North and South

Anne Perry considers her favourite book, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, and the cross-country move in her childhood that makes her feel so connected to it.

by Anne Perry

Although I now call London home, I was born eight thousand miles away, in a sunny, sprawling city famous for being the place people want to get to, not leave from. And I didn’t want to leave it myself; we moved away from Los Angeles for family reasons when I was ten. It was a painful break and marked the beginning of a long period of upheaval and uncertainty for my parents – soon to be only my mother – and me.

So it’s very likely that I love Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 novel North and South as much as I do because of how perfectly it expresses the wrenching sense of loss one experiences upon leaving a beloved home. Margaret Hale, the protagonist, is 18 when she and her family are forced to leave Helstone, their home in the rural south of England, for a crowded industrial city, Milton – a thinly veiled Manchester – where they have a hard time adjusting. Margaret deals with a difficult present by romanticising her old life at the expense of her new one. By the end of the novel, however, when she returns to Helstone on a sentimental day trip, Margaret discovers not only that it is very changed from the way she remembered it, but also not quite the picture of pastoral peace she had told herself it was. ‘And I too change perpetually,’ she reminds herself, as she finally leaves Helstone behind, ‘now disappointed and peevish because all is not exactly as I had pictured it.’ She resolves never to return, and is surprised to find herself longing for Milton.

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I, too, was guilty of romanticising my past, and of taking years to realise it. My journey was, in its details, the opposite of Margaret’s: I moved from a huge city in Southern California to a tiny, rural town in the north. Where once I had felt connected to something larger and more interesting than myself, where I knew my place and felt I fit in, I now felt isolated and alien. I responded by imagining the day I could leave my new town behind and move back to Los Angeles, and return to the life I had left behind. My goal was to get accepted to a college in Los Angeles; I spent seven years dreaming about the day I could knock the dust of my current home off my boots and go back to the place where life had once made sense.

Like Margaret, I eventually came to understand that my desire was an impossible one. As I grew older I became more aware of the difference between the Los Angeles of my memory and Los Angeles the city: a pretty place where I had once been happy was also a vast, complicated nervous system of freeways and politics and urban sprawl and violence, of beaches and droughts and tourists and self-conscious mythologisation about the idea of Los Angeles. The Rodney King beating, the LA Riots, the OJ Simpson trial all shook my faith in my cherished memories of Los Angeles. I slowly had to come to terms with the fact that my sun-warmed recollections were nothing more than a child’s narrow view of a huge, multilayered whole.
And, like Margaret, I came to appreciate what my current home offered me. The little town where I lived was indeed isolated, but it was also nestled in the heart of a beautiful, hilly area; I had the freedom and independence to explore it in a way a teenaged girl really couldn’t in the centre of an urban industrialised area. Like Margaret Hale, I discovered an antidote to ill humour and restlessness in long walks. In the seven years I lived in that small town, I must have hiked hundreds of miles worth of circles around it. I’d pick a direction and walk until I’d tired myself out, or choose some landmark – a boulder, a stand of trees – and hike until I found it. I’d come home with my backpack full of turkey buzzard feathers, rocks, and poor sketches of wildflowers I hadn’t been able to identify. My ankles were constantly red and scratched from the sharp heads of the foxtail seedpods that worked their way through my socks, and checking the dog for ticks became a regular pastime. An unsettled and unhappy teenager otherwise, it was in these long walks that I found some measure of peace.

But it wasn’t until I started receiving acceptances to colleges that I finally had to confront the degree to which I’d romanticised my past. I was accepted to a college in Los Angeles, and I was accepted to a college in Chicago. In visiting Los Angeles not as a starry-eyed visitor, but with a view towards beginning my adult life there, I found that it no longer held the appeal for me it once had. I had left as a ten-year-old; I returned at age seventeen to discover that it was as traffic-clogged and smoggy and superficial and anonymous as every other city. Buildings I remembered fondly had been altered or torn down, and even my old house had been remodelled and repainted: the lemon trees in the front yard were gone, and the huge, colourful bed of impatiens my mother had so cherished had been ripped out. The city was still beautiful and warm and vibrant and alive, but in my time away I’d come to value the freedom and independence I’d discovered elsewhere. Like Margaret, in her last visit to Helstone in the final pages of North and South, I learned that Los Angeles was far greater than the sum of my rose-tinted memories of it, and began the long process of making my peace with the idea that I could never get back what I had lost.

The decision between Chicago and Los Angeles was ultimately not as difficult as it might have been. I felt something during my campus visit to Chicago – I mean, something besides a very cold wind – that I had not felt on my final visit to Los Angeles. I felt a spark of that same freedom and independence I’d learned to value on hundreds of solitary hikes during my adolescence. I was finally forced to confront the obvious but no less surprising realisation that I was not the person I had been when my family had packed up and left LA, seven years earlier. The person I had become no longer wanted what the child I had been had left behind. I had learned in the intervening years what Elizabeth Gaskell explored so sensitively nearly a hundred and fifty years earlier. Everything changes, and so do we. There is no going back.


Anne Perry | @fingersofgod

Anne Perry is an editor at Hodder & Stoughton. She spends most of her free time thinking about monster movies.

 

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