Please keep in mind that I’ve been working on this post on and off for about three months now. Some sections of this will be headed under different dates, as circumstances have differed since I first began writing this in February.
We’ve been having some really strange weather recently in the north of England; it poured with sleet and snow whilst I was on my driving lesson the other weekend for no reason what-so-ever. We’ve had instances where it’s been throwing it down with rain one minute and bitterly cold, and then bright and pleasantly warm in the direct sunlight the next.
One reason for this post was kindled the weekend it snowed. I came home after driving timidly in the snow feeling really jittery, and then tried to occupy myself with something other than sitting by the window like a huge child, watching the snow fall- as if I’d never seen the stuff before. Granted, we don’t see an awful lot of snow during the winter months in the area I live in, as it isn’t a ‘hilly’ area; so we usually get all the nasty sleet and cold rain instead.
To distract myself so successfully, I decided to sit and read something I had never read before: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’.
Initial appearances for those who don’t read classic texts often, in my opinion, would suggest that this text is a bit ‘stodgy’, for lack of a better word. There’s an awful lot of Northern dialect and long winded- though still detailed, descriptions, and passages of thought and speech from characters. However, I think this adds to its charm once you get used to the language and the way it is utilised. It shows that Gaskell was still perhaps tentative as a writer, and wasn’t used to being concise or ruthless when revising what she had written: which to me, as an aspiring writer who is making those mistakes now, gives me a sense of endearment, that it is okay to do what I’m doing and that I, in time, will improve.
Needless to say I fell in love with the book extremely quickly.
The fact that there’s a 2004 BBC adaptation starring Richard Armitage as Mr John Thornton hasn’t influenced me here at all. Nope, not one Iota.
(Yeah, that there was a wee white lie…)
Anyway, I felt really inspired after I’d read it, but didn’t really have a clue as to what to do with my creativity.
I’ve already done a couple of analysis’s of song lyrics and sections of text, as well as demonstrating my capabilities with art and photography, but now, I need to up my game. I recently began a sketchbook I’d labelled to be my ‘Working Journal’- in which it would act as such: a place for me to place any ideas, thoughts, events or sketches that I couldn’t process into my main work, and therein exploit its finest capabilities.
It’s now the official dumping ground for my mind and things I shan’t want to forget, basically.
So now that I had a place for my creative outlet to run wild, I then needed to create something.
Why not give myself a task to do, say treat it as an exam style question and then answer it through different mediums?
I looked at past AQA A2 English Literature questions for the Pastoral section. As I’ve been studying the Gothic section instead of the Pastoral, I’d say my knowledge on the subject is severely lacking and I’d need to do quite a bit of research. Coincidentally, I thought ‘North and South’ would have been a listed text for the Pastoral section, but it isn’t strangely. Not that I’m complaining, it just made finding a suitable exam question difficult, as I’d have to invent my own if I couldn’t find one to fit.
The AQA Literature exams are basically split into two questions: Section A and Section B.
Section A is where you choose one text you have studied and answer a question specific to that text. Section B is where you choose only ONE of three questions to pick from, and structure your answer around three texts you have studied prior to taking the examination.
Now as ‘North and South’ isn’t on the syllabus, I couldn’t choose a section A question, as they mainly involve a critics interpretation or a quote from the chosen text- therefore it wouldn’t apply to what I want to do. I only had the other option of looking at Section B questions, which give are more ambiguous.
Here are some that I particularly liked:
“To what extent does your reading of pastoral literature support the view that country life
is wholesome and good but life in town is morally corrupt?” – June 2013 AQA
‘“Happiness results when humans are in tune with their environment.”
Consider this view in relation to the texts you have been studying.’ – June 2011 AQA
“In what ways do you think pastoral writing could be said to challenge those in power?” – June 2011 AQA
“To what extent do you agree with the view that pastoral literature is “always an
expression of regret”?” – January 2013 AQA
I did look at combing two questions (those from June 2011) or using the June 2013 question, but after reading through them more carefully, I decided to go with the question from June 2011; I like the juxtaposition of the natural world and industrialisation within the pastoral and how that affects events and people in Gaskell’s novel. This would mean I could predominantly look at characters such as John Thornton and Margret Hale as ‘opposing’ forces for both the North and the South, and how changes in their behaviour could be effected by their environment. After my initial points I could also look at secondary characters such as Mrs Hale and Fanny Thornton in a similar manner.
My project on ‘North and South’ however, began in Knutsford.
Elizabeth Gaskell was born in the South, but married into a Northern family. Her husband, William Gaskell, lived in an area called Latchford which is just outside of Warrington in the North West of England. I found this interesting, because it mirrored Margret and John’s ‘journey’, so to speak, and it creates contextuality: did Gaskell base some of this novel off of her own life? I would say that in some instances, yes. The focus on religion and the supposed divide between the North and the South certainly seem influenced by Gaskell’s own experiences.
She, William, and their two daughters are buried in Knutsford beside the same chapel they married in. It seemed prudent that I could incorporate that into this investigation, and I went to visit the chapel myself. I manged also to take a few photo’s of the premises and the surrounding area that I could incorporate with the question I had set myself.
These were all taken on my phone (I love the camera on that thing, its fantastic!), and by altering the hue and saturation, you get these really psychedelic images were the grass is pink and and leaves purple…. there’s all sorts you can do with this.
I also thought they really linked back to the question I had chosen: Margret Hale travels from the idyllic Helstone to the bustling industrial setting of Milton. Milton is specified to be modeled on the city of Manchester in Gaskell’s time, as it was the main centre of textile production. Milton itself is where Marlborough Mill (under the direction of John Thornton) produces cotton fabric.
For Margret to move from a setting of viridity, to a monochrome environment of desolation shows that she is not in tune with her environment, and thus, she can not find happiness until she acclimatises or moves back towards areas akin to her “beloved” Helstone.
There is an old saying: ‘Home is where the heart is’ (I’m not too sure who the quote is by, but feel free to enlighten me if you do…). John’s growing affection for Margret that transpires into something infinite, and her eventual, resolute love for him show that perhaps happiness will ensue when one is aligned beside the environment they are placed in. John is most comfortable in Milton, at the mills, and in the class boundary he had worked hard to enter for the duration of his life after his father’s death. He is resolved to stay in Milton for the rest of his days, but his overwhelming love spurs him to visit ‘Margret’s’ Helstone, and to see why she longed for it so. Margret’s decision to stay with Thornton, despite the losses she has witnessed in Milton demonstrate that her home is where her heart lies, and if that happens to be with John Thornton in the desolate town of Milton, then so she shall remain there.
Perhaps this is what Gaskell felt when she first married; that now isolated from her family, and the area she had known growing up, she could really only remain where and to whom her heart was bound.
I like to think, in an idealised manner, that John and Margret found happiness in Milton, but sadly, we’ll never know as Gaskell had admitted in her notes to rushing the end of North & South.
After sufficiently showing my opinions, (I wanted to focus this less on a formal essay model, despite my use of a question to scaffold this around) I then honed in on other forms of experimentation. This meant delving into textiles and art.
The contrast between the rural and industrial settings worked its way into the pages I’d set aside for this project in my working journal- with harsh purple, blue and pink watercolor staining the pages, to represent the dyes the Marlborough mills used to colour their cottons with- the dyes that inadvertently coloured John Boucher’s skin as he drowned himself (A bit morose, I know…) Its also a reflection of the vibrancy Margret would have seen in her Helstone home.
The pages used mixed media, such as recycled sheet music, coffee and Washi tape; with sections of watercolour-dyed materials I had created to portray an ideal of how society was structured at the time- there were many different movements and contextual factors influencing society: using so many different mediums and bringing them together on the page was the driving force for this symbolism, so had to be reflected through any illustrations or trial pieces I wanted to produce.
Here are just a few of my finished research pages in the Working journal, with which my project had ended: