Scholars addressing the conflict between Elizabeth Gaskell and her editor Charles Dickens during the serialization of North and South tend to focus on her resistance to his heavy editorial hand or his chagrin at her less suspenseful style. This essay turns instead to their shared tendency to refer to fictional works-in-progress as alive yet mortal—a guiding metaphor that shapes the novel's morbid concluding themes. Dickens, as editor, understood what he called the “vitality” of Gaskell's fiction in terms of sustained readership, while Gaskell sensed that “Margaret”—both her protagonist and her eponymously named manuscript—lived in some way, and could therefore die should the novel fail artistically. These themes color the novel's conclusion, where we find not only the flaws that prompted Gaskell's fears of failure, but also a series of morbid meditations as the protagonist anticipates deathbed retrospection and regret. This study of Dickens and Gaskell's joint investment in the “life” and “death” of fiction, together with Margaret's morbid meditations and desire for atonement, allows us to read in North and South a collaborative yet contested meditation on the anticipated ends of serial fiction.

You do not currently have access to this content.