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Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South[i

            While conversing with a colleague about the great English novelist, Jane Austen, she asked what I thought of Elizabeth Gaskell. I told her that I knew the name but had not read any of her works. My colleague then recommended that I start with North and South, and I am glad I did. Besides being a captivating story, Gaskell’s social novel has numerous passages that are an insightful commentary on three prominent issues: the new industrialists, Victorian attitudes toward sex, and the role of women in society.

North and South is a social novel, first published serially in twenty weekly episodes from September, 1854 to January, 1855 in Charles Dickens’ Household Words. It is the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman whose family must leave the south of England and live in the fictional northern industrial town of Milton. The novel plots her sense of loss due to the departure from her rural home, her horror at the conditions of the workers in Milton, and her change from a middle- and upper-class prejudice against industrialists and industrial society to a qualified admiration of the industrialists while recognizing the need for reforms. Inextricably intertwined with these changes are the ups and downs of the romance between Margaret and the industrialist John Thornton.

The New Industrialists

            Margaret begins as strongly biased against the new industrialists. This negative attitude unfortunately conflates her social and class prejudice with an admirable distress at the sufferings of factory workers and an associated distaste for the noise, hurry, and pollution of industrial urban life. The initial change becomes clear in Chapter XX “Men and Gentlemen.” At a party hosted by John Thornton and his mother, Margaret’s adverse reaction reveals the tastes of her middle- and upper-class background. “Margaret, with her London cultivated taste, felt the number of delicacies to be oppressive. … Every corner seemed filled up with ornament, until it became a weariness to the eye” (159). In other words, the party displayed a crude and vulgar ostentation of those who were wealthy but lacked the true social graces of elite society.

In addition, Margaret despised the women’s “taking notes of the dinner and criticizing each other’s dresses” (161) (As if their conversation were much different than the higher-class women, including her cousin Edith, as portrayed at the beginning of the novel!). However, she found the men’s business discussions more interesting and noticed that Thornton’s “whole manner, as master of the house, and entertainer of his friends, was so straightforward, yet simple and modest, as to be thoroughly dignified” (161).

Her appreciation was not just for Thornton, although he was clearly the focus of her attention, but it was also for the industrialists as a group. “She liked the exultation in the sense of power which these Milton men had. It might be rather rampant in its display, and savour of boasting; but still they seemed to defy the old limits of possibility, in a kind of fine intoxication, caused by the recollection of what had been achieved, and what yet should be.” While she had her doubts about them, “… still there was much to admire in their forgetfulness of themselves and the present, in anticipated triumphs over all inanimate matter at some future time which none of them should live to see” (162).

This leads to her conversation with Thornton in which he expresses his dislike of the term gentleman and the values represented by it. “I take it that ‘gentleman’ is a term that only describes a person in his relation to others; but when we speak of him as a ‘man,’ we consider him not merely in regard to his fellow-men, but in relation to himself, – to life – to time – to eternity.” Citing examples from literature and history, Thornton claims that the man

    “has his endurance, his strength, his faith, best described by being spoken of as a ‘man.’ I am

rather weary of this word ‘gentlemanly,’ which seems to me to be often inappropriately used,

and often, too, with such exaggerated distortion of meaning, while the full simplicity of the

noun ‘man,’ and the adjective ‘manly’ are unacknowledged – that I am induced to class it with

the cant of the day” (163).

With this strongly worded statement, Thornton shows his forceful rejection of a society, Margaret’s society, based upon birth and property as a means of status, rather than one that gives approval to a man who is successful and wealthy.

Another important section on the new men and the new society, even new civilization, that the industrial revolution was giving birth to is found in Chapter XL “Out of Time.” Thornton and Dr. Bell, an Oxford professor and Margaret’s godfather, disagree over the contrasting values of “north and south.”

Dr. Bell criticizes the Milton men, even though he is from Milton, for two interrelated reasons. First, is the speed of life, which does not allow for considering the past to guide us in the present.

    “But I’m tired of this bustle. Everybody rushing over everybody, in their hurry to get rich. …

It’s the bustle and the struggle they like. As for sitting still, and learning from the past, or

shaping out the future by faithful work done in the prophetic spirit … I don’t believe there’s a

man in Milton who knows how to sit still …” (323).

His second criticism is the pursuit of money, already mentioned in the previous quotation. “I wonder when you Milton men intend to live. All your lives seem to be spent in gathering together the materials for life.” They should be seeking the “enjoyment of leisure—enjoyment of the power and influence which money gives. You are all striving for money. What do you want it for?” (325). In other words, the Milton men have confused a means with an end and so can never stop in their striving or be satisfied.

Thornton tellingly admits, “I really don’t know. But money is not what I strive for” (325), but then he contends for a profoundly different culture than Bell’s. It is worth quoting in full.

    “Remember, we are a different race to the Greeks, to whom beauty was everything, and to

whom Mr. Bell might speak of a life of leisure and serene enjoyment, much of which entered

in through their outward senses. I don’t mean to despise them, any more than I would ape

them. But I belong to Teutonic blood. … We retain more of their spirit; we do not look upon

life as a time for enjoyment, but as a time for action and exertion. Our glory and our beauty

arise out of our inward strength, which makes us victorious over material resistance, and over

greater difficulties still” (326).

In response to Bell’s saying that they do not reverence the past, Thornton appeals to the crisis created by the massive social and economic changes caused by the industrial revolution, a crisis that demands immediate action.

    “If we do not reverence the past as you do in Oxford, it is because we want something that can

apply to the present more directly. It is fine when a study of the past leads to a prophecy of the

future. But to men groping in new circumstances, it would be finer if the words of experience

could direct us how to act in what concerns us most intimately and immediately; which is full

of difficulties that must be encountered; and upon the mode in which they are met and

conquered – not merely pushed aside for the time – depends our future. Out of the wisdom of

the past help us over the present. But no! People can speak of Utopia much more easily than of

the next day’s duty; and yet when that duty is all done by others, who so ready to cry, ‘Fie, for

shame’” (327)!

I quote these statements at length because they show the intelligence and depth of Gaskell’s reflections on the complexity of the social issues of her day. It is relatively easy to stand apart and point out the negative consequences and the abuses of industrialization. Gaskell agrees with these concerns and critiques the abuses. However, speaking through both Bell and Thornton, she demonstrates that she understands that a new type of society and culture is being born. The challenge, and maybe an insuperable one, is that such a society needs men who by conserving the good of the older traditions can utilize them for the new era when at the same time the character of the new era contradicts the way of life that fostered those traditions. In many ways, “the Oxford men” are conservatives who enter into and enjoy or rest in a tradition, just as they enjoy and contemplate nature. “The Milton men” see life as a challenge and struggle to control it and shape their surroundings, not just human social conventions but nature and material existence.

Sexual Passions

            I shall deal more briefly with the last two issues. Both John Thornton and Margaret Hale feel that romantic passions are problematic and need to be controlled. Gaskell describes Thornton’s “struggle for self-control” and his realization that “he loved her sorely in spite of himself” (XL, 324). Indeed, romantic love was painful for him. “He had known what love was – a sharp pang, a fierce experience, in the midst of those flames he would fight his way out in the serenity of middle age – all the richer and more human for having known this great passion” (XL, 328). So, even though the experience of love made one “richer and more human,” Thornton views it as something to be overcome, just as the rest of material existence. Margaret also sees love as a challenge to her self-control. “But I won’t care for him. I surely am mistress enough of myself to control this wild, strange, miserable feeling” (XXXIX, 321). So, both look upon romantic passions as something of a threat that needed to be subdued.

However, as a woman, Margaret experienced sexual passion as problematic in an additional way. When Henry Lennox expressed his desire to marry her, “… Margaret felt guilty and ashamed of having grown so much into a woman as to be thought in marriage” (4:34). The feeling of guilt and shame by a woman because she was sexually attractive to a man and ready for consideration as a mate would seem to mean that the Victorian woman had a negative view about her sexuality and sexual relations. Perhaps, at best it was only a regrettable necessity for fulfilling her real calling, which was to be a wife and mother.

In this shame over her sexuality, Margaret Hale differs from Jane Austen’s heroines. Certainly, Marianne Dashwood’s romantic passion or “sensibility” in Sense and Sensibility was seen as dangerous. However, none of her female characters were ashamed of becoming an object of interest for marriage. In fact, they were glad of it because it meant that they were going to be on a secure social and economic footing. Is this, perhaps, the difference between a Regency novelist and a Victorian one?

The Place of Women[ii]

            As has already been noted, Margaret did not enjoy, even despised somewhat, the chit-chat of women’s conversations and their delight at the minutia of wedding planning. At the Thorntons’ party she preferred the men’s conversations about business. When Thornton visits her father, who was his tutor, she actively engages in the discussion of political and social, regularly disagreeing forcefully with Thornton.

In chapter XXII “A Blow and Its Consequences” she shames Thornton into confronting face-to-face the rioting strikers and, when his life is threatened, puts herself in harms way to protect him. Such public action went beyond mere philosophical discussions or personal persuasion. It was well beyond what would be expected, even approved of, for a Victorian woman.

In the end, Margaret uses a considerable sum of money inherited from Dr. Bell to save Thornton’s failing business. Gaskell’s telling of the scene portrays expertly a woman stepping into the realm of commerce and is also deliciously romantic. Here is how she constructs the scene.

She begins with an explicit contrast between Margaret and her cousin Edith. In preparation for the meeting between Margaret and Thornton, Henry Lennox asks Edith to use a room in her house, where Margaret is staying. When Edith hears that the meeting is to be about investments and land, she says, “You and she will be unbearably stupid, if you’ve been talking all this time about such weary things,” and then adds, “I can’t understand details, so don’t give them me” (LII, 423). Lennox does not show up for the meeting, but Margaret is able on her own to manage the documents and understands financial matters such as interest rates and security. Even the use of the money inherited from an Oxford man follows her earlier suggestion that Oxford and Milton should work together. Clearly, Gaskell wants us to admire Margaret as a woman who can act independently in business, an area that was just for men. Just as clearly, she has little use for the flighty and superficial Edith.

Margaret is nervous, wishing that Lennox had been there to help with the business arrangements, but there is a much deeper reason for her anxiety. She wants to have her proposal “looked upon in the light of a mere business arrangement, in which the principal advantage would be on her side” (LII, 424). The motive for this is in part to help Thornton save face, but clearly their romantic feelings for one another, so long denied and combatted, pervades the atmosphere of the whole scene. In response to Margaret’s business proposal, Thornton speaks to her, his voice “trembling with tender passion,” and she willingly and gladly succumbs to her own romantic passions and accepts his marriage proposal (LII, 424).

It is a lovely romantic scene but do notice that it affirms the place of marriage and means that Margaret’s resignation that “the hopes of womanhood have closed for me” (XXIX, 315) is no longer necessary. Still, it is difficult to imagine her meekly sitting in the corner of the drawing room knitting and not being a partner to her husband in business and, certainly not, a silent partner!


            I highly recommend Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South. It is an excellent story, well told, that also offers serious reflections on mid nineteenth century Victorian England, the place of women in society, and the challenges of industrialization. I encourage Jane Austen fans to try Gaskell if you have not. Although Gaskell does not display the wit, humor, and charm of Austen, North and South does contain Austen’s psychological and romantic interests in a different context. I look forward to reading more of her novels and am definitely going to check out the 2004 BBC adaptation in our library.

[i] Quotations are taken from the Penguin Class edition of 2003, edited and with an introduction by Patricia Ingham.

[ii] If it is necessary to give a spoiler alert for a nearly 150-year-old classic, then here it is. Some parts of the ending are given away.

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