The novel North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell was published serially in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words beginning in 1854, over a span of two years. It follows Margaret Hale, a young woman whose parson father uproots his family from their idyllic home in the New Forest when he leaves the Church of England over a matter of conscience. The family moves to Milton, a fictional industrial town located in “Darkshire” and probably based on Manchester, where Elizabeth Gaskell lived after her marriage. As Margaret adapts to her new life in Milton she befriends the Higginses, a family of cotton-millworkers whose father is involved in union organising. She also becomes acquainted with a mill-owner, Mr. Thornton. Though she at first sees him as belonging to a lower social class because he is occupied in commerce, she soon discovers attractive qualities in him: he is proud, but honest and conscientious in his work and family life, and full of intellectual curiosity. Eventually he and Margaret fall in love, and through human tragedy, financial setbacks, and misunderstandings, they both evolve from their earlier rigid viewpoints and can finally meet as equals.
Not only the setting of North and South has autobiographical elements. Elizabeth Gaskell’s own father was also a clergyman (although Unitarian rather than Church of England) who resigned on conscientious grounds. Like Margaret, she was raised by an aunt and had a beloved older brother in the Navy. These personal underpinnings to the novel probably contribute to the warmth and nuance of its characters. For a reader in the twenty-first century, however, one of the most interesting aspects of the story is undoubtedly its depiction of labour organising, culminating in a strike by all the Milton millworkers.
It remains ambiguous which of the characters’ diverse views of this unrest should be taken to represent that of the author. Thornton, the mill-owner, responds with contempt to the strike, which he sees as an insolent attempt by his inferiors to tell him what to do. When he imports Irish blackleg labourers, the tactic is greeted with approval by other upper-class characters. Margaret, on the other hand, acts as a sympathetic mediator between Thornton and the millworkers, but she nevertheless seems to save her most severe criticism for the union organiser Higgins. She chides him for shunning fellow workers who refuse to join the union, and for the worsening poverty during the strike, which she considers a misguided attempt to stir up hatred between classes.
If Margaret is the moral centre of the novel, and identified with Elizabeth Gaskell herself, we might expect the narrative to force Higgins around to the ‘correct’ point of view. Yet despite strenuous persuasions, Higgins remains unwavering in his own convictions. After a period of blacklisting and unemployment, he convinces Thornton to hire him at his mill, but makes clear that he will continue his organising activities. Ultimately Thornton is the one who bends, letting Higgins persuade him to make improvements to working conditions in his mills. Labour is not the only subject on which Gaskell is willing to leave a thorny question unresolved; for example, Margaret has the problem of how to reconcile herself to her father becoming a Dissenter and her brother converting to Catholicism, despite her own orthodox religious convictions. In general, Gaskell’s writing is less interested in weighing in on contested questions than in the solutions that might be found by listening to one another.
The strike lends so much tension to the novel that it feels as if the scene in which it comes to a head, with a crowd of angry rioters assembling outside Thornton’s house, must be the climax of the action. It is surprising to discover that this actually comes at the midway point, while the remainder of the novel follows more domestic dramas. Although their experiences during the riot lead both Margaret and Thornton to—separate—realisations of their feelings for one another, Margaret is soon absorbed by the illness and death of both her parents, and by complications caused by the return of her brother Frederick, on the run from the law after his involvement with a mutiny at sea. Thornton recedes somewhat into the background in this latter half. Margaret’s responsibilities as caregiver to her parents increase, as do her independence and maturity to the point that, when she returns to her former life with her wealthy aunt and cousin, she is no longer comfortable in their frivolous society. She has started down the path that will lead her back to a life with Thornton in Northern England.
Indeed, the contrasts that North and South throws into relief can’t just be distilled to industry versus agriculture, but also occur at the intimate level of household affairs. One of the most marked differences between the Hales and Thorntons lies in how decision-making is handled. Mr. Hale makes the monumental choice to leave the Church of England, quit his parish, and move his family from Helstone to Milton without consulting or even informing his wife and daughter. Indeed, he foists the unpleasant task of telling Mrs. Hale onto his daughter Margaret. In contrast, the role of head of the family is shared between the unmarried Thornton and his widowed mother. Though Mrs. Thornton is sometimes haughty and unkind to outsiders, she loves her son fiercely, and he relies strongly on her judgment and advice. Thornton consults her, not only about household matters and the management of his cotton-mill, but also, rather against his will, about his growing love for Margaret.
With the novel’s ending uniting these two families in Margaret and Thornton’s marriage, it seems pretty clear that Margaret will have a role, and a voice in decisions, more like Mrs. Thornton’s than that of her own mother. A plot twist in the last act of the novel has made her an heiress, and she steps forward with a loan to save Thornton’s foundering mill —a transaction which, romantic or not, is clearly meant to establish a sound business footing. Though Margaret will surely face challenges when she begins to share a home with her prickly new mother-in-law, she will also have the advantages of an equal partnership.
North and South stands out among Victorian novels for giving us a compelling central romance intertwined with the critical conflicts of mid-nineteenth century England, but above all for its heroine, whose perspective —principled, yet generous and human— guides us through its rich and complex world.--Mary Thaler