North and South could easily be described as Pride and Prejudice with an industrialisation backdrop. Indeed, the plot lines of the novels draw many parallels; including a financially insecure, strong-willed, strong-headed, clever and beautiful heroine who is inexplicably prejudiced against the proud, rich and indignant hero. But there is so much more to North and South than a mere Victorian romance, it is a book that gives voice to many viewpoints on social issues such as class conflict, relationship between master and men, poor living conditions in industrial towns, old money vs. new money etc. The title itself is a reflection of these juxtapositions (in fact Gaskell’s working title was Margaret Hale but her friend and editor, Charles Dickens, persuaded her to use North and South).
Margaret of the South
Margaret Hale is an 18-year-old woman whose education was entrusted on her wealthy aunt living in a fashionable house in Harley Street, London with her daughter, Edith. Margaret spends her childhood and the summers of her youth in Helstone, Hampshire where her father is the vicar. She returns to her home after her cousin marries a young officer and no longer requires her companionship. She is happy to be united with her parents in a place she loves so dearly. Indeed, Helstone is a paradise on earth with its mysterious woods, picturesque cottages and friendly inhabitants.
From BBC’s 2004 adaptation starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe
A journey to North
However, everything changes all of a sudden when Mr. Hale decides to leave the Evangelical Church as he no longer believes in its doctrines. He becomes a “dissenter”, a position which would affect a gentleman’s respectability to a great extent in Victorian England.
He decides to his family to Milton, Darkshire (a fictional version of Manchester, or its nickname “Cottonopolis”) to become a private tutor. Margaret is upset by the change but she clearly sees her parents’ need of her support. Margaret helps her family in every way she can: she takes care of every preparation needed for their departure and finds a house for them to settle.
Milton is nothing like the South with its smoky mills, toiling people, heavy air and dirty streets. They struggle to settle down and find their place in society. To assist them, Mr. Hale’s friend from Oxford, Mr. Bell, recommends a certain Mr. Thornton: a young self-made mill-owner who is both repulsed and attracted by Margaret’s haughtiness. However, he has a great liking of Mr. Hale and he becomes his first pupil, taking lessons on Greek and Latin.
Making new friends
In the meanwhile, Margaret establishes an unlikely friendship with a mill worker of her age, Bessie Higgins who is sick in her deathbed. Bessie is very important as she symbolises the person Margaret would be if she was born to same circumstances, without her social privileges. This is why finding out about Bessie’s age shocks Margaret so. With their firmness of belief, love for learning and strength of character, the two resemble one another despite all their differences.
Bessie’s father Nicolas Higgins is a member of the Workers’ Union, through him the diligent, down-trodden working class is represented. He is strong-willed and obstinate; the hardships he has endured over the years has hardened his heart, especially towards people of the upper classes. However, he likes Margaret as she is kind and attentive to her daughters whom he loves dearly, if not tenderly.
The social divide and the class problem in North and South
Margaret thoroughly changes from first chapter till the last. Her transformation takes place gradually and it is mingled with pain that experience brings into her way, maturing her step by step. Brought up and educated with aristocrats, she declares early on in the novel, in Chapter 2, that she “likes people whose occupations have to do with land; she likes soldiers and sailors and three learned professions, as they call them.’ This is a description of the South and excludes nearly all of the North with its manufacturers and workers. But why there is such a prejudice against tradesmen by people of Margaret’s class?
It is because money used to belong to the nobility and the gentry, people who owned the land. Those groups of people were also the ones to whom education was available. But with the industrialisation in late 18th century, a new class emerged: the manufacturers and tradesmen whom the money was also belonged, but education was less valued. So who was the superior? In Chapter 19 Margaret visits Bessie before a dinner party at Mr. Thornton’s house. Bessie is “surprised” to find out that Margaret occupies the same sphere with the “first folk in Milton”. A little indignant, Margaret replies. “But we are educated people, and have lived amongst educated people. Is there anything so wonderful, in our being asked out to dinner by a man who owns himself inferior to my father by coming to him to be instructed.”
Her severity towards the Mr. Thornton’s class dissipates over time: “He is my first olive; let me make a face while I swallow it. I know he is good of his kind, and by and by I shall like the kind. I rather think I am already beginning to do so.” So she does.
Margaret is an intensely complex character. She is prejudiced against the Northern people, especially the manufacturers, which make her appear haughty. But she befriends the poor, the sick; helps them with uttermost Christian charity despite her being in reduced circumstances. She is extremely courageous and bold, especially considering the expectations based on her gender at the time. She is incredibly forbearing and obedient as a daughter, even though she is headstrong and likes being independent. All these contrasting character traits, her merits and flaws make her come out of the pages as almost a real person. She is lovable, and she is loved.
Of master and men…
The relationship between master and men is also explored in great depth. The issues concerning the two parties are examined in terms of their social consequences. Mr. Thornton represents the master with all his severity. He looks after himself and his own. The workers, however, are an entity; they act together and that is what makes them powerful. But Thornton is not to be dictated by his man, or his “hands”. The term that the masters use when referring to their workers is enough to show how the latter are stripped of their humanity; as if incapable of thinking, they are seen as a force to keep the machines working. Their poverty leaves them no choice but to repress their anger and agony which come out in all their magnitude in times of strikes.
Like Margaret, Thornton also changes throughout the novel. Especially after he befriends Higgins (with Margaret’s involvement), he becomes more concerned about reforming the poor living conditions of his workers. When he realises many of them are unable to afford decent food he sets up an eating house for them. He even eats with them, whenever there is stew. “He and they had led parallel lives – very close, but never touching- till the accident (or so it seemed) of his acquaintance with Higgins. Once brought to face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him, and (take notice) out of the character of master and workman, in the first instance, they had each begun to recognise that ‘we have all of us one human heart.’” This is such a great improvement, that it is almost unrealistic. Especially considering how Higgins justifies the unruly actions of the union a few chapters before: “It may be like war; along wi’ it come crimes; but I think it were a greater crime to let it alone.”
A poster by PemberleyPond
And also romance…
Thornton is misunderstood by Margaret but she is not fully deceived in her judgement of him: “Mr. Thornton had no general benevolence – no universal philanthropy; few even would have given him credit of strong affections.”
However, he is also modest; unlike her mother, he is not afraid to own his humble beginnings. He is proud of his accomplishments only because he has worked hard to deserve them. Like Margaret, he has a high regard for his mother, who loves and supports him beyond anyone else.
Margaret resembles him in many other ways, especially by her authority, which initially upsets Thornton: “he was in habits of authority himself, but she seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once.” Her strength of character is bewitching; it is almost impossible not to love her when she loses those who love her one by one, suffers alone without complaining and carries all the weight of the world on her shoulders.
I think North and South is a must-read for everyone who is interested in England’s social divide, industrialisation and its effects on different classes. It is one of the greatest love stories ever written in English literature. Also, it is a very good book to start reading Victorian literature and Gaskell’s works alike.
Gaskell, E. C. North and South. Penguin Classics, 2012.