As we are entering week three of the North and South read along, I have been noticing more and more frustration with Margaret’s conduct and character. Now, I had planned to do a post on Margaret and “the role of women” in Gaskell’s novel from week one, but today I find myself rather hesitant. I’m not sure that in light of al the negative feelings surrounding Margaret of fellow read along participants I should spend a whole post pondering about her. Nevertheless, that is what I am going to do.
To be completely honest, I never really paid much attention to whether or not I liked Margaret before. She didn’t bother me, but she also never elicited great amounts of love in me. Knowing her story, knowing I was seeing the world mostly from her perspective, I did identify with her. I just never really pondered her before. Perhaps I was too busy, um, swooning over Mr. Thornton.
When I started paying more attention to Margaret due to other bloggers’ remarks, I saw two things that irritated me a little. First, Margaret bluntness. I admire her for it, in part, but she can also come across as rather unfeeling and unsocial.. If you think Elizabeth is harsh in rejecting Mr. Darcy’s first proposal in Pride and Prejudice, then you clearly haven’t read Margaret’s response to the first proposal of Mr. Thornton, which in a way, is so blunt and painful that it made me question Margaret’s judgement of the situation and Mr. Thornton himself. It also makes her come across as stuck-up and proud – too proud to consider Thornton in any way resembling a gentleman. Second, Margaret suffers from the female innocence and martyrdom complex that comes with a lot of Victorian fiction and that Violet, for example, has remarked upon in her reading of other works by Gaskell. Again, there are things to be admired about this part of Margaret’s character, but it also makes it hard to relate to her at times.
But now let me turn to what I appreciated in Margaret’s character in North and South. Something that I only really noticed rereading it this time around. Something that makes me lean very much towards the side of liking her, and appreciating what Gaskell has done with her. The fact that in many ways, Margaret subverts social expectations surrounding women. Of course, the whole thing comes accompanied with Victorian sentimentality and with Margaret as somewhat of a perfectly innocent role-model, and some ingrained feelings of superiority based on class, but it was the subversion that stood out to me during the past week.
This subversion expresses itself in a few ways. And really, the more I think about it the more I feel that it is one single interpretation of individual agency vs. institutional authority and expectation, which I mentioned last week. But I digress – let me return to Margaret and her role as a woman in North and South:
In a way, Margaret’s very bluntness is the first indication I found of her role as subverting certain female expectations. For Margaret aims to speak the truth, and nothing but the truth, it seems. And in doing so, she voices her opinion in almost every company. She does not remain quiet when the men are talking of serious things. She does not contain her remarks to the strictly feminine sphere, but instead talks – and is shown to think things through – on the interrelated topics of industrialisation, working conditions, religious ideals, etcetera. She is intellectual as well as feminine in her feelings and (religious based) belief in charity and truth. Now, I am not extremely well-read in the classics, but the fact that she voices her opinions at all, and on these topics -as a woman- is not something I have come across very often.
It is through her bluntness, and her role as someone who perhaps does not so much like to argue, but does like being heard and having her say, that she takes on the most important role of mediator between the North and the South, between mill owner and employees, between her father and her mother even. She is, in the end, what enables some of these characters and settings to work together better.
We also learn that, faced with her mother’s death, Margaret is the one who shows strength of character, whereas both her father and her brother Frederick are lost in their own grief:
“Margaret went languidly about, assisting Dixon in her task of arranging the house. Her eyes were continually blinded by tears, but she had no time to give way to regular crying. The father and brother depended upon her; while they were giving way to grief, she must be working, planning, considering. Even the necessary arrangements for the funeral seemed to devolve upon her.”
Margaret is the character every one depends upon, and I find it remarkable that during the novel, her role as the one being able to keep herself together in situations of stress or grief is stressed again and again, while several men are shown to give way to sentimentality and weakness. I rather wonder if this is why Mr. Hale is shown to be so weak and uncourageous, that even his own wife protects him from the knowledge of her illness. If this is why Frederick, too, when he finally arrives, tries to help his sister, but also very much relies on her for advice and guidance and practicalities. In all of this, Margaret’s role is that of a caring angel, which is a little bit of a feminine stereotype I think, and she also gives way to sentimentality herself, but she nevertheless remains strong. And I wonder at it – because strength of character is so often a male characteristic.
It’s not that Margaret is perfect – which makes her a little bit more likeable to my mind than if she were painted as a prim and perfect girl – she surely has a lot of growth to look forward to. Margaret does not always enjoy being the one everyone relies upon (in case of being the bearer and messenger of secrets, in her friendship to Bessy Higgins, in taking up responsibility after her mother’s death. She has to learn that despite it being honourable to tell the truth, that bluntness isn’t always the best option, and that her opinions aren’t always right. She also has to let go of some of her pride and superiority: she tells Higgins that the south isn’t all that great, she has to face the fact that she told an untruth and did not have enough faith in God to rely on the truth (as she puts it herself), she has to face the fact that after rejecting Thornton as ungentlemanly he acts the perfect gentleman, and she has to face the fact that “shoppy people” aren’t always beings to shrink from.
Now that we’re on the topic of Margaret’s imperfections, can I remark on the whole “telling an untruth to safe her brother” thing? Because I rather think it is another example of her going against the grain of social expectation, or at least, seeking her own path of personal identity independent from other forces in society, except her faith and personal beliefs? Because when faced with the fact that she lied to the police officer, and upon realising that Thornton knows she has done so, it is the fact of the lying that saddens her – and she never even contemplates the social impropriety that she might be implicated in in the mind of Thornton. It is not sticking to her own ideals that comes to her mind, not the fact of how others might perceive her embrace, only how Thornton must feel now that he knows her to be not a 100% capable of keeping to her own ideals.
There is more to come of Margaret’s growth, more that makes me believe that Gaskell, while very much someone who seems to believe in a specific role for women, also claims personal agency, identity, the fact that women are rational individual humans instead of property. Without going into detail, there’s a quote to be found on that in the upcoming chapters:
“She had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.”
I think, if anything is to be the character arch of Margaret, it is this. This realisation that she is responsible for herself, that she – can – be relied upon to do so, and that in the end only she can make of her life what she wants it to be (even if what she wants to be is then again dependent upon social expectations – at least in part). This can be taken rather negatively, I feel, for social conditions do influence who people become, but it is also rather hopeful to read when read in the context of women’s role in Victorian society – this idea that women are fully individual humans capable of their own decisions and thoughts (while taking care of all the people dependent upon them). And I see it reflected in the other female characters too, apart from Fanny. Even in mama Hale, more so in mama Thornton, in Bessy, in Dixon, but yes – most of all in Margaret. And thinking about her that way, I feel kind of partial to Gaskell’s portrayal of her.