Defining Pastoral in 'North and South'

Daniel Brass


The 2003 reissue of the Penguin Classics edition of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South reproduces on its cover William Cowen’s 1849 painting of a small rural enclave, complete with a collapsing wall, a derelict house, a verdant lawn and resting cattle. The vast landscape stretches into a background dominated by dry, dusty earth, which extends to an industrial city with chimneys belching smoke into the grey-brown sky. The cover illustration draws attention to the significance of place in the novel’s structure. The “north” lies in the distance in Cowen’s painting; the “south” occupies the foreground, preserved from radical industrialisation. Yet it is impossible to separate the pastoral from the industrial. They contrast, but the contrast is based on mutual dependence. The pastoral foreground is a remnant of an agrarian past, a museum-piece confronted by the new industrial norm depicted in the background. The identity of each depends on its contrast with the other. Moreover, the artist’s view of these different environments is ambiguous. The lush foreground contains a patch that is gloomy and slightly threatening; the industrial background is suffused with light, and can be read as a promised land glowing on the horizon.

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