Dear Elizabeth Gaskell,
Please forgive any impudence or impropriety on my part for writing you. I realize this letter is terribly late, and will never reach you, but all the same I feel it must be written.
I have just today finished your wonderful novel, "North and South." I cannot tell you how profoundly moved I am by it. At first, it was just the romance between Margaret Hale and John Thornton that drew me in; what a splendid, passionate romance it is, to be sure. My own heart raced every time you spoke of Mr. Thornton's deeper feelings toward Margaret. Oh, wouldn't we all wish to be loved so thoroughly! But there were so many other details and twists in the story that captivated me, til I wished I could just crawl inside the pages and visit awhile.
Through her trials and suffering, Margaret has become like a sister to me, a 'kindred spirit,' to borrow a phrase from another ink-and-paper friend of mine. Though I know nothing of the great grief of losing both my parents, there were other misfortunes that she had occasion to reflect upon, and several of her thoughtful musings mirrored my own feelings in similar circumstances. It is a wonder to me, for we live worlds and centuries apart, and yet, had we met, we could have talked of many things. The bitterness of being displaced from a beloved town, only to find one's self in a seemingly less desirable place; the whirlwind of feelings one has on returning to an old home and finding it changed, as well as yourself; indeed, even the many conversations she has with herself about her faith and her conduct were so well written I could imagine and recall the times I have felt similarly.
John Thornton is a character unto himself, and I could write you pages in praise for creating such a man. He is far from perfect, I realize that quite well. Still, he is such a measured combination of strong, willful masculinity combined with the secondary, hidden, tenderhearted nature such as must make him the object of many a reader's deep affections. Just as he will love Margaret all the more for her own contempt and his mother's hate, we will love him all the more even when Margaret rejects him. But there is something else there, too; I found myself wishing in a self-pitying kind of way that a man like Mr. Thornton would sweep into my life and love me as recklessly and unrelentingly. But now I wonder if in some imperfect way, he was meant to be a metaphor--not an allegory, mind, but an illustration--of God's love. Even if that was unintentional, we still have the delight of seeing how much Thornton and Margaret effect one another, so that by the last chapters, we can see how each has altered enough for them to draw together in requited love.
I found a curious by-product of reading this novel was in appreciating the simple faith, sincere modesty, and chaste conduct of the characters. You will not know this, of course, but in my day romantic stories are everywhere. There are some cheap thrills to be found in them, I grant, but they pale in comparison to the story you weave. Couples of my day are portrayed as engaging in sexual liberties which would shock you--would certainly have shocked Margaret beyond words. It is commonplace here, though, and few even give it pause for thought. Though I myself have not experienced such things, I have become, in a sense, desensitized to the idea of others experiencing it. Then along comes your novel, like a breath of fresh summer air. The very tenderness with which Mr. Thornton recalled Margaret's arms about his neck and longed to feel them again--only that, no more, with none of the lewd, lurid insinuations that are all too familiar--nearly broke my heart. No era is perfect, but something in your story makes me yearn for a time when once again, the bare touch of two hands clasping would be considered a kind of pure intimacy.
There was also something in the very dignified manner in which both Margaret and Thornton conducted themselves that acted as a kind of conviction on me. Perhaps there are those would consider such a book "preachy," but I did not feel so. I felt their own exhortations to themselves in their sufferings to be a kind of clarion call to my own soul, to bear up and be strong even when my heart feels weak. They both strive for self-control, which again clashes in stark contrast with the common attitudes of people in my day. Here, we wish to deny ourselves nothing. We vent our feelings in haste and spout our opinions for the world to see, and we do not like to wait or be told no. We are like large, spoiled children who expect to have our wishes granted and cry bitterly when they are not, as they inevitably cannot be. Would that we were all a little more patient, willing to accept the consequences of our own actions, and had a bit more restraint--like the heroes you created. Your characters held strong convictions which did not sway, and yet true to life, they experienced doubt, despair, and reproach. Both had enough failings and short-sightedness despite their best efforts, yet this softens them in our eyes and makes them relatable. They spoke honestly and called out the best not only in each other, but in those around them, to the best of their abilities. Well, excepting perhaps Fanny and Edith, the silly girls.
And so I express all this for the purpose of acknowledging my gratitude. Thank you for writing this novel, which I only discovered last month, and which I have been greedily devouring for the past two weeks. I only wish there was a bit more to the end--but I am sure you will not see that as a criticism, for as an author myself I know the flattering effect the clamor for "More!" produces. And in truth, it left me feeling curiously satisfied, as most novels do not. It has left an impression on me, one I will not soon forget. Aside from all that I have already reveled in, I must confess that I was somewhat surprised in yet another way. I am a lifelong reader and book lover, from a very young age. Yet now, in my thirties, I find myself still amazed at discovering new books--and from their pages, new friends--new stories to love, treasure up, and learn from. If I were to write a letter of thanks to every author whose work has touched me as yours has, I would still be busy indeed. Perhaps I write to you tonight because your story is still fresh and vivid in my mind, or perhaps because I am sure not to offend or irritate you, as you will never read this. I almost wish you could, because I should like you to know how much I enjoyed your book. But then I suspect you are far beyond the need of any praise from earthly man (or woman). Perhaps much later, on some eternal day hence, we will be able to sit and talk of John and Margaret like old friends, and that would be pleasant.
Until such a day, I will be content with sharing my praise of your work with the world--or at least, the few dozen people or so who might ever read this.
I remain Your Grateful Reader,