MAY / JUNE 2016: BY VERONICA LEIGH
Elizabeth Gaskell chose to write North and South inspired by her life in Manchester. The haughty Margaret Hale moves from southern England with her genteelly impoverished family to Milton, in northern England. Considered by some to be similar to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in themes, North and South takes it a step further, exploring the great divide of rich and poor, good breeding and bad, manners and customs of two different worlds that are united.
Margaret is the daughter of an Anglican minister. The Hale’s live for years in the agricultural south until Mr. Hale begins to have doubts about his vocation. A man of conscience, he quits the church and takes his wife and daughter from their beloved home in Helstone to the smoky, dirty city of industrial Milton. The family is taken aback by the darkness of the town, the laborers, and the crudity of manners of the northerners. While Margaret and her family have no wealth of their own, in a sense she looks down on the citizens of Milton. Her southern roots and breeding causes her to put on airs. On the other hand, her religious convictions and sense of charity inspires her to reach out to the humble Higgins family, befriending Bessie and her father Nicholas. Through them she learns life is not all black and white, or in her case, North and South.
The hero of the novel is John Thornton, who in contrast represents the north. His father took his life when John was sixteen; leaving the young man solely responsible for his mother and sister’s wellbeing. From that moment on, everything John has done is with intention of rising out of debt and providing a decent life for those he loves. A product of Milton, he is not below getting his hands dirty. Even so, once he is a “master” and owns his own cotton mill, he is above mingling with the lower classes and his workers. It does not weigh on his conscience that some of his workers are children and many fall ill from the white fluff they inhale. He comes to know Margaret through lessons with Mr. Hale. As a young man, John had not the luxury of being well-versed in the classics.
On their initial meeting, John and Margaret’s first impressions of one another are skewed. She views him as a crude northerner, who dares to shake her hand is in breach of social decorum. John considers her haughty, yet is instantly attracted to her. His visits to her father provide ample opportunity for them to interact and argue. Northern practicality and southern affected manners continue to clash throughout the book. When Margaret protects John from a rioting crowd of union workers, they must examine their feelings. Unable to deny his love any longer, he makes her an offer of marriage which is harshly rebuffed.
Both Margaret and John are on a journey of self-discovery and must grow before they can commit to one another. Through Margaret’s friendship with the Higgins’, including Nicholas who loathes John Thornton, she begins to see the man she spurned through different eyes. The longer she thinks about it, the more she realizes how wrong she is about John. He is an intelligent, hardworking, thoughtful man who challenges her opinions. He is her equal in every sense of the word.
Following Margaret’s rejection, John succumbs to his anger and tries unsuccessfully to convince himself that he no longer loves her. However, whenever he encounters her, he cannot help but to continue to act in her best interest. He protects her when she finds herself in trouble with the law, and shows charity to the family when they lose one of their own. At her suggestion, he hires Nicholas Higgins, who stirred up many of the union workers, and slowly lays down his pride. John begins to value his employees, not so much as workers or as a means to an end, but as human beings.
Tragedy strikes Margaret and John, which eventually raises Margaret up in the social sphere while it lowers John. Through their various circumstances, they cross paths once more, this time forever. Their differences, which initially parted them, brought them together. ♥
Veronica Leigh is an aspiring novelist, who lives in Indiana with her family and six furbabies. Her obsessions range from Jane Austen to the Holocaust to Once Upon a Time. She has published two short autobiographical pieces and hopes to see more in print. She also lurks on her blog.