North and South—a strong young woman in a time of change

North and South

By Elizabeth Gaskell

Published 1855

Read June 2021

This reader began listening to North and South immediately after finishing Pride and Prejudice.  This reader, like many others, found a number of similarities between the books as well as some contrasts.

The protagonist is again a young woman.  We initially meet nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale on her cousin’s wedding day.  Margaret has been living in London with her cousin and her cousin’s wealthy mother for the past ten years.   Once her cousin marries, Margaret returns to her parents’ simpler home in the southern village of Helstone.  There her cousin’s brother-in-law, Henry, an up-and-coming barrister, visits her.  They had enjoyed conversations while in London at the many social events.  Henry proposes marriage and is rejected by Margaret who indicates they are only friends and she couldn’t imagine feelings beyond that.  Shortly after his event, her father, the pastor of the local Church of England, decides to leave his position as a matter of conscience.  Further, with the help of his old friend, Mr. Bell, he has decided to move to a city in the north, Milton, and make a living as a tutor.  He informs Margaret and asks her to tell her mother, knowing his wife will be distressed. 

Thus begins the real story of this book.  Margaret helps her father find a small house to rent and outfits it as best as she can before her mother arrives.  She begins interacting with various residents of the town which has several textile mills that are the major source of employment for the town.  Margaret meets Bessie, a girl about her age, who is very sickly.  Margaret eventually learns that her illness was caused by breathing in cotton dust while she worked at the mill. She also gets to know Bessie’s father, Mr. Higgins, who works at the mills and is a drinker. One of her father’s students is Mr. Thorton, an owner of one of the mills.  We learn that his schooling had been truncated when his alcoholic father died and he had to work to help pay the bills.  He has since then become a successful businessman himself and is spending some time with Mr. Hale to catch up on classical literature he didn’t study when he would ordinarily have. 

As in Pride and Prejudice, Margaret is generally prejudiced against Mr. Thorton, this time due to being an industrialist vs a gentleman.  This corresponds to her general prejudice against the whole concept of the industrial north and she longs for her days in the south and the culture of the gentry.  Her mother shares her prejudice and can’t adjust to being in this town.  It’s implied that the environment is dark—air and water pollution?  It’s not clear.  At any rate her mother falls sick – likely a cancer irrelevant to the town–and dies.  She extracts a promise from an unwilling Mrs. Thorton (Mr. Thorton’s mother) that Mrs. Thorton will provide Margaret moral guidance if needed. 

Mrs. Thorton is quite concerned that Margaret wants to marry her son.  During a visit to Mrs. Thorton at their home, which is on the textile mill campus, strikers charge the house.  Margaret steps out on the porch and tries to calm the crowd (and is effective).   Mrs. Thorton is convinced this act was out of love for her son.  But (of course) Margaret has absolutely no interest in marrying Mr. Thorton and is only interested in the welfare of the workers and didn’t want to see them beaten up by the army that was on the way to break up the crowd.

Without revealing more of the plot, there is a misunderstanding that causes Mr. Thorton to protect Margaret from a lie she told.  She is mortified that he knows about this lie and hopes that it can be cleared up.  Mr. Bell, whom she asks for help in this matter, dies before he completes this task.

Pride and Prejudice, which was also contemporary to its publication, is set about 40 years earlier.  Both authors point out that women had few rights and limited opportunities to make their own way, especially if they are of the “gentlewoman” class.  “Service” is open to working women and, in the North, factory work is available.  However, that proved deadly for many, including Bessie.   After the death of her father, Margaret has no obvious option but to return to her wealthy aunt’s house.  There she has far fewer freedoms than she did either in her beloved village of Helstone or in Milton.  In these two places she was free to walk about, interact with her neighbors and other area residents.  In London, however, she must have her aunt’s permission to leave the house and must be accompanied by someone suitable. 

In this book, Elizabeth Gaskell also highlights the changes occurring in the country.  The South is still a land of land-owning gentry and the farmers that work the master’s land and who are afforded compensation for it.  The shopkeepers and merchants and even the lawyers and businessmen are recognized as essential but are generally outside the “gentleman” crowd.  (Though since only one son inherits the estate, the other sons generally have to go into some kind of occupation to make a living!).  The North is now populated with textile mills and other factories.  The master is now the factory owner and clearly not of the “gentleman” crowd, Mr. Thorton being an example as someone who has raised himself up from a very poor existence to that of master.  The relationship between worker and master in the North is also very different from tenant and master in the South.  The author highlights this with the strike and the willingness of Mr. Thorton and his peers to bring in Irish workers to replace their former employees to meet their contracts when the workers go on strike.  Margaret’s interactions with both the workers and Mr. Thorton help her understand the chasm between them and she seeks to heal it.  She convinces Mr. Higgins, a loyal union member, to ask Mr. Thorton directly for work in his factory.  His perseverance motivates Mr. Thorton to hire him which sets the stage for a different relationship between them.

Mr. Thorton in this book and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice love the respective protagonists and seek to win their love.  Mr. Darcy’s actions to repair damage he caused Elizabeth’s older sister and to save her younger sister from her reckless behavior demonstrated selflessness that won Elizabeth’s heart.  Mr. Thorton protects Margaret from a lie she told and is generally resigned to life without Margaret but that alone does not win her love but rather causes her embarrassment to be around him.  When his financial situation changes, and he seeks employment as a supervisor (vs master), his willingness to work with those he would supervise nullifies Margaret’s prejudices. 

Both novels have much to draw a female audience.  North and South’s focus on the industrial situation may have drawn male audiences as well.  It is interesting to note that North and South was first published as a serial in Charles Dickens’ Household Words in 1854 and 1855 at the same time that a his Hard Times was being similarly serially published in this journal.  Dickens required this title for the work over Gaskell’s preference of “Margaret Hale” or “Death and Variations”.  North and South was published in book form in two volumes of 25 and 27 chapters each and differed from the serialized version in several ways  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_and_South_(Gaskell_novel); July 18, 2021)

Both Austen and Gaskell have provided readers for over a century two interesting, strong women characters whose personal stories have and will engage readers indefinitely.  Their books showed women possible ways of being/thinking that weren’t “standard” at the time and as well provided some commentary on the impact of “standard” thinking on society in general.  These are classics that have been and will be read and produced in multiple formats well into the future. 

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