- “Looking South”:Envisioning the European South in North and South
Stricken with the flu and acutely disappointed by the negative reviews and controversies swirling around Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell in 1852 wrote wistfully to a friend of a fanciful “long sail along the Mediterranean, slowly and lazily floating” away from “this England full of literal and metaphorical nipping east wind” (Letters 224).1 It was with notes of defeat, even bitterness, that she swore she would “never get that,” and her hopes that her correspondent might one day embark on such a journey only just tempered her tacit acrimony. She was, happily, wrong. In the spring of 1857, five years after confessing her Mediterranean fantasies, Gaskell and her husband traveled to Rome by boat from Marseilles, staying for approximately a month among old friends. Though in the interim she had published the well-received North and South (1855), her enthusiasm very much harkened back to the demoralized author of Ruth, uncertain of her literary reputation and dependent on dreams for solace. Announcing her intentions to Evelyn Story, she wrote: “We are really truly coming to Rome!!!!!!…I don’t believe it. It is a dream! I shall never believe it, and shall have to keep pinching myself” (Letters 445).
Gratuitous exclamation points aside, Gaskell’s correspondence demonstrates not only an academic interest in the southern latitudes, but also a sincere emotional investment in their regenerative, or at least escapist, capacities. In keeping with its dichotomous title, I intend to read North and South in a transnational register organized along latitudinal rather than longitudinal lines.2 Furthermore, I limit my critical scope primarily to Europe while simultaneously expanding the term to include the liminal Mediterranean: literally medius + terra, or middle-land (OED). Like the author herself—who at the time of writing had yet to travel to Rome—Gaskell’s heroine Margaret Hale experiences southern Europe (i.e., Cadiz, Corfu, and the northern Mediterranean) from a twofold remove. The possibility of an immediate, first-person engagement (or “really truly coming to Rome!!!!!!”) is consistently referenced but continuously deferred, subsumed [End Page 406] instead under Margaret’s correspondence with her cousin Edith, lately moved to Corfu with her military husband. Margaret must therefore envision the European south, imaginatively constructing it based on epistolary description. Given this epistemology, Margaret’s Corfu continually shifts from dot on a map to escapist fantasy, a ruminative space rather than a political entity with its own social, cultural, and economic reality. Just as Margaret’s Grecian fantasies eclipse Corfu’s obliquely-referenced status within contemporary geopolitics, her nebulous idea of the southern Spanish city of Cadiz (the adopted home of her seafaring brother, Frederick) at first obscures its distinct cultural and linguistic identity under the veneer of quaintness and charm. In North and South—and in “Modern Greek Songs,” a Household Words article Gaskell penned in 1854— this slippage between consciousness of the south as both a real geographic location and a reservoir for reflection bears on temporal as well as spatial conceptions of the relationship between northern and southern Europe. I would suggest that, in both works, Gaskell constructs a geographic teleology, aligned along a north-south axis, that repositions the south as a preservative echo of the north’s past; this temporality, in turn, carves out the south as a figurative site for nostalgia and recollection. At the same time, this supposedly dehistoricized and apolitical European south exerts extant cultural influence on North and South’s English transplants, who return to their homeland bearing the marks of partial assimilation. With this specter of “going native,” Gaskell ironizes Margaret’s (and perhaps her own) romanticized notions of the Mediterranean, threatening northern ideas of southern Europe as purely regenerative—a transparent landscape onto which English men and women could effortlessly graft themselves.
To this end, I will begin with North and South’s secondhand representation of Corfu, and the ways in which Edith and Margaret, as writer and reader, drain the Mediterranean of its sociopolitical, cultural, and economic content, leaving only an empty space for leisure and nostalgia. I then discuss the ways in which Greece’s representation in “Modern Greek Songs” bears on Gaskell...