North and South: Don’t judge a book by its cover

There is a great sentiment in Ian McEwan’s book Saturday, that describes the difficult time one of the characters had reading classics as a young girl, until persuaded by her grandfather to read Jane Eyre. She said “the language was unfamiliar, the sentences long, the pictures in her head, she kept saying, wouldn’t come clear.” She was urged to keep at it and by the end of the book “She cried, she said, out of admiration, out of joy that such things could be made up.”

I think that this beautifully expresses how I’ve often felt about classics. I may appreciate them, and perhaps enjoy them, but don’t often find myself pulled in and absorbed the way I do with contemporary reads. But I have also had my Jane Eyre exceptions (including, actually, Jane Eyre), where the pictures in my head do come clear and I become fully engrossed in a classic, bypassing all barriers of language and custom.

That usually takes some time and concentration, so I figured that in this small child/endless laundry season of my life classics would not have much of a place. (I actually started telling my one-year-old that the horse says woof the either day until I noticed my mistake. I do not have a lot of extra brainpower floating around.)

But then I read this post, which lead to a purchase of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell on a recent visit to my favorite independent bookstore, and OMG I could not have been more into a book if it had been written yesterday. I had no idea that the thing that would get me out of my recent book rut would be a Victorian British work about an industrial town in Northern England published as a serial in 1854 and 1855. But there you have it. I was unable to tear myself away from this book. I am borderline unhealthily obsessed with this book. It disturbs me to not have it in the same room with me at all times, even if I cannot actually be reading it. And the second that it was completed I was simultaneously re-reading favorite passages and starting the BBC miniseries on Netflix. I feel about this book the way some people do about Pride & Prejudice: it is probably my favorite book, definitely my favorite classic, definitely my favorite love story, and will probably be re-read once a year.

So yeah, it’s good.

That post I linked to has a great plot summary – one that obviously convinced me to read this book. So check that out. But here’s a quick overview: Basically, it’s about Margaret Hale, a young woman who has been raised in genteel ways in the South of England. Her father uproots her small family to the Northern manufacturing city of Milton, where she becomes immersed in the lives of both the workers and the mill owners. The book tackles the tension between effective business strategy and social responsibility, and has so many things: unions, riots, a super intense love story (because come on), a mutiny, lots of death. If you can overcome the denser, of-the-past writing style and language, it becomes a page turner.

But I have one big irritation with this book, and that is this cover:


I generally prefer to buy classics as paper books because it’s easier to flip to the footnotes and explanatory text, and because something about the printed word helps me to better focus, which I frankly need with the denser writing. And yet it’s sort of embarrassing to read these books, especially British ones, especially ones written by female authors, because they have dorky covers like this one.

I don’t even get it. What is the deal with this cover? This book deals with trade unions and the struggle between laborers and mill owners in an industrializing society. There is a romance, but a lot else as well.

Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere are there ladies chilling with the laundry. You can tell by their dress that these are workers, but they don’t look or feel like the workers in the book, who are struggling men, women, and children pushed to their limits in cotton mills. These ladies better resemble Daisy and Ivy chatting about who is going to end up with Alfred (and yes, I realize Downton and this work are not contemporaries, and also that the Daisies and Ivies worked very hard as well, but whatever. My point is: these laundry ladies are not in this book. Ever. Also, the dude who plays Mr. Bates is a main character in the mini-series.)

I did a quick scan of google images for other North and South covers. Some are better than others.

Unknown-3 Unknown Unknown-4 Unknown-1Unknown-2

My favorites are the two that show the factory buildings. Those seem to do the best job of simply conveying the over-arching scene and tone. The dirty kids picture shows the hardship of the story, but misses a huge part of what the book is about. It makes it look like this is going to be a book solely about the workers, which it isn’t. And don’t get me started on the picture of the lady. Yes, Margaret Hale is the main character and yes, she is a lady-like creature, but this picture makes her look like she’s waiting to be served tea, instead of, you know, tending to dying people and getting injured in worker riots.

I feel like every time I want to read a British classic, the covers scream out: Boys stay away! People will be wearing corsets and talking about proposals! My copy of Middlemarch (still haven’t read for full disclosure), which is by all accounts a dense and rich book, basically shows some lady stretching and preening on the cover. It makes me feel both pretentious (hey look  at me! reading a classic here!) and embarrassed (this book is about girls! Talking about boys!). It makes me feel affected and fussy.

Now, I’m not saying the cover should be plastered with Keira Knightley’s face; those movie-based ones drive me crazy too. But it would be nice to have a cover that manages to be current without being anachronistic. I’d be happy with the industrial scenes there, but might be even more drawn to something that didn’t look so much like a schoolroom classic, that had a slightly more modern sensibility. Am I weird, or missing something?

Other than the cover, I like this edition a lot (first published by Oxford University Press in 1973, reissued in 2008). The 30-page introduction was a good way to clue me in to issues and themes I may have missed, and the chronology of Elizabeth Gaskell’s life was also helpful. I would love to find out the publisher’s thinking behind choosing a cover that seems so far removed from the book, but other than that found everything about this book – from the text to the footnote arrangement – to be readable.

I will confess ignorance and a complete lack of research into choices made by the publishing industry. What is the thinking behind many of these covers? Is there a reason they so often focus on ladies doing ladylike things? Also, any other classics I might love in equal measure? I’d desperately love to capture the magic of North and South again.

(Also, I just discovered this link, which covers the same thoughts, only in a much funnier way. I started writing my post before finding this one, so while my ideas aren’t original, they aren’t plagiarized. Nice to know I’m not the only one put off by some of these covers.)

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4 responses to “North and South: Don’t judge a book by its cover

  1. The original RLF

    Our Allen-Bradley UK operation was Headquartered in Milton-Keynes. So in a much later period, I visited many times. It is still a very industrial / non-romantic area of the UK.

  2. I am SO glad that you felt the same way about this book! I miss it! I miss Margaret and Mr. Thornton and Bessy and Nicholas. That passage you quoted at the beginning really does capture how so many people feel about reading the classics. But they are classics for a reason – they stand the test of time and someone reading it 200 years later still finds enough in them to relate and get something out of them.

    The covers. Oh the covers. I borrowed this book from the library (the penguin edition with the factory in the background) and I’ve been on the hunt for a version to own ever since. I keep coming across copies with covers like the ones you mention and I walk away. A book I love this much needs to have a cover I adore. Maybe I will just get the penguin classics version…I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers but we all do and that’s why they’re so important.

    If you’re looking for more Mrs. Gaskell, I would also recommend Wives and Daughters – there’s a stepmother/daughter relationship in there that is so excellent.

    • I miss them all too! Wives and Daughters is on my list … I need a little space first so I’m not just disappointed they aren’t all the same people, but I thought Mrs. Gaskell did such a great job weaving together all the stories and characters that I trust I will like other books by her as well! I also loved that everyone in this book was complex, and very few were strictly one-note except for the ones used as comic relief like Fanny (speaking of which, I watched episode one of the miniseries last night and the actress played her to perfection – her scene totally cracked me up)

      • I love that you are watching the miniseries too. They did such a great job on it. And you’re so right about her characters – they are each flawed and complex and not always likeable. They are so human. I think that’s why years later we’re still so in love with this book.

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