North and South or Margaret Hale: How Much Control Should Authors Have?

Chanticleer Top

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.”

North and South ThumbnailThis 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? 😉

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  1. North and South is my favorite novel. I never tire of going back for snatches or to read an entire chapter! Mr. Thornton will always be my chosen romantic hero. I don’t feel Austen really lets us get to know Darcy very well. Gaskell, in contrast, lets us in his head and I love it there!! He’s suffered so much and has worked so hard. I can’t pass up on a self-made man. Darcy can have his lovely garden-filled life. I’ll go live in Milton with Thornton! lol!
    I think Dickens in this case had a very legitimate reason for changing the title of the book. It was for marketing purposes. I think ‘North and South’ gives the potential reader at least a suggestion of a tale that encompasses a broad scope of the nation and her changing regions.
    It’s a personal mission of mine to try to promote to other both the book and the BBC mini-series. Everyone has heard of Darcy, but Thornton (in my mind) is so much more fascinating!
    I had three beta readers for my self-published novel, including a British English teacher who checked for Americanisms. I acknowledge my novice status, but I had shared my N&S sequel on the Internet at C19 and Wattpad to great success before I decided to put it up for sale.
    My favorite N&S continuation story is at C19. “Pack Clouds Away” is beautifully written and continues on from the book ending in a manner that seems very similar to Gaskell’s writing.

  2. Mr Thorton! Though I absolutely love Mr Darcy and Pride and Prejudice, North and South has this special place in my heart that cannot be taken away. And, I love Mr Thorton even more after watching the BBC drama (which I loved, despite the shortened end that upset me a little), his little smile at the end when he asks “you come home with me?” is just too adorable to resist!

    North and South is an amazing book. I found it very easy to read, and I am not an english speaker to begin with. Elizabeth Gaskell’s style is really smooth and kind of addictive. I started the book and read it all in a day, unlike Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre which is very hard to finish. I wish more people could realize how good of a book it is! Pride and Prejudice always get all the love, but North and South is a jewel too!

    1. I loved the BBC miniseries! It was the reason I decided to read the book, which I also found very easy to read (much to my surprise!). I thought Gaskell’s writing style was going to be more like Bronte’s writing style in Jane Eyre, which I love, but takes some getting used to. Thanks for the comment!

  3. The north/south divide in England remains as clearly defined as ever – though it’s rather perpetuated through mischievous stereotyping. Communities in general seem to have a need for maintaining artificial rival groups to fortify their own sense of belonging.
    On Chanticleer I see it was only dedicated to the public in recent years – applause for all those land and property owners that have seen their way clear to doing so rather than locking themselves away behind their walls.

    1. It sounds similar to the North/South divide in the US. I didn’t realize Chanticleer opened to the public so recently. I’m glad it did! It’s a stunning garden, and the admission is affordable.

  4. I struggled at first with this book but once I got into it I really enjoyed it! Wow..tough call..I would probably vote for Thornton because I think he evolves a lot throughout the course of the story in important ways..Darcy is a good guy he is just proud but he treats his tenants and servants well. Thornton is proud as well but he doesn’t understand or see the plight of his workers until the end of the story..and grows to be more caring because of Margaret.

    1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it! I was comfortable with Gaskell’s writing from the beginning (it took me longer to adjust to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which I love, but mostly for the second half). I like Thornton, too. He didn’t always lead such a privileged life and, as you said, he evolves more in the story than Darcy does. Have you seen the BBC miniseries?

  5. Thank you very much for the link to GWGT. I love your photos of Chanticleer and will be in Philadelphia in a few weeks and will be sure to visit the gardens. The photo of your children is so darn cute. I bet everyone who knows them wants to gently pinch those cute little cheeks.

    I really agree with your statement, ” 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.” Even as one with no authority or even experience on writing, I can tell when a piece is not polished. I assume it is frustrating to an author to have their work “worked” over, but it makes for better reading from the standpoint of the reader. Sometimes I wish I had an editor for blog posts. I know when I rework them over and over, they are better, but I never have the time.

    1. You’re welcome! You have such beautiful pictures of Chanticleer–I wanted to share them! My girls had a great time exploring the gardens. It’s a great place, which I learned about from you.
      As for books, yes, it can be very obvious when a book could’ve used an editor (or a better one). I don’t mind paying a small sum to read unpolished works (as long as it’s in pretty good shape), but the more money it is, the more shine I expect.

  6. Gorgeous pics — I love the one at the top of the post, the one with so many colors!
    The question of editing interests me, no so much in the sense of copyediting, but in the editorial selection process — in choosing what to publish. I find it difficult to look at my own work and try to pick out what others would find the most interesting aspects of a diverse body of writing. In some ways, I’d love to have an editor tell me what are the best and worst qualities of my work, but I don’t know if those decisions are ever more than personal/subjective whims. I’m sure an editor could tell me what parts of my writing would be the most commercially successful, but then, I’m not sure that commercial success should be the only way of judging a body of work. I wonder how any of the Great Writers — for example, poets, whose work would be severable — ever decided which of their writings should be collected and which shouldn’t.

    1. Thank you! Chanticleer is a beautiful place. As for the selection process, I don’t have any experience with it, but my guess is that it’s entirely subjective and probably largely based on what will sell. I love reading memoirs and letters from great writers, and maybe those types of materials would shed light on the issue you’ve raised.

  7. These kind of books usually aren’t my cup of tea, but I was intrigued about the occupation of the man who is the main character working at a cotton mill. Cotton Mills existed all over the south and other places obviously because it was just where folks worked in the 19-20 century, etc . There are some towns I have learned through doing genealogy that thrived because of only a cotton mill. Everyone and their brothers worked at one. I never thought of it being in a romantic book though. haha
    In regards to publishing, I do agree with the fact many books probably need to be edited and reedited 100 times before being published. I am frightened about that very aspect of my own book. It may never get published because of that alone.

    1. Hi, Alesia! There is a connection to American cotton production in this book (I think Lee’s article, which I mentioned in this post, talks about it a bit). Mr. Thornton isn’t a worker, though. He runs the mill.

      1. Yes. I understood that. It was a HUGE responsibility too. One genealogy study I did the person I was investigating for a family member ran this whole mill in small town Alabama and then something happened and he lost everything. It was weird because he went to having everything to having nothing when he lost his job at the cotton mill as the guy who “ran” it. Man …Maybe I need to read this book now..haha

    1. It would be a great place to read a novel, and there are benches and chairs throughout the gardens, but I don’t really get a chance to relax when we’re exploring new places with the kiddos.

  8. Editors working for publishers are bound by the “house style” and other edicts; these differ from publisher to publisher.

    Freelance editors know enough not to screw with your writing style, but they’ll go farther to help an author polish their work. No good editor will “slash and burn” anyone’s manuscript.

    However, it must be noted, an editor will generally NOT tell an author their manuscript sucks, either. That would be cutting off a source of income, and editors these days don’t get paid nearly enough to afford the luxury of telling someone they can’t and shouldn’t write.

    1. Interesting! Are there many authors out there you think can’t and shouldn’t write? So far, the biggest issue I see with the self-published books I’ve read (most of which I haven’t discussed on this blog) is that there’s a lot of potential but it could have used another edit (just one reader’s opinion, obviously, and maybe their writing just isn’t my taste). I haven’t come across many books with no redeeming qualities, and actually, the worst books I’ve read in the last year were traditionally published (partly due to higher expectations and the amount of money I paid for those crappy books).

      1. I do think some authors are getting published who aren’t ready yet. We were all new writers once, but we learn and get better and eventually, we’re ready. I’ve edited countless badly-written books; when they finally get released, if they are enjoyable at all, it’s because one or more editors fixed it enough to be publishable. Being published should mean something. It should say you write well and tell a good story. It should say you’ve learned your craft well enough to be offered a contract. If just anyone can get published, then being published doesn’t mean anything anymore.

        1. It would be nice if a publishing contract meant “you write well and tell a good story,” but it seems to be related more to luck than to anything else. With a traditionally published book, one that I presume received little attention because it wasn’t marked as a big ticket item, I can expect to find few typos but little else. Those books are often okay (maybe thanks to editors like you!), but are they worth more than $10 for an ebook? Meanwhile, I can buy an edited self-published book for a lot less and it’s usually just as good as (or better than) the mid-list traditionally published books.

          1. Authors who take themselves seriously, whether they self-publish or take the traditional route, wouldn’t think of releasing something that hadn’t been beta’d or edited. Unfortunately, there are still some self-published authors who don’t think this is important, which is why you sometimes buy a book that reeks. When purchasing from Amazon, always “look inside.” And if the blurb is badly punctuated/written, give it a pass. I don’t think trad publishers often release poorly edited books, but it happens. People quit without notice, deadlines loom… and in that case, a manuscript might be rushed through the process, resulting in typos and bad punctuation. Unfortunately, the world isn’t perfect.

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