which admittedly seems less romantic at first but crucially gives her more financial power in their relationship (until they marry of course but that’s another issue). Money gives Margaret her independence and the freedom to do what she wants and marry who she chooses, a stark comment on social realities for a woman at the time.

I love Pride and Prejudice and do still find it more romantic than North and South. But it cannot be denied that North and South is a highly interesting novel of a woman’s journey towards independent action and thoughts on class relations of its time.

Stray thoughts:

  • Why did everyone in this book have to die??
  • I don’t know why but the image of Margaret’s brother Frederick living it up in Spain and giving the proverbial middle finger to England makes me really happy
  • Margaret and Mr Bell: ultimate witty banter goals

Image Credits: View of Bradford by William Cowen  via Art.com

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