Tag Archives: North and South

Mr (John) Thornton [North & South Read Along]

When I recommend North and South to someone, Mr Thornton is usually in the back of my mind. I believe North and South makes a great read for those who, like me a few years ago, have read Pride and Prejudice until they know it by heart, thus losing some of the instant romantic feelings associated with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Perhaps Mrs. Gaskell’s novel is a little slower than Austen’s, because she tries to pack in more different subjects and has her characters expound upon them. For me that works rather perfectly, because it combines a) romance, b) social history, c) religion, and d) the role of women. But I do truly believe that the romance, in itself, is quite as gratifying as watching Darcy and Elizabeth.

Usually, when I have to sum up Mr. Thornton’s appeal I summarize it as “Mr. Darcy meets Mr. Rochester”. Thornton is a little rougher around the edges than Darcy was. He has something Byronic about him except that he doesn’t keep a wife in his attic which makes him more universally appealing, I guess. And he is a self-made man, which, in this setting and in case of Margaret Hale, instantly puts him in an underdog position, which you know will just leave you rooting for him.

But the storyline overall clearly echoes Pride and Prejudice more than I guess any other novel. Especially when you take into consideration the two proposals, the woman taking the lead in the second proposal, and the storyline of overcoming pride and prejudice (perhaps more on the side Margaret than Thornton).

I remember the first time when I read North and South I was comfortably settling into the southern-England setting and I expected Henry Lennox to be the inevitable love interest. I could not understand why Margaret would say yes to him as she seemed to enjoy spending time with him so much. Now, when I read that scene I am instantly prejudiced against him, and at first I wondered why. Was it because I knew Mr. Thornton was bound to arrive? But that could not explain why I was convinced Henry Lennox wasn’t right for Margaret. Having read the fourth part, I realised that these sections must have been why. Even apart from the knowledge that were she to marry Lennox, Margaret would end up having to cater to Edith’s wished all the time, it was Henry himself that I couldn’t stand in this last part. Sure, he helped her, but his ulterior motives got on my nerves. And his convictions about the North, about Margaret who would surely make him a good wife as if she were some decoration, and the hints of him thinking her more desirable now that she had money. Ugh.

As for Thornton, this time around I was at first a little puzzled by how I formerly seemed to instantly love him as a love interest. Oh yes, there is something to swoon over in many scenes between Margaret and Thornton; the bracelet which is almost erotic, the “saving him from the mob scene”, the way Thornton seems to return to that scene in his mind [and we get to witness it], etcetera. But there is something that bothered me about first-half-of-the-book Thornton too, and that is his believe in self-sufficiency. The fact that he became a self-made man (which is admirable) does not mean that everyone who does not simply doesn’t try enough. I admit, I was raised a socialist and so political convictions are a part of this way of viewing Thornton, but I couldn’t help but want character growth in that department for him. While, as I mentioned in a previous post, I admire how he respects the individuality and freedom of his workers, I felt Margaret and Thornton both picked extremes while surely there was some middle ground to be found. And I’m very happy to say that he does.

Mr. Thornton works for me because like Margaret he has his own character growth to go through. From working himself up he is on the brink of losing it all again. In the middle of this situation he has begun working together with Higgins to set up a dining hall for his workers. And when he is on the brink of losing everything, he takes responsibility for everyone involved, and does not risk the livelihood of the people who work for him on the off-chance that he might save himself. Mr Thornton, as he is in the end, is so obviously Gaskell’s perfect man in the sense of respecting everyone’s individual life and yet taking responsibility and caring for others. How could you help but fall for him a little? And in the middle of all of this you are allowed to feel sympathy for him because you are, I think, a more direct witness to his feelings for Margaret (these scenes are all just a little bit more sensual in the non-explicit sense) than you are of Mr. Darcy’s for Elizabeth.

I admit the last scene, those two pages, feel a little short to resolve such a large part of the novel’s plot. But are not they the most amazing pages? I admit I reread that scene 3 times because I wanted more, but also because it makes me feel all the feelings, time and again.

Richard Armitage as Mr Thornton. [source]

Or perhaps these are all rationalizations of the fact that right after reading North and South for the first time, I watched the BBC miniseries. And there I saw Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton, which made all the sense in the world to me. I cannot un-see Armitage when I think Thornton. I cannot forget those two magical scenes best summarised for those who have yet to view the series as “look back at me” and “train station glance”. If you think Mr. Thornton is swoon-worthy in the novel, please do yourself the favour of watching the miniseries. I promise you guaranteed swoons. And a rougher version of Thornton (which the jury is still out on). I also promise you that the scene at the end is, perhaps, a little more satisfactory. And I promise you that if you want to discuss watching, I’ll be readily available to do so.

So yes, I am a bit of a fangirl when it comes to Mr. Thornton, or the romance in North and South in general. It went so far that for years the lines “pack clouds away” and “a much better rate of interest” have had a definite romantic ring to me. And whenever a song features the lines “a train station glance” I think of a certain scene in the mini series.

To confess your quirks and obsessions is always a bit of an embarrassment, so please do not judge me harshly.

Other Posts on North and South:

Margaret Hale [North & South Read Along]

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:

North and South - Elizabeth GaskellIn 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.

Class-consciousness, Religion, and Agency [North & South Read Along]

North and South - Elizabeth GaskellLast week I wrote about how perhaps in portraying Helstone as a picturesque village, Gaskell is trying to portray Margaret as a little naive. Now, this week, we’re confronted full-on with the harsh conditions of the North and I almost felt like taking some of my comments about acknowledging the suffering in the South back. But then I realised that this contrast is probably exactly what Gaskell was going for: asking for a sense of balance instead of a stark contrast between one way of life or the other.

This week I kept coming back to this debate surrounding the strike of the Milton mill workers. Perhaps this might simply have been cast as a class conflict, but I think Gaskell brings in a high number of interrelated elements (hence the title of this post). At times I felt I hardly knew what the author was trying to convey: does she favour Margaret’s point of view or Thornton’s? She really seems to give us both sides of this conflict and no resolution whatsoever. I cannot say I have quite decided what her feelings are, but throughout my reading for this week there was one thing that seemed to be foregrounded again and again, and it allowed me to make sense of so many of the other aspects of the novel too: I think Gaskell is trying to tell us about individual humanity, individual agency, and the manner in which organised systems only lead to inhuman conditions if they refuse to acknowledge the particular.

In debating with Thornton on whether or not the strike by the workers makes sense, Margaret appeals to religious arguments when she says that Mr. Thornton might try to explain to his workers why he makes the decisions he makes:

‘I do not think that I have any occasion to consider your special religious opinions in the affair. All I meant to say is, that there is no human law to prevent the employers from utterly wasting or throwing away all their money, if they choose; but that there are passages in the Bible which would rather imply—to me at least—that they neglected their duty as stewards if they did so. However I know so little about strikes, and rate of wages, and capital, and labour, that I had better not talk to a political economist like you.’

Mr. Thornton, on the other hand, appeals to the freedom of the mill-owners, as well as the workers, in the choices they make outside of work hours, while during those hours they are bound to each other by ‘identical interests':

‘And I say, that the masters would be trenching on the independence of their hands, in a way that I, for one, should not feel justified in doing, if we interfered too much with the life they lead out of the mills. Because they labour ten hours a-day for us, I do not see that we have any right to impose leading-strings upon them for the rest of their time. I value my own independence so highly that I can fancy no degradation greater than that of having another man perpetually directing and advising and lecturing me, or even planning too closely in any way about my actions. He might be the wisest of men, or the most powerful—I should equally rebel and resent his interference I imagine this is a stronger feeling in the North of England that in the South.’

This is what makes the strike so interesting to me, because there hardly seems to be a right answer to any of it. I rather feel we’re still dealing with this discussion a lot in our world today – it seems so very relevant to debates on welfare and the economic crisis and the poor of the world.

Mr. Thornton favours a view in which he allows his “hands” (a word Margaret rightfully detests, I think) complete freedom and individuality in their hours of leisure, perhaps forgetting that in bestowing this freedom he might feel they may do something to educate themselves, but that they might not always have the means to. Certainly, he did, back when he worked to become a mill-owner after his father’s suicide, but is it fair to mirror his circumstances on those who work for him (he did not have a large family to sustain back then)? But I admit, in a way I rather favour his argument of allowing his workers freedom outside of the mill, not lecturing them or keeping them within certain educational bounds. Margaret and Mr. Hale, in contrast, seem to favour such education, such “raising up” of the poorer classes in order to give them a more humane existence. And when I read their argument, I can’t help but nod my head along too.

Margaret and Mr. Hale then favour a form of a patriarchal system that is partly founded in religious arguments, but also from a feeling of superiority in being able to teach the workers something of a better life. Thinking of it that way, I sometimes feel uncomfortable in nodding along to their arguments. Even more so when I realise how Margaret dislikes to see the circumstances and the reference to the workers as “hands”, but does automatically accept Dixon as a servant, and her being “below” her somehow. I wonder if Mrs. Gaskell meant for me to feel uncomfortable about this, perhaps not. She was, after all, wife to a minister, and, as such, I can easily imagine her doing humanitarian work amongst the poor of Manchester rather like Margaret does. I know this was a favoured view of charitable work performed by women in the nineteenth-century. Nevertheless, reading North and South as a modern reader with contemporary sentiments, I sometimes can’t help but feel uneasy at the ease in which a position of superiority and “civilisation” is accepted by Margaret and her father.

Mr. Thornton seems to resent such a view of the divide between the workers and himself. He becomes angry when Margaret says that:

‘I suppose because, on the very face of it, I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own; I never lived in a place before where there were two sets of people always running each other down.’

But then, he does use the metaphor of parents and children when he considers the relationship of masters to workers during work hours, and he says:

I maintain that despotism is the best kind of government for them; so that in the hours in which I come in contact with them I must necessarily be an autocrat.

So there we have patriarchal leadership in another guise. Limited to the work hours, but not necessarily any more comfortable to read about from my point of view.

It is exactly because I am not sure whether I should be agreeing with Margaret or Mr. Thornton in this argument – I still maintain Gaskell is making a case for balance here – that I am so grateful that we get to see glimpses of the perspective of Dixon and Higgins.

It is especially in the circumstances of Higgins entanglements with the union, and his neighbour Boucher, that I think the idea of the cruelty of any organised system that ignores particular circumstances comes to the fore. Gaskell does not give us a pleasant picture of the Union that Higgins appeals to all the time, as it leaves Boucher to starve and become desperate. It is in being confronted with Boucher’s circumstances that Margaret does not keep to the general rule that it is better not to help those that are on strike, as it will only prolong their difficulties:

Mr. Hale listened, and tried to be as calm as a judge; he recalled all that had seemed so clear not half-an-hour before, as it came out of Mr. Thornton’s lips; and then he made an unsatisfactory compromise. His wife and daughter had not only done quite right in this instance, but he did not see for a moment how they could have done otherwise. Nevertheless, as a general rule, it was very true what Mr. Thornton said, that as the strike, if prolonged, must end in the masters’ bringing hands from a distance (if, indeed, the final result were not, as it had often been before, the invention of some machine which would diminish the need of hands at all), why, it was clear enough that the kindest thing was to refuse all help which might bolster them up in their folly. But, as to this Boucher, he would go and see him the first thing in the morning, and try and find out what could be done for him.

When you start thinking about it, the humanity of acknowledging the particular in the systematic organisations is repeated over and over in the book:

  • Mr. Hale still believes in God, and still considers himself a Christian, but he feels he can no longer conform to the particular dogma of the Church;
  • Frederick did not follow his superior, while he usually kept strictly to authority, because he felt his superior was being inhuman, and thus he joined the mutiny (if I understood this part correctly, because it is confusing);
  • In the strike, Mrs. Gaskell constantly foregrounds the particular (the stories of Mr. Thornton and Higgins/Boucher and their circumstances) against the backdrop of wider societal class-struggles;
  • And perhaps Margaret is the very epitome of this? She hardly seems to follow the general rules of what was considered appropriate for feminine behaviour, but instead follows her instincts as to what is humane and voices her opinion on them.

Looking at the themes of North and South on wikipedia, something similar is highlighted, although there it is directly tied in with resistance towards authority, which is probably the more proper reading – I’m just spelling out my personal feelings here.

Now what has religion to do with all of this? I am not exactly sure, but I have a feeling it touches on all of the subjects here. In particular with the introduction of more humane circumstances for the workers in the mills, which for Margaret is grounded in Christian belief. It is not accidental, I feel, that the Thornton family does not believe in helping the workers in improving their circumstances, and the fact that they only have a few books, only a few Bible commentaries, and that they mostly remain unread.

Most of all, I feel it might be found in Mrs. Gaskell’s own Unitarian background, which according to wikipedia “urges comprehension and tolerance toward all religions”, did not take the Bible literally, and rejected the notion of original sin. I feel this somehow permeates everything, especially Gaskell’s understanding of the strike and the rejection of a strict adherence to dogma as set by religious and other non-religious organisations. It is also reflected in Bessy Higgins, who finds relief from her tragic circumstances by reading the passages on Revelations in the Bible. Margaret then tells her to look beyond them, to other, more lighter, passages. She seems to reject strict divides, the interpretations of Revelations and the Apocalypse as were becoming popular back then, she seems to reject the interpretation of God as a strict and somewhat harsh judge, saying that ‘God does not willingly afflict. Don’t dwell so much on the prophecies, but read the clearer parts of the Bible.’

In having read the first half of North and South then, I cannot escape these three themes: class-consciousness, religious motivations, and a respect for individual agency and circumstances. I cannot tell you exactly how these pieces all seem to fit together – I admit it all makes perfect sense in my head but explaining it on paper is a little harder. I do have one more quote I want to share, which is my favourite on this subject, but also involves a little bit of a look ahead, as it is located at the very end of chapter 28:

‘Oh!’ said Mr. Hale, sighing, ‘your Union in itself would be beautiful, glorious,—it would be Christianity itself—if it were but for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another.’
‘I reckon it’s time for me to be going, sir,’ said Higgins, as the clock struck ten.
(…)
‘Stay!’ said Mr. Hale, hurrying to the book-shelves. ‘Mr. Higgins! I’m sure you’ll join us in family prayer?’
Higgins looked at Margaret, doubtfully. Her grave sweet eyes met his; there was no compulsion, only deep interest in them. He did not speak, but he kept his place.
Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.

Whenever I read this passage, I feel that if only I could believe like Elizabeth Gaskell did, I may have been a fervent Christian. It involves such promise of a better world. This always reminds me of the beauty and humanity to be found in religion. And I apologize for having gone all sentimental on you now.

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This post is part of the North and South read along hosted by Andi over at Estella’s Revenge. I promise that having now dealt with, I feel, the heaviest subject of North and South, the next few weeks you will find me contemplating Margaret, and, um, gushing about my love for Mr. Thornton.

Thursday Tea: Lots and Lots of Books

The Books: This week has consisted of a lot of reading as I haven’t been able to move around much with my sprained ankle. I finished a large number of books, including The Goose GirlJourney to the River SeaThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianTheir Eyes Were Watching God, and Evel Knievel Days.

This morning I could be found finishing up the last pages of Von Arnim’s The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, which like her two books focused on gardening, is lovely. I do admit that I’d like the next Von Arnim I read to be a novel or novella again, outside of the Elizabeth universe. Just for a change.

I am currently reading Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a memoir about reading a book a day. I have to admit that the book itself might not be as stellar as I had imagined it, but it does make me think about my own reading habits a lot, which is always interesting.

I’m also still reading North and South for the read along, though I have to admit I was done reading the part for next monday’s discussion by Tuesday. I should write up my post so I can continue reading ;).

And.. I am about to start Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell for a buddy read with Amy and Jessica. We are reading it in weekly installments of +/- 100 pages, so this one might be on my night stand for a while yet. Once I saw the trailer for the movie I knew I would have to cave to all of your love for the book and author. Plus, you know, I’d like to watch the movie once it’s released, but I’d like to read the book beforehand. I have a feeling the movie might be difficult to understand if you haven’t read the book – based on the trailer.

Lots of plans for the upcoming week :) And more in the process of being formulated in my head, I’m sure.

The Tea: Um, do you mean the coffee? I have a slight addiction to a kind of chocolate coffee I mix myself: instant dark hot chocolate powder mixed in with coffee. Not that I stopped drinking tea..

Thursday Tea is a weekly meme organised by Anastasia of Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog.

Milton and Helstone [North & South Read Along]

As some of you might know, North and South is one of my favourite classics. It ranks up there with Pride and Prejudice in terms of obsessive reading and watching, though I will admit that the Austen is perhaps a little bit more accessible. By the time I knew Pride and Prejudice by heart and I was looking for that next “oh my God, I LOVE it – I can’t stop thinking about it – I must watch/read it again” book, North and South filled that gap perfectly. As Jane Eyre did a few years afterwards.

My most recent reread of North and South was in 2010. I had it all figured out. I was going to post some themed posts, because there’s simply too much to discuss about this book. And then I never wrote them. So now, as I’m participating in the North and South Read Along, I decided to give those themed post a second chance. Except, some of the themes changed of course, and I’m trying to have them fit the current-chapters-read so as to not spoil it for those who are participating in the read along. For others: warning, spoilers up to chapter 14 – though there’s hardly anything spoilerish that occurs up to now.

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North and South - Elizabeth GaskellIn this first part of the novel we follow Margaret Hale as she leaves London, where she’s stayed with her aunt for several years. Margaret returns home to the parsonage at Helstone, where her parents live. Except, once she’s there, she learns that they are to leave her beloved Helstone behind, because her father feels he cannot continue to serve a church he no longer believes in. From then on, they are to live in Milton, an industrial town in the north of the country.

What intrigues me most about the first part of North and South is the manner in which the two main settings are invoked: Helstone and Milton.

From the very first we come to know Helstone as an idyllic, picturesque village, and as Henry Lennox implies, it almost sounds as if it’s a village out of a picture book, as if the perfection Margaret uses to describe it is not quite realistic:

‘Oh, only a hamlet; I don’t think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.’

‘And flowering all the year round, especially at Christmas—make your picture complete,’ said he.

‘No,’ replied Margaret, somewhat annoyed, ‘I am not making a picture. I am trying to describe Helstone as it really is. You should not have said that.’

‘I am penitent,’ he answered. ‘Only it really sounded like a village in a tale rather than in real life.’

‘And so it is,’ replied Margaret, eagerly. ‘All the other places in England that I have seen seem so hard and prosaic-looking, after the New Forest. Helstone is like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson’s poems. But I won’t try and describe it any more. You would only laugh at me if I told you what I think of it—what it really is.’

He later admits to Margaret that she might have been right: “What a perfect life you seem to live here!” & “Just now I feel as if twenty years’ hard study of law would be amply rewarded by one year of such an exquisite serene life as this—such skies!’ looking up—’such crimson and amber foliage, so perfectly motionless as that!’ pointing to some of the great forest trees which shut in the garden as if it were a nest.” But we have to doubt if he wasn’t simply trying to flatter Margaret, to compel her to accept his hand in marriage.

For Margaret, Helstone is like a safe haven. At times I feel it might have been meant as an idyllic picture of heaven – all the more poignant when compared to Margaret’s voice over in the first episode of the BBC miniseries when she sees the factories in Milton “I have seen hell”.

But will Margaret be shown up as having been naive? Part of me thinks so. I think Helstone is meant to be the picture of the “old England”, as we saw it in the Olympic opening ceremony, before the Industrial Revolution. But Gaskell never forgets to remind us that there is pain and suffering even there: Margaret visits the poor and the blind, Mrs Hale is dissatisfied with her husband’s living and is constantly jealous of her sister’s city live with much more luxury, and most of all, the story of Margaret’s brother – unable to come back home – reminds us that there is unbearable sadness for the family, even at such an idyllic place at Helstone.

In contrast, Milton is painted in harsher tones. There’s gray and fog everywhere. And when they settle there, and Margaret aims to retain some of the picturesque by settling in a house with a view of the river, they can hardly see it through the November fogs. Nor is the house cozy, or tastefully decorated. To Margaret, it is almost claustrophobic, and she seems to see the contrast between Helstone and Milton, South and North, everywhere: in her observations on the quiet nature walks vs. the crowdedness of the streets, in the comparison of Mr. Hale with Mr. Thornton, when he visits over tea..

And so in the first few chapters, Helstone and Milton become synonymous with nature vs. industry, with culture vs. business, with gentry vs. middle class, with humanitarian feeling vs. cold business logic. And Margaret is shown to be snobbish:

Oh! I’m glad we don’t visit them. I don’t like shoppy people. I think we are far better off, knowing only cottagers and labourers, and people without pretence.

Margaret resents the pride Mrs. Thornton takes in Milton, nor does she like the way Mr. Thornton was “boasting about Milton, as if there was not such another place in the world”. Of course, Margaret can be blamed for taking the exact same view of Helstone.

I rather wonder if, in this showing of opposites, Gaskell is also showing us a measure of naivety prevalent in the South. In Margaret’s class snobbism when she talks about industrial & “shoppy” people. In the comfort known by Edith, for example: “Edith had rolled herself up into a soft ball of muslin and ribbon, and silken curls, and gone off into a peaceful little after-dinner nap.” Edith is comfortable in her marriage, being what a gentlewoman ought to be, but she’s hardly shown to think or contemplate of others, and of where the wealth she lives in comes from. There’s a reason, I feel, that Margaret is offered the opportunity to live what Edith lives, so early on in the novel, by having Henry Lennox propose to her; she needn’t have to go through all the worries and upheavals she goes through. And so there is a reason why she has Margaret refuse, apart from the fact that she does not love him, because Margaret is meant to take the reader on a journey that will allow them to lose the shells of comfortable safety.

Through reading her story, that “cultured” leisurely activity that people like Mrs. Thornton in Milton despise, Mrs. Gaskell wants the reader to become familiar with the plight of factory workers, which perhaps to Gaskell’s mind, may need a little of the gentleness of the South. But she also aims to show readers, through Margaret’s point of view, that there is beauty and humanity to be found in the factory workers [Bessy Higgins], apart from the obvious ugliness that Gaskell does not shy away from. In this first quarter of the novel, Mr Hale functions as a person who aims to bridge the gap between Helstone and Milton, between Southern and Northern sensibilities. Perhaps Margaret will follow his example after having been set to right in refusing to shake Mr. Thornton’s hand. Because if anything, I feel that through Margaret, Gaskell is asking people to question the comfortable naivety, the willful ignorance, of shutting your eyes and only wanting to return to your former peaceful life. For Margaret, that peaceful former life is united in her image of Helstone. We can only wait and see what Milton will eventually bring her..

-  –  -

Any themes you’d particularly like me to ramble on about? My current list of things I’m contemplating looks like this:

  • Class and industrialisation (I’m a little reluctant about this one)
  • Religion
  • Mr. Thornton [and the echoes of Pride & Prejudice, as well as the byronic heroes of the Brontës]
  • Margaret Hale and a woman’s sensibilities/place