My objective in the final part of the essay is to give you the notable examples of love, determination and gentlemanship found between the characters and to discuss the quality of relationships in the 19th century and in the present. Gaskell differentiated the North and the South of England but consequently these two parts are fused together due to the relationship between John Thornton and Margaret Hale. This relationship generates the discussion about long-standing relationships in the 19th century and kind of adoration of it. It gives rise to the question if these approaches are preferred in the present or not.
This leads me to other points of my analysis. I would like to focus on a brief description of the plot as well as a depiction of the main characters. Next, I would like to point out the main features of the Victorian novel and the basic historical events that are connected with the Victorian era. After that, I intend to contrast Gaskell’s book with Dickens’ Oliver Twist because they use different attitudes to describe social classes. This also invites the comparison of Gaskell and Jane Austen. Even if Austen created her works before Gaskell, we can state that she was influenced by her. Finally, I would like to point out other themes which Gaskell deals with in the book but they are hidden and the general reader might not be able to reveal them.
1. A brief description of the plot and the main characters
The story is set in England in the 19th century. As the title suggests, this works provides comparisons and descriptions of the North and the South of England. It tells the story of a young woman Margaret Hale who originally comes from Helstone in the south but she lives with her close relatives Aunt Shaw and Cousin Edith in Harley Street in London. The relation between Edith and Margaret is worth the attention because they are like sisters. However, Edith marries Captain Lennox and they leave for Corfu where his regiment is stationed. Margaret finds the state of being abandoned by her true friend scarcely bearable so she decides to return to Helstone.
The most unexpected event occurs when Mr. Hale is determined to leave the vicarage of Helstone because he lost his personal faith in it. His wife and daughter follow him obediently into the town of Milton in the north. The Hales directly experience the industrial and bustling town. They get to know two men from two distinct classes—a worker Higgins and a manufacturer Mr. Thornton. Mrs. Hale passes away because of a harsh and unhealthy environment and later on she is followed by her husband. Margaret decides to live again in London. However, she has to acknowledge that her heart goes out to Thornton who is lonely and almost goes bankrupt. Coincidentally, Margaret and Thornton meet in London and they feel they are deeply in love with each other.
Margaret Hale is a stubborn heroine of the story. The sudden loss of the parents makes her utterly desperate. She stoutly defends the life and values of Helstone. Margaret is filled with hatred of Thornton because of a cruel attitude to his workers. Mr. Richard Hale remains consistent in everything he does and he has to believe in it. Even if he is a local vicar and seems genuinely fond of living in the country parsonage, he stops believing in his mission. His role of being able to educate other people fulfills his life in Milton. Mr. John Thornton is a proud and hardworking northerner manufacturer who owns the Marlborough Mills. He is straightforward with his workers and devoted to Margaret in every way. Nicholas Higgins, who represents the working class, is the leader of the Trade Union. He starts the strike in a non-violent way. Nicholas loves his two daughters and he also manages to take care of his dead friend’s children.
2. Periodization and literary significance
This book is traditionally placed in the category of Victorian novels. Victoria’s coronation in 1837 signals the official inception of this literary period and her death in 1901 marks its official demise. The term “Victorian” in general can be associated with sexual repression, stultifying middle-class family life and cramped views on women’s lives. General view of the Victorian period and its novels is slightly connected with being clipped or limited but Victorian novels are expansive, generous, deeply entertaining and ambitious. The novel is eager to show that it knows everything from poor workers, tradesmen, manufacturers to business, history, traveling, etc. (DEIRDRE et al. 2001: 1–3) Victorian novel is definitely not economical:
This is probably because it is about so many things: provincial politics,
ecclesiastical infighting, city squalor, repressed sexuality, making and
losing money, imperial adventure, angels in the house, scientific challenges
to established religious beliefs, the value and function of the aesthetic life
in a materialistic society. (DEIDRE et al. 2001: 5)
From the historical point of view, the population of England grew enormously during the 19th century, from 8.9 to 32.5 million. Masses of people left rural areas in the south because they wanted to work in the northern industrial cities. The working class began to lobby for unionization through membership in Chartism. (DEIRDRE et al. 2001: 5) At the middle of the century the Chartist movement was abolished and England improved its economics. Britain became the “workshop of the world.” It was producing more than any other country in the world. (McDOWALL 1989: 131) By the end of the Great Exhibition2 in 1851, the novel was firmly established in the society as the literary form of the age. It gained such a hegemonic hold over the British public that it was found almost everywhere. (DEIRDRE et al. 2001: 6–7)
Furthermore, I would like to contrast North and South with Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens because his works fall within the same category of the 19th century. Both of these writers depicted different social classes of the 19th century. Gaskell’s method of describing various social classes is of great interest to me because she used the symbols of places through which she distinguished social classes. This becomes highly visible in North and South. London denotes the symbol of intellectualism, education, rich and aristocratic classes. Helstone indicates the symbol of old feudal system, a lack of progress, friendliness, faith in God and agriculture. Milton represents the symbol of science, industry, businessmen, manufacturers, strikes and working class (the book referrers to workers as “hands”). On the other hand, Charles Dickens depicted an entire social class with each individual character. The characters of Mr. and Mrs. Brownlow represent a high class in London. Mr. Sowerberry, who is a gravedigger and Oliver’s guardian, represents a middle class and the types of thieves such as Fagin indicate poor and low classes. (associatedcontent.com – Portrayals of Work in Gaskell and Dickens)
It seems to me that the similarity between Gaskell’s North and South and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice invites comparison because of a similar style and a choice of characters. Also, I should point out that both of these writers led quiet lives in a country parish and they came from the families of clergymen. Gaskell and Austen used very detailed dialogues through which we get to know the characters and their qualities. For instance, Margaret is a feminist, stubborn, intelligent and self-assured as well as Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice.
(austenised.blogspot.com – Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen)
In addition, Jill L. Matus in The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell reveals other themes which Gaskell deals with in the book and not only industry, regional differences and relationships. The novel is primarily interested in the effect of powerful feelings on psychic functioning and then the damaging consequences of intense emotional experience. It basically studies the human mind under social condition in mid-century England. It explains how people cope with emotional shock and pain, for example, death is among several factors that create emotional confusion and provoke shock and pain. (MATUS et al. 2007: 35–36) The theme of dream and trance can be found in the book as well:
The narrator also draws the attention on the dream and trance
and the idea of being “beside oneself” or “not oneself.” This focus
puts Gaskell into the company of mid-century mental physiologists.
She repeatedly evokes the sense of living a nightmare or bad dream
in troubled times. (MATUS et al. 2007: 37)
Gaskell sometimes employs the language of shock and horror but this is absorbed into the realist narration so it rarely produces a Gothic effect. All these are the topics that are not evident for the first time to the general reader. (MATUS et al. 2007: 39)
3. Aspects of love, determination and gentlemanship
In fact, the book focuses principally both on industrial and social aspects. I would like to focus solely on social aspects by which I mean the theme of love, determination and the status of gentleman. All these issues are strongly related to each other. Being a gentleman in the 19th century would probably involve being polite and mild but it affected all spheres from public to family life and not only being on best behavior towards women. There is the moment in the book where Margaret angrily accuses Thornton of not being a gentleman:
He never went on with any subject, but gave little, short,
abrupt answers … with a face that is neither exactly plain,
nor yet handsome, not quite a gentleman; but that was to
be expected. (GASKELL 2003: 41)
Nevertheless, Thornton is not a gentleman because he should have the title Gent. after his name which he does not have. Daniel Pool points out: “The person who used this title was defined by the law as someone with no regular trade or occupation.” (POOL 1993: 44) This is not possible at all because Thornton owns the Marlborough Mills. However, Margaret considers being a gentleman in social terms. I have to admit that she should not judge the book by its cover because Thornton undergoes a significant change during the plot—he is helpful to the Hales, caring and he even changes the attitude to his workers in terms of improvement of working conditions. If I were Margaret, I would not denounce Thornton of not being a gentleman because I am firmly convinced of the fact that I would have to try hard to find a man like this nowadays.
A further theme repeated in the book is determination. Margaret and Mrs. Hale follow Mr. Hale into the town of Milton even if they do not quite like it. Another instance of determination is when Mr. Hale leaves the Church because he simply lost the faith in his mission:
He has written to the bishop, saying that he has such doubts
that he cannot remain a priest of the Church of England …
surely, he does not mean that he thinks differently—that
he knows better than the Church. (GASKELL 2003: 28)
I firmly believe that we should show appreciation of his decision owing to the fact that nowadays people would rarely quit their jobs deliberately because they stop believing in it. We can see that Thornton and Margaret Hale are full of a dogged determination as well. She is determined to hate him because of his behavior, which is not gentlemanlike in her opinion. He is determined to love her forever, which stems from the conviction that she is the first and the last woman he will ever be able to love. Thornton is excellent at courtesy which is based on the fact that courtship was a very serious matter indeed. Consequently, Thornton proposes Margaret and this is the moment where she hates him the most and rejects his proposal. Daniel Pool explains that gentleman’s course was to inform in advance the parents or guardians of the lady of his intentions and he also had to state his circumstances and property. (POOL 1993: 181) Margaret might have been offended for not telling her parents first.
A further aspect of this is that they are devoted to each other all these years and they are only waiting for the right moment to kiss. The kiss symbolizes the end of the book but at the same time the beginning of their relationship. However, the kiss is very serious matter as well as devotion and courtesy. In my view, we should worship the relationship between two people in a way they do. It would help to hold people in high esteem and generally it would raise the quality of human relationships which is poorer and poorer.
To summarize, I believe I included all the points that I wanted to achieve in the introduction. As far as I am concerned, the book provided me with a startling insight into the problematic of the relationships and even into the human mind of the 19th century. In other words, the main protagonists’ mutual devotion greatly impressed me. The books I used for writing my analysis helped me a lot because now I have my own personal view on the book as well as on the situation in England in the 19th century. I have been always interested in this topic which stems from the adoration of good manners, courtesy and the fact that even the kiss stood for something more than it means nowadays.
On balance, I feel that our society will no longer be like in the 19th century. On the one hand, we can boast about our scientific and technical superiority but on the other hand, our relationships and values are poorer probably owing to a fast lifestyle. We should go back in time and refresh our memories with basic human values such as loyalty, politeness, respect for rules, etc.