Gaskell’s ‘North and South’, set in Victorian England, is the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman whose life is completely turned on its head when her family moves to northern England. As an outsider from the agricultural south, Margaret is initially shocked by the aggressive northerners of the dirty, smoky industrial town of Milton, but as she adapts to her new home, she defies social conventions with her ready sympathy and defense of the working poor. Her passionate advocacy of the lower classes leads her to repeatedly clash with charismatic mill owner John Thornton over his treatment of his workers.
While Margaret denies her growing attraction to him, Thornton agonizes over his foolish passion for her, in spite of their heated disagreements. As tensions mount between them, a violent unionization strike explodes in Milton, leaving everyone to deal with the aftermath in the town and in their personal lives. Gaskell’s novel could certainly be described as a social commentary; England at the time was extremely class-conscious, yet In almost all cases, Margaret does not so much choose sides as acknowledge mutually dependent and beneficial relationships.
Though her family has very little in the way of money or assets, her family roots are in the gentry, yet when the family is moved up North to Milton, Margaret befriends and socializes with both ends of the social spectrum, mill owners and workers. Margaret is even capable of initiating a friendship of sorts between worker and owner, Higgins and Thornton even come up with a plan together to provide a canteen for the workers to get hot food. Differences in life in the South and life in the North are compared and contrasted often in a very subtle fashion, as are the differences in values and class structure.
It is also very interesting to note that the difficulties of the lives of the impoverished factory workers are highlighted, however the difficulties faced by the factory owners are also presented. Through Margaret, Gaskell is able to transcend social class and at the same time create a hero amongst the industrial poverty of Milton, she acts in a way that would have been unconventional and frowned upon at the time for the good of such people as the Higgins family.
When she is seen bringing a basket of food to the house during the workers strike, her peers condemn her at a dinner at the Thornton’s. Highlighting both the differences between northern and southern culture and the clashes between social conscientiousness. It could be said that ‘North and South’ is a novel defined by the resolution of binary conflicts; Margaret Hale is presented with a number of divisions of sympathy, between industrialists and the working class, between conflicting views of Mr. Thornton, and even between her conflicting views of her own intelligence. Nancy Mann, in her essay “Intelligence and Self-Awareness in ‘North and South’: a Matter of Sex and Class” stipulates that the novel “concentrates on a crucial problem of the development of the novel in the nineteenth century, the relationship between abstract intelligence and self-awareness, and the ways in which this relationship may be affected by factors of sex and class”(1).
What Mann is saying is that Gaskell is successful in throwing off the conventional boundaries of the classic romantic Victorian with all its feminist connotations and persuasions and has created a character that transcends the constraints of class and what is proper to actually do some good in her new environment. Gaskell’s most prominent social explorations however come in the form of contrasts. For example Margaret’s relationship with the Higgins family, especially Bessie, both nineteen years old when they meet, one healthy and the other gravely ill can be seen as a dramatic comment on class iniquity.
Gaskell uses Bessie as a dramatic device in the novel to draw Margaret and her father closer, a task some literary critics consider to be so well done that Bessie is often discounted from the actual story. She is also a device to show the plight of the working class woman, Bessie is even described by one critic as ‘the most extensive portrait of a factory girl in the mainstream industrial novels, and as such, she reveals the political and economic tensions surrounding working class women'(2).
Even Margaret says “Bessie’s comments address the specific problems of working-class women, problems that both unions and the middle class have an interest in ignoring”. Even when Bessie’s religious beliefs and her questioning of unionism are considered she is very revealing, Margaret sees her as having “a politics of her own” which both reveals her sense of disenfranchisement from the ongoing struggle between ‘masters and men’ and presents the most telling evidence in the novel of the iniquities of the class system.
Something else that has to be considered in this scenario with Bessie as a dramatic tool towards Gaskell’s social commentary Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and south’: A National Bildungsroman. ” Victorian Newsletter 85 (1994) Briefly traces the emergence of and critical debate on the industrial novel, noting “the industrial novels have been read largely in relation to male working-class history, not in relation to female working-class history or to the emerging nineteenth-century women’s movement.
The critic also goes on to stipulate that the comments on the patriarchal foundations of both Chartism and the union movement makes a case for the need to consider Marxist and feminist issues when considering the issues raised in north and south. He goes on to suggest that “by placing her heroine, Margaret Hale, between North and South, Gaskell attempts to bring to the surface the unconscious bifurcations that produce class and gender ideologies” and that because the novel is both a Bildungsroman as well as an industrial novel it acquires “unusual dimensions in both categories”(3).
Feminism also plays a big part in Gaskell’s novel, through her three main characters, Margaret, Thornton and Higgins Gaskell shows a struggle for growth and indicates what the future of society may hold for people in similar situations and how society can grow as a whole. When the novel is examined as a debate on class and gender issues, the amount of time the characters spend “arguing about word choices, definitions and analogies” it is clear that almost all interactions in the novel are affected in some way by gender or class, even in language, “every term that comes under debate is changed with class or gender import”(4).
With this much importance forced upon the character’s class and gender by their social environment a reader is certainly inclined to read the novel as an exploration into the Victorian class system rather than a conventional love story of the time. Even in Margaret’s romantic capacity as a woman, her gradual sexual awareness of John Thornton and their Marriage at the end of the novel is more understandable to read in a more feminist light than a romantic one.
In marrying Thornton Margaret enters into a mutually equal relationship, one where her influence and goals will be felt as well as his, “through Margaret, Gaskell subtly reveals the new directions women are taking toward independent action and freedom”(5). However at the same time recognizing that the changes she undergoes are in no way revolutionary and that though the conflicting ideas of obedience and freedom are not completely settled by the end of the novel, “at least one woman has emerged into responsible adulthood and has claimed her part in deciding the terms of that settlement”(6).
What is most interesting about this novel is that all the elements of a romantic novel are there, but it is written in a way that turns the readers head from the sentimental pride and prejudice Esq. prose and makes them focus on the environment and its social deficiencies “through this story of social rejection and Christian compassion, Gaskell charges her culture to replace what she sees as a rigid and reductive old testament ethic of charity”(7).
This idea of a old to new change in a religious sense is also backed by Gaskell’s own Unitarian background, her father was a Unitarian minister, as was her husband, Margaret’s father in the novel itself is also a minister it could even be suggested that “Gaskell’s beliefs provided her with an alternative vision of society and code of behavior”(8) the importance of Gaskell’s religious beliefs and Unitarianism can be found in many aspects of the novel, not least that Unitarianism believed in the cultivation of the intellect regardless of sex, she found the religious authority to challenge the patriarchal subjugation of women, especially those who failed to fulfill their designated role in society.
It is ironic to think; “in a period nearly defined by its theological doubt, Gaskell’s spiritual faith authorizes her revolutionary vision”(9). When Mr. Thornton, without further verbal explication, proposes to Margaret in a “strange and presumptuous way” at the end of the novel, we see the proper structure of an intimate relationship, both sides respect each other’s power while Thornton refuses to impose a political hierarchy. This is emphasized by the exchange over the flowers, which he bought as a token of her independent self, which is a revolutionary idea in itself at this point in history and conversely, gives rise to his second comment referring to marriage as possession, saying he had “no hope of ever calling her mine”, and the second refutation of such terms.
Although the novel does not strive at any point to be romantic at the expense of the real issues that Gaskell tackles in the way people lived at the time, their unspoken resolution to marry signifies the resolution of the novel the binding of two genders, halves of England, social classes, and individuals, into one. In conclusion Gaskell is very successful in going further than any of her peers in actually exploring deficiencies in Victorian culture and society, although the main components of a classic love story are there, Margaret opts for the conscientious, religious option at every turn making the novel more a serious social commentary than anything else. Gaskell’s religious persuasion adds to this in that it allows her to transcend the class system and her constraints as a woman in Victorian England to address these problems under the banner of religion.
Courtney from Study Moose
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