North and South

North and South Summary and Analysis of Chapters XLIX-L


Chapter XLIX

Edith asked her husband if he knew if Margaret was an heiress, but the Captain was not sure. A week later Edith learned that Margaret was to indeed be the heiress and inherit a great deal of money. She was working almost exclusively with Henry Lennox as she knew nothing of business herself. Edith playfully spoke to Henry about his chances with Margaret, and he seemed a bit hopeful.

Spain was not on the agenda, but the Lennoxes and Aunt Shaw were headed to Cromer, a seaside town. Margaret was still restless about the fact that the truth of her behavior would never be told to Mr. Thornton. While in Cromer Margaret spent hours each day sitting at the beach and watching the waves. This allowed her to set her thoughts aright, and figure out their origins and significance.

Henry Lennox immediately noticed upon her return that she looked much younger. He devoted his time henceforth to winning Margaret. He admired her beauty and her character and saw that the latter could be further shaped to meet his own interests. He knew that her fortune would help him in his practice as well. He felt that he had reason to hope that their relationship was progressing from client and adviser to one of closeness.

When she returned to town Margaret also decided that she had to take her affairs into her own hands, and became firmer and more assured in her dealing with Mrs. Shaw. While proud, she still had a sweetness of heart and even though she was asserting herself she still won people over with her charm. The family tried to keep other men away from her and hoped that she would settle down with Henry.

Chapter L

Back in Milton things proceeded without Margaret, but they were much different. There was a gloom over the town and not as many people came there to purchase goods. Credit was insecure and fortunes were unstable.

Mr. Thornton was very hard-pressed; he felt vulnerable in his business affairs. He was, however, coming to trust Higgins much more, and he changed his thinking on the relationship between masters and their men. It was now possible for "master and man to look upon each other with far more charity and sympathy and bear with each other more patiently and kindly."

Mr. Thornton had locked up a lot of his funds in expensive new machinery and had bought too much cotton. He also found the Irish hands unskilled. He was losing his orders and found it difficult to get paid for the orders he did complete. There was a constant drain of expenses. One indication of the changes in his relationship with his men was the fact that they noticed his cares and were sympathetic.

One day Higgins and Mr. Thornton were speaking and Higgins asked if Mr. Thornton had heard of Margaret lately. He replied sadly that he did often, and that she was his landlord now because of Mr. Bell's passing. Higgins mentioned Frederick and his presence in England when Mrs. Hale died. This was news to Mr. Thornton, and he saw it as a "little golden thread running through the dark web of his present fortunes."

Every night Mr. Thornton took his papers up to his room and pored over them, avoiding sleep. His mother finally confronted him and spoke with him about his business. She asked if he would be a failure and he replied that he might be, especially since he refused to take part in a wild speculation because he did not want to disgrace his character. He asked his mother mournfully if she would be terribly sad if they had to leave the house, and she said "No! but to have you other than what you are will break my heart." After further discussion, in which the mother was grieved and the son asked her for her previous assistance and care, Mr. Thornton gained his color and his spirit back. He felt comforted by his discussion with his mother and was pleased they were not in discord with each other.

Finally, Mr. Thornton had to give up his business. He declined a partnership with Hamper's son. News came of his brother-in-law's daring and successful speculation.

Chapter LI

Edith came into Margaret's room and told her that Henry Lennox was bringing Mr. Thornton, who was in London in town on business, to come to dinner that evening. He would be a valuable guest since a Mr. Colthurst, a member of Parliament, was to be there. They could speak about business affairs. Edith was mildly piqued at the presence of an extra visitor, and answered Margaret's questions about the fate of Mr. Thornton's business in a scattered, flippant manner. She told her cousin that she heard Thornton had failed.

Downstairs Margaret looked upon the man she had not seen for over a year. He looked older and more careworn, but nobler as well. She listened to the conversation and watched Mr. Thornton when he did not look her way. Occasionally he would brighten into high spirits, but when their eyes met his countenance became "grave and anxious once more." Margaret heard him speaking about the new mutual advantages the relationship between his workers and himself gave both sides. He mentioned that he was looking for a new occupation, one "with the opportunity of cultivating some intercourse with the hands beyond the mere 'cash nexus'." He admitted to Colthurst that he saw that strikes were still a possibility but that they would not be as acrimonious as before. He suddenly turned to Margaret and said that Higgins and the men had all proclaimed that they would come back to work for him if he was in a position to employ them once more. He asked her if she thought that was good and she bashfully responded yes.

As Mr. Lennox departed that night Margaret asked him if they might speak privately tomorrow since she needed help with something. He exulted at this request and felt that it might be time to renew his offer to her.

Chapter LII

The next morning Edith caught Mr. Lennox on his way out of his meeting with Margaret and alluded to his relationship with her cousin. He bitterly told her to stop thinking about it, as it would never be. Miss Hale would not have him and he would not ask her.

Mr. Thornton arrived and went into the room where Margaret was waiting. She began hurriedly that it would be better if Mr. Lennox was there as he could explain better, but explained that the barrister had helped her draw up a proposal to show that if Mr. Thornton took some money of hers, which was lying unused and brought her little interest, he could bring her better interest and could go on working at Marlborough Mills. Mr. Thornton did not speak and she kept her eyes downcast

When he spoke she was caught by his tone. He said in a tremulous voice, "Margaret!" he came close to her and knelt by her ear and whispered that if she did not speak "I shall claim you as my own in some strange presumptuous way. –Send me away at once, if I must go; -Margaret! –" She finally looked up and laid her face on his shoulder. He clasped her close and they held each other in silence for several minutes. She said brokenly that she was not good enough for him, and he replied that he had his own deep feeling of unworthiness. He said he had something to show her, and pulled out of his pocketbook some dried flowers. She recognized hem as being from Helstone, and he said he had visited there once to see the place where she grew to be what she was.

After more "delicious silence," they laughed at what Mrs. Shaw and later Mrs. Thornton would say when they were told of this betrothal.


Both the love story and the social story have come to an end in these last chapters. Mr. Thornton and Margaret have finally set aside their pride, erroneous assumptions about the other's character, and their unflinching views on the matters of North and South and masters and men. The personal changes they have experienced finally make them worthy of the other. Margaret's fortune and her choice to save Marlborough Mills demonstrate that she is far from the quiet, moldable wife that a man like Henry Lennox would have preferred –she is Thornton's equal and will not be cowed in her determination to order her life as she sees fit.

Mr. Thornton has finally come to see the way he should be conducting business and would rather lose the mill than engage in risky or inhumane business practices. There may still be strikes in the future, but this time they will not suffer from the same obfuscation of motives, bitterness and ignorance, and inability to embrace compromise. He uses the phrase "cash nexus," which means "financial relationship" and is usually attributed to Carlyle, who wrote "for, in one word Cash Payment had not then grown to be the universal sole nexus of man to man" in Chartism (1839). Thornton also speaks of "the point Archimedes sought" (420), which is a reference to the supposition that when explaining the principle of the level, Archimedes said "Give me where to stand and I will move the earth."

It has been said of the last couple of chapters that they wrap up the plot threads too quickly. Gaskell herself was annoyed with the restrictions on serialization that Dickens had tried to enforce in Household Words, but wrote in a letter that the final coming together of Thornton and Margaret was curtailed: "I am not sure if, when the barrier gives way between 2 such characters as Mr. Thornton and Margaret it would not go smash in a moment –and I don't feel quite certain that I dislike the end as it now stands." It does seem rather true to the heightened level of misunderstanding, confusion, wrong-place-wrong-time issues, and the very slowly-evolving beliefs of the two protagonists that their love would be given into in one quick and passionate moment.

A note on Margaret's character: she is truly un-Victorian in her determination to run her own life and answer for the choices she made and will make. After her revivifying visit to Cromer, the seaside town, she "had learnt...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...Margaret gained the acknowledgment of her right to follow her own ideas of duty" (406).

In her note on the text from the Penguin edition, Patricia Ingham writes that this "problem for women" was a central issue of this work and others, like Charlotte Bronte's Shirley (1849). Gaskell wrote in a letter to Eliza Fox, "that discovery of one's exact work in the world is the puzzle...I am sometimes coward enough to wish that we were back in the darkness where obedience was seen as the only duty of women."