In the first place, Margaret felt guilty and ashamed of having grown so much into a woman as to be thought of in marriage...
Victorian society required women to be modest, chaste, and demure. Their sexuality was to be hidden away; any putative improper behavior was censured. Margaret has internalized the pervasive gender norms of her society and is thus extremely uncomfortable when she realizes that a man -Henry Lennox -has noticed her as a woman he desires to marry. Margaret may be progressive and bold in other areas of her character, but her sexuality is a source of shame and something to be repressed. When she throws her arms around Mr. Thornton to shield him from the raging mob, she once again is perturbed that the observers have mistaken her behavior for a sign of love. Later she is overcome with embarrassment when Mrs. Thornton assumes she was meeting with a lover at the station. These aspersions upon her moral character send her into impassioned responses of indignancy and refutation. Margaret eventually convinces herself that she will never marry. At one point she wishes she was a Catholic so she might enter a nunnery. It is suggested that her chastity is thus a central part of her makeup.
I would rather be a man toiling, suffering—nay, failing and successless—here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call more aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease.
Charles Dickens requested the novel's title be changed from "Margaret Hale" to "North and South." Thus, a comparison between the two regions is a prevailing concern of the work. Initially, the contrast between the two as seen by Margaret favors the South. There life was simpler and there were no class tensions. The air was healthy, the people interested in education and conversation, their manners genteel. In the North, however, the air was dirty, factories caused illness and death, people were uncouth, and money was valued more than learning. Margaret often butted heads with Mr. Thornton and his mother on the subject of which region was preferable. Here Thornton claims that he would rather embrace a life of hard work than ossify in the slow, "aristocratic" life of the South. Margaret retorts that the South has less suffering, less injustice. Later, however, after Margaret has spent time in Milton, she actually admits its weaknesses. She warns Higgins that the air is too cold and life was hard. She tells people in Harley Street that she was not unhappy there. Later she views her time in Helstone and Milton as times in which she felt like she was at "home." Overall, both Gaskell and her heroine close the novel with a new understanding of how each region of England had its merits and detractions.
'And I too am nineteen.' She thought, more sorrowfully than Bessy did, of the contrast between them.
Margaret is shocked to learn that she and Bessy are the same age, for the girls' circumstances are vastly different from each other. Margaret is from the South, educated, healthy (even her last name, "Hale," suggests health, although that is not the case for her parents), autonomous, and Anglican. Bessy is from the industrial North, uneducated, dying from an infection of the lungs, and millenarian in her religious views. Nevertheless, Bessy is able to teach Margaret several things. She challenges Margaret on her failed promise to visit her home. She calls attention to the ruling class of Milton -the masters and their families -and the reality that Margaret's Southern educated gentry background does not count for as much in this town. She helps Margaret understand the strike and corrects her when she makes erroneous assumptions about the working men of Milton. For her part, Margaret is like a breath of fresh air to the invalid; after she eliminates her prejudices, she is able to be a friend and a great comfort. She reads the Bible to Bessy and provides soothing care when she is in the throes of her illness. She represents a different, gentler world that Bessy hopes to find when she goes to Heaven. Both girls benefit from their friendship despite their very discernible differences.
Only yo' see,' and now her voice took a mournful, pleading tone, 'at times o' strike there's much to knock a man down, for all they start so hopefully; and where's the comfort to come fro'? He'll get angry and mad—they all do—and then they get tired out wi' being angry and mad, and maybe ha' done things in their passion they'd be glad to forget. Bless yo'r sweet pitiful face! but yo' dunnot know what a strike is yet.'
There are many things Margaret does not understand when she moves to Milton, and the strike is one of them. Bessy's opinions on the strike are unwavering -she feels that it is painful and useless. Despite the fact that there might be a valid reason behind it, she cannot help but perceive a strike as a loathsome thing that eradicates a man's hope and confidence. She has seen too many of them fail to be optimistic. The masters always have won and they always will win. Bessy's predictions turn out to be true, for Boucher and men like him feel too frustrated to hold out for diplomacy and thus turn to violent means. Irish hands are brought in and the Committee fails to secure any negotiations. Things return to their normal mode of operation. However, one thing Bessy does not live to see is the change within Mr. Thornton that leads to his better treatment of his workers and a more progressive, humanistic way of conducting business.
It might be that revenge gave him no pleasure; it might be that he valued the position he had earned with the sweat of his brow, so much that he keenly felt its being endangered by the ignorance or folly of others,—so keenly that he had no thoughts to spare for what would be the consequences of their conduct to themselves.
Like Margaret, Mr. Thornton evolves a great deal throughout the text. This quote exemplifies his manner of thinking before Margaret and before his business fails. He saw that he had pulled himself up by his bootstraps and unequivocally separated master from laborer. He built his business on his own and resented any attempts, particularly by Parliament or the workers themselves, to meddle with structures he had established. When the strike arose he could only think derisively of the workers; he did not feel he had to justify himself to them or make clear what the market forces behind his decisions were. He thought only of himself and did not believe it was necessary for him to heed the workers' situations. It is not until his relationship with Margaret progresses and she challenges him on his assumptions that he begins to change his thinking. He also comes to appreciate his workers when the business begins to fail. His relationship with Higgins is instrumental here; the two men develop a relationship based on grudging admiration and respect. The dining room for the workers presented at the end of the novel is a symbol of this new spirit of equanimity and understanding between master and men.
She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, with starving children at home—relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread.
Nicholas's plan for the strike is rational and well-thought. He is a member of the Union Committee and expressly advocates a peaceful approach to the demand for workers' rights. His plan, however, does not take into account the deprivation unemployment will take upon some of the poorer families. The character of Boucher represents the lowest members of the working class -those with large families who do not have the luxury of striking. Boucher is a complicated figure and Gaskell neither explicitly condones or condemns him. He is introduced sympathetically; he comes to the Higgins house distraught over his starving family and despairing about the newly-arrived Irish hands. Later, however, he leads the violent mob against Mr. Thornton and is depicted as wild, irrational, and bloodthirsty. Near the end of the novel later he commits suicide and abandons his family to impoverishment. Readers are compelled to feel sorry for the children left to their fates, but Boucher and his wife are less sympathetic characters. Nicholas's plan may not be perfect, but after the mob incident it seems more palatable.
Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.
Although the novel is most commonly understood as one about social class and romance, it also deals with religion. There are a variety of religious affiliations in the novel, and Gaskell seems to have an abiding respect for each one of them. This particular quote demonstrates her willingness to allow characters of different religions to listen to the other's perspectives and join with them in collective expressions of spirituality without judgement or disapprobation. In this scene they have more in common than different: they are grieving over the recently deceased Bessy and ruminating over the failure of the strike. There is a gentleness and an equanimity about this scene; gone are the destructive doubts of Mr. Hale, the self-righteousness of Margaret, and the raging atheism of Nicholas. Gaskell appreciates all types of spirituality, just as she suggests that she has sympathy for all social classes.
He thought that he disliked seeing one who had mortified him so keenly; but he was mistaken. It was a stinging pleasure to be in the room with her, and feel her presence. But he was no great analyser of his own motives, and was mistaken as I have said.
Mr. Thornton constantly fights his attraction to Margaret but is unable to slough off these feelings. After she refuses him he claims that he will still love her despite her rejection. This proves even more difficult than he expected when he catches sight of her with her brother Frederick at the train station and assumes that she is meeting with a lover. He had hoped to console her after her mother's death but realizes that there is another man who has filled that role. He is challenged in his love once more when he becomes aware that Margaret told a lie to the police inspector. Even though he assumes it has something to do with her lover, he still saves her from ignominy and legal trouble by using his powers as magistrate to close the case. Mr. Thornton's love for Margaret is thus all-encompassing and enduring; he cannot help himself from being attracted to a woman who is intellectually challenging, strong, and beautiful. It is a long road to happiness for the two protagonists, but Mr. Thornton is finally rewarded for his perseverance and his unwavering love for a woman whom he thought could never be his. Margaret not only consents to be his wife, but she saves his business from collapse and ruin. The end of the novel is satisfying to readers in its neat and felicitous tidying up of the plot strands.
'And I too change perpetually—now this, now that—now disappointed and peevish because all is not exactly as I had pictured it, and now suddenly discovering that the reality is far more beautiful than I had imagined it. Oh, Helstone! I shall never love any place like you.'
Helstone has always figured strongly in Margaret's imagination. She speaks of it in a dreamy fashion to Henry Lennox in the beginning of the novel, barely able to conjure up any concrete details. For her it is an idyllic, pastoral haven where she is secure and happy. She ignores the underlying tensions of the locale -her mother's unhappiness and her father's depression -and focuses on the landscape and her emotional placidity. It is thus immeasurably jarring when her father abruptly uproots the family and moves them to the vastly different industrial town of Milton. For most of the novel Margaret holds on to Helstone as a paragon of perfection, and hotly argues for the merits of the South and her old life. It is through her relationship with Bessy Higgins and her growing awareness of the good things about Milton -especially as articulated by Mr. Thornton -that she is able to conceive of Helstone differently. Her final visit to her former abode, which takes place after the death of her parents, does not have the impact she believes it will. She observes the myriad of changes taking place and has a greater amount of perspicacity regarding the nature of life in that village. She realizes that Helstone will always live on in her memory, especially as related to her parents, but that it is not perfect and is not a place that she can return to.
But 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.
While not a classic bildungsroman, North and South does find its two protagonists -Mr. Thornton and Margaret -evolving and growing throughout the novel. When the reader is first introduced to Margaret, her life is one of parties and simplicity and caring for her charming but needy and superficial cousin. In her brief time in Helstone she lives an idyllic life but one that cannot ultimately be sustained. Real life intrudes through her father's doubting and uprooting of the family to the North. It is in Milton that Margaret begins to define her values, beliefs, and morals, and develop an autonomous identity. She learns to recognize her prejudices and assumptions. Bessy, Nicholas, and Mr. Thornton challenge her mode of thinking and erroneous conclusions on Northern life, economic conditions, and social class. By the end of the novel Margaret is an intermediary between masters and men, and helps provide Nicholas with employment and save Mr. Thornton's business. She has realized her view of the South is too idealistic and that Milton has much more to offer than she initially expected. Also, she is no longer frightened or perturbed by her presence in the public sphere; she is confident and able to venture out on her own. She asserts her right to do this, even against the wishes of her aunt and cousin. Margaret's personal growth finally makes her aware of why Mr. Thornton is a good match for her, and allows her to embrace not only independence and an enlightened worldview, but true love.
North and South Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for North and South is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Mr. Bell was Margaret's godfather. Margaret was heir to his estate. Had he been a younger man, I think he might have broached marriage. None-the-less, he quickly became aware that she loved someone else.