I believe that books come with an implied caveat: no book is perfect, and all authors toil under constraints, whether financial, temporal, or editorial. The hope is that the best product achievable under these conditions reaches the reader, who assesses whether the book is worth the cost of purchasing it and the time spent reading it.
It isn’t every day I come across a novel that begins with an explicit disclaimer, though, like the one in the introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell’s mid-19th Century novel, North and South, which explains that its appearance in weekly installations in Charles Dickens’ magazine, Household Words, made it “impossible [for Gaskell] to develope (sic) the story in the manner originally intended, and, more especially…[it] compelled [her] to hurry on events with an improbable rapidity towards the close.” So, the 1855 volume contains added paragraphs and chapters and this plea: “With this brief explanation, the tale is commended to the kindness of the reader.”
This classic, which I decided to read after watching the BBC’s excellent 2004 television adaptation on Netflix Streaming, needs no mercy. It’s a compelling portrayal of class conflict in an industrializing world and a satisfying romance between Margaret Hale, a young woman from the genteel south of England, and John Thornton, a self-made northern man who runs a cotton mill on the verge of a strike. Ms. Gaskell’s writing is a pleasure to read (and available for free on Kindle), and I agree with Brooke from The Blog of Litwits that Gaskell’s work is “some of the most accessible Victorian literature.”
Interestingly, Elizabeth Gaskell had intended to title this novel Margaret Hale, but assented to Charles Dickens’ suggestion that, “North and South appears to me to be a better name… It implies more, and is expressive of the opposite people brought face to face by the story.” The final title, as Julia Sun-Joo Lee suggests in The Return of the ‘Unnative’: The Transnational Politics of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (2007), may have encouraged readers to analyze Gaskell’s work “along the domestic axis,” even though, as Lee argues, “Frederick [Margaret’s brother] introduces an international context to a novel that has traditionally been read in national terms.”
Undoubtedly, the title is important; it introduces and frames the content for the reader. In this case, it is possible that Dickens’ title unjustifiably raised the prominence of the Northern–Southern conflict in England above other themes, such as the international context and Margaret Hale’s personal growth. Or maybe Dickens was exactly right.
Putting this novel aside, I am left wondering to what degree editors should control the most important aspects of a book, such as the title. Obviously, the answer will depend on the author, the book, and the editor.
These days, with the growing availability and legitimacy of self-publishing avenues, authors have more control than ever before. That can be good, as long as authors know their limitations and accept constructive criticism. It’s frustrating and disappointing when a novel doesn’t quite reach its potential because it lacks the cutting and polishing (such as a new title) that a good editor can provide.
PS. The pictures from our recent visit to Chanticleer in suburban Philadelphia are not of roses, which Margaret describes as “growing all over” Helstone, but this garden is as enchanting as Margaret’s idealized memory of her hometown (be sure to check out Donna’s pictures and commentary on Chanticleer on her blog, Garden Walk Garden Talk).
PPS. For those who have read Pride and Prejudice and North and South: Mr. Darcy or Mr. Thornton? 😉