Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mary Gaitskill's NORTH SOUTH is serious romance

I am reading classics for free on my KOBO and buying hardcovers of new fiction. I am liking the classics better. In terms of slightly guilty pleasure, I'm reading classics I've seen on PBC or BBC. NY in 2012 is sending me back to more genteel times? I feel a little like Clooney in The Descendants, who's shocked when his kids open their mouths and vile street invective comes out. Made me laugh but not sure I like living here. So, when Margaret Hale is partying with her cousin on Harley Street, I may know the dances and dinners and the made to perfection clothes--fab fabrics--and the admiration of handsome men is superficial hooey. She certainly has an inkling of this, and, though a great beauty, is skeptical of her lovely cousin's superficiality, but heck--it's so much fun to be a girl with money and prospects! Then her cuz marries an aristo with a military career and leaves for Corfu. Margaret returns home to the genteel poverty of her father's parsonage in the SOUTH, a place described as a mythic country house overflowing with roses and huge snarly trees with gorgeous leaf tableaus in a sparkly ever-blue sky. Soon Marge is to be expelled from this paradise. The culprit? Her father's religious doubts. When he rencounces his priesthood, the family must quickly leave for the dread NORTH! The always ailing helpless mother, the class-obsessed loyal servant,the former priest less than eagerly look forward to his new career as a tutor in a manufactoring town, Milton. In greatly reduced circumstances, Margaret shows the strong determined fiber of her character. And this romance is all about character. We admire that she's opinionated, has great will and temper. We like that she's kind and feels that charity is something you feel, not a duty, and that in life you learn from other people, regardless of their age and class. You really get Margaret's courage and the modest fact that she doesn't care she's great-looking. She's looking at humanity through the large end of the telescope, not the narrow end, so she's caught by surprise when a lawyer, a long time friend, proposes marriage with great passion. Marriage? Lover? Foreign ideas for some vague future; no offense--never thought of you that way? But she's sorely tried to hold onto her ideals in the bustling business world of the very polluted Milton. Here her father's lofty beliefs about the higher purpose of life, are lost in the calculation of a place where status and money are synonymous and there's no rich natural world to escape into. Worse yet, she's been raised with her mother and aristocratic cousin's beliefs about the lowly nature of tradesmen. In Milton, trade is valued more than family or intellectual achievements. From a parsonage that revered her family, where she felt engaged and happy teaching children and caring for the unfortunate, Margaret has to manage in cheap rooms with her increasingly ailing mother and isolated depressed (not a term then) father. When John Thornton, the extremely successful owner of a garment manufacturing operation,comes to learn from her father and becomes a valued friend, he seems to personify everything Margaret hates about the North. Though her father talks about his incredible enterprising spirit and higher understanding, she thinks him cold, provincial,concerned only with the coarse values of the marketplace. She also thinks he's an imperious master of men--his hands who work the factory. Marget befriends the daughter of one, Higgins. Bess is her own age but seriously ill from breathing the "fluff" of the factory. Higgens, though uneducated, is wise man about people and the politics of his situation as a worker. Seeing the Union as a solution, he's a ringleader in a strike against the "masters," the owners of the mills. Meanwhile, Margaret, while helping his dying daughter, is privvy to the workers' suffering. In this novel, it's innate to her nature to say and do what she thinks is right. She may have doubts, but she does what her conscience dictates and is not always better for it. This means, when the strikers riot, she risks her own life and prevents Thornton from being injured. Later, when he proposes, she sets him right--that she would have done the same for anyone else in that situation. Though she believes this on an ideological level, she's ignored the personal level he lives on. Being a steadfast soul,he continues to love her and think he's not good enough. For Margaret, her Father's daughter, to engage in real life she has to gain values that she earns--so they're really her own. To this end, Gaitskill heaps suffering and tragedy on top of the isolation, poverty and alienation. Margaret breaks down, catches herself failing her own standards, but gets up and grows up. She becomes a better woman for what she has endured and, in the end, she becomes the person she wanted to be. Naturally that's way different than her start. This is a great woman's coming of age and a romance. That's probably why it's lasted for a couple centuries. When a person of the values of the south (be it England, Italy, the U.S.) comes north, it's an encounter with an alien perspective and some self-discovery? I am on the record for not liking romances, but they don't make them like they used to....catch the film first. SW