MAY / JUNE 2012: BY HANNAH KINGSLEY
I ADMIT TO a preference for strong literary females. Perhaps this stems from the fact that I dislike weak-willed, helpless women—fictional or not. Or maybe it is because I believe women can both be strong and gentle, vulnerable and powerful.
I believe her role is more than just delicate. It is raw. Yet often in literature and on screen, fictional females are seen as petty, stupid, and superficial. There is a token material girl in many TV sitcoms, and shallow or non-intellectual woman in most contemporary films. Although sometimes with worthwhile reasons, such as to shape or contrast the behavior of the heroine, costume dramas are not free of such caricatures. (Think Lydia or Kitty in Pride and Prejudice.) Regardless of the era, such characters highlight the feminine weakness rather than strength and beauty. How refreshing then when a woman can be a woman, as serious as she is funny, as light-hearted as she is strong. Such a character can be found in Elizabeth Gaskell’s beloved North and South.
We meet Margaret while she is living with her family in Helstone, in the south of England. Life is slow and the world in bloom like a perpetual garden. The south is full of farmland with small, well-attended chapels, and happiness is found by everything being in its place. Yet Margaret is never quite satisfied with “things as they are” and the quiet expectations of her hometown. She shows the strangeness of her opinions by rejecting a proposal from Henry Lennox on the grounds that she does not share his affections. There are similarities in this sense between Margaret Hale and Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the theme that marriage should arise not solely from a perverted sense of obligation but the deepest kind of love.
Margaret is stronger-willed than the typical swooning female. Gaskell gives us Margaret’s beautiful and frivolous Cousin Edith as one model by which to compare her opinions. While Edith is happy in her crinoline comforts and new husband, she finds her cousin at times “so severe.” In the miniseries, Fanny Thornton also makes this accusation. Margaret is not always happy and carefree, but is given to greater reflectiveness and different angles of emotion. She is genuine, thoughtful, and at times stubborn. She is also not averse to melancholy, which gives the sense that Margaret is unafraid to experience the fullness of life, both in its joys and sorrows. Through this intensity of feeling, it can be said she experiences more of life than even her well-traveled cousins.
Helstone appears on the surface to be romantic and idealistic, like something dreamed up by a romantic scholar. Yet her father, a parishioner, is a scholar of a different kind. When he comes to disagree with the traditional, uneducated, rote version of faith found in that part of England, he relocates them to Milton in the industrial north, where life moves quickly, and money exchanges hands with a greater lust and haste than his family is accustomed. In the north, people are rough around the edges, and less afraid to speak their minds. At first, Margaret finds this shocking and chaffing, but as the city grows on her, she realizes the honesty of the place and its people, even in the midst of their racing and struggling.
Perhaps the greatest trait in Margaret is integrity. Although not without great errors, as is the case of any literary heroine, Margaret is enduring and relatable. She lives in a changing world where time moves quickly and sorrow is universal, yet is confident in her beliefs and opinions rather than conforming to her environment. In Helstone she was accused of being severe, but in Milton she is often viewed as too concerned with humanity and principles in a world that runs on cotton not the feelings of men’s souls. Regardless of what others say about her, she chooses for the most part to stay true to her convictions and do what she believes deeply to be right. Her actions arise out of her reflective and strong-feeling nature, and her heart finds worthy causes from her offence at any poverty and injustice. She sees pain in the eyes of the men that walk blackened streets and attributes some of it to the harshness of the masters of the factories, including her father’s friend Mr. Thornton. As she states, “Those who are happy and successful themselves are too apt to make light of the misfortunes of others.”
Part of the growth of a heroine involves pain and mishap of which Margaret undergoes her fair share. Yet North and South’s heroine is a rarity because of her gentle strength, so uncommon in novels of Gaskell’s time and rare still. Equally interesting is the journey she undergoes during her stay in Milton. At first she is angry at her father for moving them so suddenly and with so little explanation. She dreams of the home they left behind. Gradually she discovers the north has its merit as well. In the city there is less order and more chaos, more hungry children, immediacy and death. All of these traits stand in great contrast to Helstone’s calm meadows. But there are also people with hearts of strength.
While strength of heart is important, Margaret does not believe herself self-sufficient. Her modest and gentle approach is in direct contrast to some of today’s “strong literary women” that believe in autonomy and more absolute independence. Margaret remarks, “God has made us so that we must be mutually dependent. We may ignore our own dependence, or refuse to acknowledge that others depend upon us… but the thing must be, nevertheless.”
Her strength comes not just from herself, but from those around her, and, in turn, God. In her, Gaskell captures the truest sense of womanly strength, independent from others but unafraid to accept their assistance. Margaret is a “real” woman who acknowledges the source of her strength and does not neglect to use it. ♥