Sunday, May 1, 2011

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Edition: North and South (Penguin Classics)

Gaskell's North and South was serialized in weekly parts in Dickens's Household Words from September 1854 to January 1855. Gaskell found the format limiting; she commented in a note to the volume edition that she felt that she had had to compress her novel. She added, therefore, expansions to the volume edition. In addition to narrative expansions, Gaskell also added epigraph quotations to the beginning of chapters.

North and South begins with the marriage of the main character Margaret's cousin Edith to Captain Lennox, and Margaret's subsequent departure from Harley Street in London to go back to Helstone, a country town in the south where she grew up. The wedding puts Margaret in contact with the lawyer and brother of the Captain, Henry Lennox. They exchange some niceties about Helstone, and Margaret feels that he belittles Helstone by making it out to be some kind of fairytale village and refuses to talk about it. To Margaret's surprise, Henry visits her back at Helstone a little while later, and after the enjoy an afternoon sketching together, he proposes to her. Margaret refuses him and he leaves. Meanwhile, Margaret feels that her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hale, don't seem quite as happy and at ease as she had remembered them to be. Mr. Hale, a parson, soon confesses to Margaret that he has decided to leave his post because of doubts that he had as to the true faith espoused by the Church of England. He proposes that they will move to a northern manufacturing town, Milton, where he will serve as a tutor. His own mentor at Oxford, Mr. Bell, had already connected him with a wealthy manufacturer named Mr. John Thornton, who will be his first pupil. Margaret is charged with the difficult task of revealing this plan to her mother, who is of generally weak constitution. Margaret accomplishes the task, and helps her father makes arrangements to move, suggesting that Mrs. Hale remove to a seaside town while she and her father figure out where they will live in Milton.

After settling into the smoky, gray environment of a manufacturing town, Margaret makes the acquaintance of Thornton, and thinks him rather coarse and inflexible. She also makes other acquaintances by chance in the street--Nicholas Higgins, a poor factory worker who is organizing a strike against factory masters like Thornton, and his ailing daughter Bessy who is sick from working at cotton mills. Thornton lives with his mother, with whom he is very close; after his father's failed speculations, Thornton, with the support of his mother built his business up and worked very hard to come to the wealth which he has now. His sister, Fanny, also lives with them, but she is rather vapid and snooty. Mrs. Thornton doesn't really take to Margaret, finding her to be ignorant of the ways of the north, a pampered southern aristocrat who does not appreciate or understand the strength of her son's industrious and manly character. Margaret, after all, is not shy to critique Thornton, especially when discussing the factory workers' strike, she takes a more humane position as to a master's responsibility for the well-being of his "hands." Thornton's philosophy is a capitalist par excellence, believing in the strength and efficiency of machines and ruthless competition, and maintaining a position of laissez-faire as far as the lives of his workers go: "But those hours [referring to the labouring hours of his men] past, our relation ceases; and then comes in the same respect for their independence that I myself exact."

Mrs. Hale's health at Milton continues to decline, and Dixon, Mrs. Hale's faithful maid and Margaret keep the news of her decline from Mr. Hale. Margaret continues to visit with the Higginses, sympathizing with their hardships, and also learning of the divisions amongst the working class: hearing about a poverty-stricken family (the Boucher's) and the difficulty posed by the holding out which the Union strikers require, Margaret begins to see the Union as just as tyrannical as the master's. Higgins respects Margaret for her so-called "plain-speaking," but does not agree. When Mrs. Hale takes a turn for the worse, Margaret is charged with the errand of asking Mrs. Thornton if they might borrow a water bed. At their estate, an angry, rioting crowd has gathered because Mr. Thornton had been attempting to use Irish workers to break the strike. Feeling the injustice which the crowd feels, Margaret charges Thornton to do his manly duty and speak to the crowd as a human speaks to his brother human. Margaret rushes out to face the crowd with him, and a pebble grazes her. Terrified at what they have done, the crowd retreats. After this incident, Thornton realizes that Margaret has taken harm upon herself while protecting him, and feels himself actually deeply in love with her. He asks her for her hand in marriage, which she insolently rejects; Thornton responds by saying that he will nevertheless love her, as a kind of defiance to Margaret's intransigence.

Mrs. Hale, feeling herself fast fading, makes a request that she might be able to see her son Frederick, who has been forced to take shelter in Spain because of his participation in a mutiny aboard a ship. Though Frederick's action was just, he will likely be hanged if he returned to England. Margaret and Dixon make arrangements for Frederick to visit his dying mother in secret. Mrs. Hale also requests of Mrs. Thornton to watch over Margaret as a mother might after she is gone; reluctantly. Mrs. Thornton agrees though she clearly resents Margaret for her pride and rejection of her own, dear son. Bessy dies before Mrs. Hale, and Margaret takes it upon herself to put Mr. Higgins in contact with her father in hopes that he might develop some faith in God which would have been so important to Bessy. The two of them strike an unusual sort of friendship through Margaret. Frederick's visit goes off without a hitch, and Mrs. Hale dies. Afterwards, Margaret suggests that Frederick go to London to seek out Henry Lennox to see if he might help him return to England legally. This turns out to be a mistake, because someone recognizes Frederick at the railroad station; Frederick pushes this man off the platform and boards the train for London and is for the time being safe. Unfortunately, the man dies (likely because he was a heavy drinker and drunk at the time) and Margaret is asked by an inspector if she had been witness to a young man pushing this man off the platform. Stoically, Margaret lies that she was not there, but Thornton has actually seen her. Thornton, thinking that Margaret was out with a lover, actually strives to protect her by canceling the inquest (he has the power to do this because he is the magistrate for the case). Margaret is devastated by this involvement because she realizes that Thornton probably thinks badly of her.

Tragedy soon strikes the Boucher family as well; John Boucher is found drowned in a brook, having committed suicide. Higgins feels badly for his own harsh treatment of Boucher and his pressuring him to maintain the strike. Boucher's widow is rather unsympathetically portrayed in the narrative; she is vulgarly selfish and not particularly responsible as far as tending to her own children goes after her husband's terrible death. On a visit which Mr. Hale makes to visit Bell at Oxford, he suddenly dies, leaving Margaret and Frederick orphans. Margaret is hastened to London, where she can stay with her Aunt Shaw and Edith. Eventually, Bell comes to take Margaret to visit Helstone, thinking it will do her good after the tragic experiences with which she has had to contend. Margaret finds Helstone changed from her idyllic remembrances, though of course, she too has probably changed from her experiences in the north. More tragedy follows when the old Mr. Bell also dies, leaving Margaret with considerable property as his heiress. In the end, Margaret becomes Mr. Thornton's landlord at Marlborough Mills, and also offers to give him some capital when he suffers financial losses. Margaret's own name is cleared when Higgins, who has decided to work for Thornton (now, a much more humanistic factory master), reveals to him that the young man on the railroad platform was Frederick and not Margaret's lover but brother. The novel ends with Thornton as a reformed master, figuring out a better system in which worker and master engage in greater human-to-human interaction and as a result, gain a more personal understanding of each others' roles and the value of these roles. Thornton and Margaret finally reconcile and decide to marry, symbolizing Gaskell's vision of a union between the ruthlessly capitalistic, industrial north and the more humanistic but somewhat stagnant south.

Gaskell's vision of a marriage between north and south crystallized by the marriage of John Thornton and Margaret Hale signals an acceptance of industrial power of machines as key to progress while also suggesting the need for human-to-human interaction between different classes in order for progress to work properly. Margaret's ability to find "human interest" and to connect people of different backgrounds and ideologies, whether Mr. Hale and Mr. Higgins, or Mr. Higgins and the Boucher's, is a corrective to Thornton's de-humanizing laissez-faire which sees his hired workers as merely "hands" (and even if he acknowledges their personhood, he wants nothing to do with that part of their existence). In turn, Thornton's powerful work ethic and faith in capitalism as a way of realizing greater heights of human productivity than ever-to-be imagined before is a corrective to Margaret's complacency in the stagnant, agricultural economy of the south. Though rich and poor might interact on a more personal, and less hostile relation in the south, hard subsistence remains a reality for large amount of poor southerners. The agricultural economy lacks projects backed by capital to carry society beyond this rather feudal state of relations between those who own land by birth and those who work on it in order to survive.

The title, North and South, however, was not Gaskell's original title: Dickens suggested it. Gaskell's title was Margaret Hale. While Dickens's title is useful insofar as it really pulls out the larger allegorical significances of Mr. Thornton and Margaret's marriage with respect to class and historical import, Gaskell's original title tilts the balance of this marriage in favor of Margaret's importance in the marriage. After all, Margaret ends up doing more than just helping to soften and humanize Thornton's capitalism; she also provides the capital for him to rebuild after suffering significant financial losses. In this sense, the "south" bears the greater burden, since not only does it correct the ideologies of a purely dehumanizing capitalist machine, but also pumps money into it so that it might continue to do the positive work of progress. Thinking of North and South as a story of an individual, too, underscores the importance of what an individual (and even more importantly, a woman) can do to contribute to wider workings of social progress.

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