Last 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.