North and South (1854)
By Elizabeth Gaskell
For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay. It was all the darker from contrast with the pale gray-blue of the wintry sky; …Nearer to the town the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all, more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long strait, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick. Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up , like a hen among her chickens, puffing out black ‘unparliamentary’ smoke, and sufficiently accounting for the cloud which Margaret had taken to foretell rain.
Gaskell is an important 19thcentury social realist and her work is standard fare in the equivalent of high school in the UK. I chose to read this at the behest of a British friend because I was touring the North of England and he recommended it as an introduction to the differences between North and South England. These differences are more subtle than the North/South distinction in the US – their wars are far further in the past than our own Civil War, but there are broad similarities: the center of economic and cultural power was in one region (in England it was the South, centered around London, but including Oxford and Cambridge. The North is Manchester, Leeds, York and many smaller industrial centers. It is the region of England’s working class and is very much aware of its second-class image in English life.
Gaskell’s work was championed by Charles Dickens and North and Southwas serialized in Dickens’s magazine, Household Wordsat the same as his Hard Times, which is similar in its look at class issues. It tells the story of Margaret Hale as she works her way through young womanhood towards marriage while her family loses its place in the South and moves to the factory town of Milton in North Yorkshire. This allows Gaskell to move among London, a small country town near Oxford, and industrial Milton, populating these settings with characters from a variety of classes and attitudes. Like Dickens, Gaskell borrows tropes from sentimental Victorian literature, then explodes some of those with careful criticism of social relations. As a result, the novel follows familiar paths but occasionally surprises with new destinations.
To begin with, Margaret is beautiful, despite not being as flashy or flirtatious as her cousin Edith, who is getting married as the novel opens. Edith is from the wealthy corner of the family and has sort of adopted Margaret, whose father is a poor minister assigned to a small, unimportant church in Helstone (Milton? Helstone?) in order to give Margaret a greater chance of finding a suitable (rich) husband. This would work beautifully as Edith’s brother Lennox returns from law school and falls in love with Margaret and proposes quickly. But Margaret is shocked that he thinks of her in such a way – she views marriage as a hopelessly practical and material status. She intends something more spiritual and natural for her life. She rejects Lennox with shock and anger and he disappears from the novel for about 500 pages.
This prompts Margaret’s return to Helstone and she is looking forward to a life of intellectual contemplation in the natural beauty surrounding an idealized rural village while being of service to her father in his ministry. However, her father has had a crisis of faith and has left the church. His crisis was initiated by his bishop’s offer of a more prestigious and lucrative position at a larger church and the very idea of ministry as a career with advancement opportunities turns him off on The Church of England. His response is to leave beautiful, peaceful, verdant Helstone for an industrial town in the North where he can tutor the children of the newly wealthy captains of industry. It is a decision that makes no more sense to the reader than it does to his long-suffering wife.
In Milton, Margaret meets John Thornton, a self-made industrial leader and owner of the town’s largest factory who has hired her father to help him catch up on the education he never got. She also gets to know the impoverished Higgins family. Higgins is a local labor leader and one of the masterminds behind a strike for better wages and working conditions. This gives Haskell a perfect opportunity to stake out some of the intellectual currents of the day: Thornton is a laissez-fairecapitalist who pities the workers who are too ignorant to understand that the industrial system is good for them; Higgins is a proto-socialist who believes that the Thorntons of the world have some responsibility to the workers and the community; Margaret is sympathetic to both positions – she is opposed to the confrontational nature of strikes and believes that industrialists should adopt reforms voluntarily.
At any rate, Thornton falls madly in love with Margaret and again she rejects him as if the very nature of the proposal is a disrespectful insult. The shock and disgust with which Margaret responds to these proposals with is puzzling – it is not just that she is opposed to marriage, but she seems shocked that others are not opposed to it. Here we see Haskell working out her own strain of feminism. Margaret is reminiscent in this way of Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in House of Mirth. But Lily even as Lily resists the pressure to marry, she knows she lives in a world where the only career open to most women is marriage. Margaret seems to think these men have misunderstood the world.
However, Margaret’s attitude proves well-placed when a wealthy friend of her father dies and leaves her a vast fortune. (He has also fallen in love with Margaret, though as an old bachelor his love is more spiritual – he never contemplates proposing). By this time Margaret’s mother and father have died, as well as members of the Higgins family. Their deaths are sped along by the terrible pollution of the industrial setting. She is facing the prospect of being a kind of maid to her cousin Edith – who by now has two children and is happy in her shallow, materialist life.
Around the time that Margaret inherits enough money to be independent, Thorton is driven out of business. His debts have gotten too severe and he cannot remain open without new capital, but he cannot attract investors because after Margaret introduced him to Higgins their conversations and debates have made Thornton a reformer – he now insists that his factory will provide meals for the workers and grant them some time when they can step out for fresh air.
I won’t go into all the subplots and incidents that bring the two back together, but when Margaret learns that Thornton is trying to change the nature of factory work (or at least alleviate its worst aspects), she decides to use her new wealth to become an investor in Thornton’s factory and the two are finally and suddenly equals.
As equals, Thornton and Margaret are free to fall in love and the novel ends with them trying to find the language that will allow them to marry without Thornton having to ask or Margaret having to be asked.
The novel is long and tedious – I have left out a dozen important characters and several involved subplots. Margaret is a thoroughly unbelievable character of the type that 19thcentury readers seem to have loved. As a novel of ideas it is shallow – country is better than city, shallow wealth is inferior to intellectual subsistence, but poverty is really bad. It doesn’t get much more complex than that. It is slightly better as a novel of social class and a document about the industrial revolution, but even here it is surprisingly undetailed for such a long novel. The factories are hastily sketched, the actual work going on in them is left to the imagination and the economics that drives people to work for them and makes a small number of entrepreneurs wealthy is taken for granted. Even the social upheaval caused by this class of nouveau riche captains of industry is merely hinted at.
However, as a feminist document I thought it was fascinating. Margaret is not as complex as Lily Bart but she is more consistent: she completely rejects the notion that she needs to get married and is happily willing to accept whatever circumstances independence leaves her. Of course, these are not the dire poverty, back breaking labor and prostitution that millions of 19thcentury women actually faced – Gaskell has created a little wrinkle in the class system so Margaret is protected from the worst possible outcomes of her independence. And, of course, she does end the novel wealthy and about to marry. In 19thCentury sentimental novels steadfast faith in a set of moral precepts is virtually always rewarded with wealth and comfort – often the very wealth and comfort the character had been rejecting, so in that way this is a thoroughly conventional novel. But Gaskell has found a way to get that ending without it involving Margaret bowing to the dictates of her sexist society. Thornton is much more the beneficiary of this marriage than Margaret is and her desire to be treated as an equal extends to the language the two are wrestling with at the novel’s close.
Margaret has her moral purity tested in the course of the novel and is forced to bring her pride down a notch – in ways that are similar to Jane Austen’s Emma or Elizabeth Bennet, but never loses her independence – she learns lessons, but is not broken or changed fundamentally. A reader can almost feel Gaskell’s testing out ways to keep her protagonist both faithful to her self and alive and happy. The way she finds is contrived and not terribly believable, but it is a fascinating spin on this trope.