The novel opened with Margaret gently trying to wake her cousin Edith, who had fallen asleep on the drawing-room sofa. Margaret and Edith grew up together, but now Edith was about to marry Captain Lennox and the two would move to Corfu. Margaret was going to return to Helstone where her father and mother lived, but as much as she was excited about this prospect, she had lived ten years in her aunt's home. Now eighteen, Margaret mused on those happy years and sighed to the maid that she would be sorry to bid farewell.
She joined her aunt downstairs, where a group of women were gathered, talking about the wedding and the Indian shawls Edith would be given. Margaret was told to model the shawls since Edith was still asleep, and she was doing this when Captain Lennox's brother, Henry, was announced. Edith also woke up and entered the room at this time, rubbing her sleepy eyes. Henry came and sat next to Margaret; she was glad because she enjoyed his company and "now she was sure of a pleasant evening." The two of them chatted about the shawls and the business of planning the wedding. Margaret commented that she hoped her own wedding would not be such a whirlwind. Henry asked her to tell him about Helstone, but annoyed Margaret when he said that her description of it was almost like a picture. He noticed her annoyance and asked her instead what she did at Helstone. She began to speak of taking walks and how they did not even own a horse. Eventually Henry laughed and just said he would have to pay a call sometime, and she cheerfully agreed. Captain Lennox arrived and Mrs. Shaw welcomed him. Mrs. Shaw had not married for love and she dwelt on that fact often, but now that her husband had died her health was a new source of anxiety.
A few days later Margaret was traveling home to Helstone with her father after the wedding. Her mother did not attend because she did not have a new dress. Mrs. Hale had indeed married for love, unlike her sister, but her life was considerably less wealthy. Both sisters no doubt envied the other. Margaret's heart felt heavy at all her goodbyes, but she noticed her father looked very careworn and anxious.
Margaret had returned home in late July, and nature was full of light, beauty, and life. She loved her forest and the people within it. However, while her "out-of-doors life was perfect...her indoor life had its drawbacks." Her mother always seemed discontented with Helstone, complaining about the air and telling Mr. Hale he needed to seek a better parish. Margaret was uncomfortable with these long hours of awkwardness.
She walked outside often, but found few books left in the house to amuse herself. Mr. Hale often spent his evening locked up in his study reading. Several mentions were made of a brother, Frederick, who had been engaged in a mutiny Margaret did not know many details about. When she asked about him her parents said he was well and sent his love, but this information was not fulfilling. Margaret continued to notice her father's pervasive discontent and absent-mindedness.
Her concern for him, however, vanished with a beautiful day that she planned to spend out of doors. However, Sarah the housemaid announced that Mr. Henry Lennox had arrived.
Margaret was pleased to see him and they spoke of Edith and Captain Lennox's departure. While Margaret went to fetch her mother Henry looked about the interior of the house, noting that it did seem a little shabby. Mrs. Hale was having a particularly vexing day, where "everything was a difficulty and a hardship, and Mr. Lennox's appearance took this shape, although secretly she felt complimented by his thinking it worth while to call."
Margaret and Henry took sketching equipment out onto the grounds, passing several old squatters' cabins. When Margaret went to speak with an old man who lived in one, Henry took the opportunity to sketch her quickly. When she returned she was surprised he had done this; he replied that the temptation was too great to resist. This little speech made her a bit uncomfortable, and he felt strange as well, since impromptu words like those rarely fell from his lips.
When they returned Mr. Hale looked at their sketches and complimented them. At dinner, conversation "flowed on quietly and agreeably," with many questions asked on both sides. They decided to eat pears for dessert, and to do it outside since it was so agreeable in the garden. Margaret and Henry walked together along the terrace walk near the south wall. They spoke of how lovely Helstone was. At one moment Henry started to speak but stopped, and Margaret suddenly felt like she did not want him to speak again because he would say something she did not want to hear.
Henry suddenly confessed his love for Margaret and his desire to marry her. Startled, she replied that she did not think of him in that manner and did not like to be spoken to like that. He begged her to let him hope, but she refused him once more. His manner turning cold, he remarked that as this conversation was so unpleasant to her it should be immediately forgotten. She was distressed and asked sadly what she could do to help. He softened a bit and replied that as he was not inclined to romance, the fact that this one outlet he had for it had rejected him, he felt it keenly and scorned his own folly. Margaret was irritated and a feeling of contempt mingled with her pain at refusing him.
Back at the house Henry spoke with her father like nothing had happened, but his manner was changed –he was more glib, worldly, and clever. Mr. Hale was puzzled, and Margaret was frustrated. However, Henry knew that he cared more for her than he let on, and that he did not hate her.
Margret mused on the differences between men and women; this man who had just confessed his love for her and was rejected could be so normal and lighthearted minutes after, but she was "disturbed and unhappy." However, it did steal into her mind that perhaps his behavior was a way to mask his pain.
After tea Mr. Hale asked Margaret into his study, telling her had an important matter very serious to all of them to discuss with her. She was curious about his meaning, and waited for an explanation. He blurted out that they must leave Helstone because he could no longer be a minister in the Church of England. Margaret was shocked and wondered if it was because of Frederick, but her father explained that it was because he had theological doubts and could not in good conscience remain in the Church.
Margaret burst into sobs at this sudden change in their lives. She was dismayed that he planned on leaving so suddenly, and also that he had not even informed his wife because he did not want to upset her. Margaret's distress grew when she learned they were to move to Milton-Northern, an industrial town, in a fortnight. There her father knew no one and no one knew him. They had some savings to live on, but her father explained that his old friend and tutor at Oxford, Mr. Bell, could procure him a job as a private tutor. Margret was scornful of this and wondered why people living in an industrial town would need a tutor. Mr. Hale gently corrected her and told her that several people did want learning and that a Mr. Thornton, to whom Mr. Hale was recommended by Mr. Bell, was very intelligent.
Mr. Hale asked Margaret if she could tell her mother of all this, and though she found the prospect loathsome, she agreed. It was decided that she would do it tomorrow by nightfall. This terrible change in their situation was almost too much to bear.
North and South begins with a contrast between two very different young women –the blonde, sweet, and superficial Edith, and the dark-haired, pensive, and intelligent Margaret Hale. The latter is the heroine of the novel, and a compelling one at that. Margaret proves herself in these first few chapters to be of sound character and a great deal of moral and intellectual substance, although she is privy to several prejudices against the working class and a considerable dollop of snobbishness. She is passionately loyal to her home in Helstone –despite having spent a decade in her aunt's house on Harley Street –and tries to ignore the simmering tensions beneath the surface. Her view of Helstone, as Mr. Lennox points out, is very idealized.
These aforementioned tensions, which include her mother's unhappiness and her father's strange depression, can scarcely stay subsumed in the idyllic pastoral environs of Helstone for very long. Mr. Hale confesses to his daughter that he possesses serious theological doubts and cannot remain the Vicar of Helstone. He will have to move his family away, and has chosen the industrial town of Milton in the North because no one knows them there and his old Oxford tutor, Mr. Bell, has arranged for him to be a private tutor. Milton-Northern was modeled on the town where Elizabeth Gaskell lived her married life, Manchester. Manchester was often perceived as the model of an industrial town, both in its merits and its flaws.
Mr. Hale's doubts have long puzzled readers because he never fully explains them. Many critics have seen this as a mere plot contrivance –a complicated way to get the Hales to Milton. Dickens, who published North and South in his magazine Household Words, saw the first part of Gaskell's novel and believed that its emphasis on Mr. Hale meant that it was to be a very religious work. Reading only the first few chapters does indeed suggest to the reader that this religious conviction of Mr. Hale's will be a central point of the novel, as it is given so much emotional weight. The critic Angus Easson attempts to deal with this problematic aspect of the novel in his article, "Mr. Hale's Doubts in North and South." He observes that most biographers and critics see Mr. Hale in light of Gaskell's own father, William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister who also left the ministry. However, Mr. Hale's doubts were not about the nature of his office as a clergyman, for he lamented having to say goodbye to his parishioners. Easson writes, "what is first clear about his doubts is that they involved the Thirty-Nine Articles...and therefore the institutions and doctrines specifically of the Church of England" and that "one thing clearly Mr. Hale has come to doubt is the rightness of a State religion...a 'Parliamentary religion.'"
The question thus remains –did Gaskell need to create this crisis of conscience for Mr. Hale to get the family to Milton where the rest of the novel would take place? Mr. Hale did not necessarily even need to be a clergyman; the difference between the North and the South was established even without his religious occupation. However, religion does indeed play a prominent role in the novel even though it is often overshadowed by the class conflicts and the love story. Easson notes Bessy's "apocalyptic vision and the marginal but disquieting awareness that Frederick Hale has gone over to Rome," and the other varieties of religious expression, including "Margaret's vivid but orthodox Anglicanism, her father's conscientious Unitarianism, Bessy's overheated visions, Nicholas's fervid atheism, Mrs. Hale's establishmentarianism..."
Mr. Hale may have left the Church and converted to Unitarianism (Easson points out that this is not explicit but is strongly suggested), but his religion does not cease to be important. Because he is now outside of the official religion he can stand as a man of integrity who values justice, truth, and love. He has "won the right to comment on the behavior and opinions of others which could not be conceded to Margaret or Thornton or Bell." Even though Margaret is the center of the novel, her own passion and intellectual/emotional/moral development do not allow her to serve as "stillpoint." Mrs. Gaskell thus did not err in making Mr. Hale religion or in calling attention to his doubts; she had a reason for doing so that is clear by the end of novel.