A Piece O’ Master’s Humbug {Book Club}

north and south foreigner

How have I never heard of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell before?! This spring as Sarah and I discussed the books we would read this summer we looked for a classic, a YA (young adult), a modern novel, and a memoir (the selections are at the bottom of this post). Sarah said, “What about North and South? or The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery  for a classic and we let people vote on Instagram.” I had never heard of either, but I was at least familiar with L. M. Montgomery!

Turns out not only is it a well-known classic, it has also been adapted for TV several times (here and here for example) and one version even stars Patrick Stewart. I feel like Margaret discovering a new world “up north.”

Thank you Sarah for the suggestion!

Today we are discussing Chapters 14-26. Let’s touch base on the themes mentioned last week.


Since the title is North and South, this continues to be a theme. Lots of little asides and snide remarks from both sides that the other side clearly doesn’t understand.

For instance, Mr. Thornton said, “I should equally rebel and resent his interference. I imagine this is a stronger feeling in the North of England than the South.” (1882, Kindle)

“I wish I lived down South,” said Bessy. (2059)

“You’re just a foreigner and nothing more.” (2082)

We also see a growing understanding from Margaret as she learns more about the North. It is the next theme that was the focus of this section of the book. “So I am [taken with the ways of the South country],” said Margaret, smiling a little, as she found herself thus caught. “I only mean, Best, there’s good and bad in everything in the world; and as you felt the bad up here, I thought it was but fair you should know the bad down there.”


Oh my! Class and misunderstandings and revealed information abound today.

  • Fredrick has taken the name “Dickenson” (anyone wondering if this is a nod to author Elizabeth Gaskell publishing her story in a Charle Dickens periodical?) because he was involved in a mutiny. If he returns to England he will be executed. The mutiny involved strong class elements.
  • Margaret and Mr. Hale visit the Thorntons and Mrs. Thornton is put off that Mrs. Hale didn’t come.
  • Mr. Thornton visiting Margaret and Mr. Hale, had a v-e-r-y long discussion on how laborers are like children.
  • Nicholas Higgins comparing the impending strike not in terms of parent/child, but “as a soldier”
  • All of the discussion as to who will be invited to the Thornton’s dinner party.
  • The strike! And Margaret being in the unique position to hear the various perspectives and challenges when it comes to financial considerations (labor’s point of view from Mr. Higgins and management’s POV from Mr. Thornton).
  • The juxtaposition of a fancy dinner party at the Thornton’s and the starving neighborhood children when Margaret visits the Higgins.
  • The medical options available to Mrs. Hale vs. Bessy. (Anyone else seeing our own times mirrored in this story?)
  • Bringing in “Irish Hands” to break the strike — and the poverty of Ireland to even come in to break the strikes.
  • The riots between some of the strikers and the whole Mr. Thornton/Margaret situation.


Okay, so it seems it will be Mr. Thornton, but not yet. The scene of Margaret hanging on to— let’s call him John—John’s neck to protect him after they goaded him to take action pretty much seals the deal.

But since we are only halfway through, it can’t be wrapped up yet. AND I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am.


Still very curious about this theme, but it does not seem to be a strong one. Maybe with this section being so heavy on the class theme, another section will focus on faith. It has to come back, right? You don’t start off a book with a PASTOR who quits and never return to things of faith, do you?

Mixed Bag 

  • Can someone please explain to me what a “water bed” is? I know what a modern water bed is, but that can’t be it.
  • Will Fredrick make it home? And what will happen when he does?
  • Mrs. Thornton annoys me. Who annoys you? Which character are you taken with?

Yay! I finished writing this section so I can jump back in to reading our next 13 chapters. Next week we will discuss Chapters 27-39.

See you in the comments!


Summer Reading:


  1. Bayta Schwarz June 12, 2018

    I was also wondering about the water bed! No idea what that would have meant in those days.

    Just a couple of things that stood out to me from this section.
    – Margaret and her mother finally talking about some of the fears they had during the years that Margaret was living in London – of being forgotten (Margaret), and of losing her daughter to a wealthier life (Mrs Hale). (location 2313) Isn’t that such a reality of living apart from family? That strange mix of people and relationships actually changing, and but then also imagining what could possibly happen (and assuming our imaginings to be reality).
    – Margaret heading to to the Thorntons’ house and completely missing the tell-tale signs of trouble. I know partly that was because she was so preoccupied with her mother’s health. But also, in a new place we can be so oblivious to what’s going on because that particular type of trouble has never been part of our experience and we have no idea of what the signs mean.

    Also, have you read (or watched) Cranford, also by Elizabeth Gaskell? It’s been a few years but I know I really enjoyed it.

    1. Elysa MacLellan June 14, 2018

      I have read And watched this work. Actually, I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read by this author. I think a lot of Jane Austen fans would enjoy the works of Elizabeth Gaskell but she definitely delves into deeper social and moral issues than Austen. I would highly recommend RUTH. It tackles issues rarely discussed publicly in the 1800’s in “ polite society”.

      1. Bayta Schwarz June 14, 2018

        Oh I’ve not even heard of that one! Must put it on my list 🙂

        1. Elysa Mac June 19, 2018

          Let me know if you read it!

  2. Rachel Kahindi June 12, 2018

    I did some googling on history of water beds, and it seems like it would be a bath topped with a sheet of rubber. Or something like a giant hot water bottle. Then there’s this ad (it’s a bit too small to read the text well). But apparently the Persians had some kind of water bed thousands of years ago.

    They spent so much time talking about Frederick, I think he will make it home.

    I love Bessy. It was so sweet when Margaret told her how much good their visit did her, and Bessy realized that she, in her poor state, was capable of helping someone like Margaret.

    1. Megan June 13, 2018

      That doesn’t seem comfortable at all!

  3. Ruth June 12, 2018

    I’m also thankful for Sarah’s suggestion! I misread how far to read this week as chapter 36 (plus I was already ahead from last week), so I will say that the next few chapters are action packed, and some of your questions will be answered and you’ll probably have a whole bunch of new questions (at least I do at this point).

    Even though they are in the same country, so many of the Hale’s experiences are cross-cultural ones. I’m impressed by Margaret’s ability to point out the difficulties faced in Southern England, because it seems like many people put on rose colored glasses about the place they left (it’s so clean! the sky is always blue! people are nice to strangers!), especially when things have been as difficult as they have for her. But instead of romanticizing how amazing southern England is, she is still relatively clear headed about the challenges of both places.

    Also, in chapter 20, Mr. Hale says “I hardly know as yet how to compare one of these houses with our Helstone cottages. I see furniture here which our labourers would never have thought of buying, and food commonly used which they would consider luxuries; yet for these very families there seems no other resource, now that their weekly wages are stopped, but the pawn-shop. One had need to learn a different language, and measure by a different standard, up here in Milton.” How often have I had this experience? What would mark someone as rich or poor or educated or uneducated or polite or impolite in my home culture is not the same as my host country’s culture. It is so easy to get tripped up and make incorrect observations or judgements if you just take one set of standards and impose it on a different place.

    Mrs. Hale annoys me. Mr. Hale does, too, although I find it easier to be compassionate towards him. Their family communication skills leave much to be desired.

  4. Christy June 12, 2018

    The more I read in this book, the more frustrated I get with the Hales’ family dynamics. The idea of hiding a fatal disease from the people closest to you in order to lessen their discomfort is so difficult for me to understand. I have encountered this idea in some of the countries I have lived in as well, but I still do not understand it. People need to be able to process their grief with those they love. Won’t it be so much harder for them to find out when the person dies and realize they could have known sooner and had more significant, meaningful times shared with their loved one? Also, Margaret is stuck in the middle of the family drama again with Frederick and the question of whether or not to write to him and ask him to come when it could result in something disastrous for him. Honestly, I keep thinking as I am reading that this family really could benefit from some family therapy. At least Margaret has been able to talk with her mother some more now that the secret of her health is revealed, so maybe that will lead to some emotional healing.

  5. Megan June 13, 2018

    I am so glad this book was chosen for the book club, I had started watching the TV show a few years ago and stopped because I was confused but the book has been very engaging. I have read a bit farther because I couldn’t put it down 😉

    I really like the cultural conversations about the differences between the North and South. I remember in college, just moving to a different part of my state felt like a cultural shift but it was a long time before I had the language to put to describe it, I feel like, here in this book, they have done a great job at explaining the cultural shift that really can happen in a country from one end to another (or even just from town to outside town). I thought that the sides were going to be more pitted against each other but it really just seems like the Hale family is really just struggling to find their place in a new setting.

    I also love how strong of a female character Margaret is, When all of the other females were hiding in a back room, she stayed put and even tried to use her female nature to win over the crowd. I was not really expecting her to stand up so well but she really did stand the test of her courage. I also really like her boldness in speaking her mind in conversations both with her parents, Mr. T, and with Bessie’s family. She is really standing up for the things she believes in, in a non-combative way. I really admire that.

  6. Kiera June 14, 2018

    I had heard of this book before but never read it. I love Jane Austen’s novels and see some parallels but the whole north/south dynamic is a new theme and comes through so strongly in the book that I can’t imagine it being called anything else! Of course there are other themes too – the class one being strong, but even that is closely linked to the differences in the region. Not every book that we read here has a connection to the overseas/expat lifestyle but I still tend to look at the books through that lens and this one fits so well. I would never have expected it. But even the little ways that Mr. Thornton and Margaret have mis-understandings through the greeting customs in the two regions of the same country, just shows the profound differences we face when we cross cultures. I find it sadly funny how prejudiced both Mrs. Thornton and Margaret are – and Margaret is so compassionate on poor Bessie but has no love for the manufacturer Mr. Thornton.

    I haven’t quite stuck to the reading divisions (with older books I find it easier to just keep going so that I don’t get bogged down and lose the story) and I don’t want to comment on anything that will unveil the plot, so I’ll leave it there. 🙂

  7. Kristi June 17, 2018

    I think the cultural differences are interesting in this novel, as others have said. for example, Mr. Thornton feeling slighted that Margaret will not shake his hand when leaving the Hales’ house, while Margaret is unprepared for his forward-ness. We expect there to be misunderstandings and cultural differences when going to a new continent, but within England? Wow.

    I’m also struck by the discussions of justice, and trying to understand the perspectives of two warring parties. Margaret makes a valiant attempt to understand and also to help each side to consider the perspective or suffering of the other. This reminded me of the deep conflicts –tribal or political that we see in South Sudan or that result in war in so many places. I have learned that there are long histories of grievances or experience that it is hard for an outsider to understand, and that make it very hard for either side to be willing to compromise. Does it seem like that applies in the situation in this book?

    Now that I am half-way through the book, I realize that I read it before, many years ago. But I do not remember how it ends, so look forward to seeing what happens.

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