The Billfold Book Club: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ (Chapters 1-25)

north and south part 1

So… how do you think they’re going to resolve the strike?

A quick summary of where we stand so far:

Margaret Hale, our heroine who is whip-smart but suffers under the classic trope of being “not pretty except for the part where her subtle beauty outshines all of the other girls” (see: Anne Shirley, Elizabeth Bennet, Sara Crewe, most smart young women in classic literature), moves with her family from the south to the north (get it?) after her father gives up his position as pastor because he cannot stand the corruption in the Church of England. (Insert your own joke about King Henry VIII here.)

Mr. Hale needs a job, and takes on the role of tutor to one Mr. Thornton, a self-made man who, with the help of his budget-conscious mother, pulled his family out of poverty and now owns Marlborough Mills, one of the largest factories in town. Milton is, by its nature, a factory town, and Margaret quickly learns that people who work in factories have a hard life, befriending a young woman named Bessy Higgins who is dying of a respiratory illness from “the fluff” that mill workers breathe all day.

The question at the core of this book is whether Mr. Thornton treats his factory workers well enough and compensates them adequately. This is where the book gets interesting.

Unlike other authors (Dickens, I’m looking at you), Gaskell does not present Mr. Thornton as the evil overlord who is determined to squeeze every last bit of profit out of his workers. He is a kind man and a thoughtful man (and an extremely handsome man, but we’ll get to that in a minute), and he knows what it is like to be poor. Gaskell goes so far as to set forward a logical argument for why Mr. Thornton can’t afford to increase his workers’ pay:

“They think trade is flourishing as it was last year. We see the storm on the horizon and draw in our sails. But because we don’t explain our reasons, they won’t believe we’re acting reasonably.” 

She also illustrates Mr. Thornton’s blind spot:

“It is one of the great beauties of our system, that a working-man may raise himself into the power and position of a master by his own exertions and behaviour; that, in fact, every one who rules himself to decency and sobriety of conduct, and attention to his duties, comes over to our rankes; it may not always be as a master, but as an over-looker, a cashier, a book-keeper, a clerk, one on the side of authority and order.”

Margaret notices the flaw in his argument, but she’s also suffering under a few blind spots of her own. The first time she meets the Higgins family, for example, she promises to visit them and then blows them off, and they rightfully call her out on it. She occupies a strange social space, coming from the type of Pride and Prejudice country life where everyone has huge houses and nobody has jobs, and then arriving in a town where everyone is involved in labor in some way. She doesn’t know how to be a woman in this space, where the only roles seem to be “mill worker” and “wife/mother.”

And, of course, she looks down on Mr. Thornton for being a “tradesman,” which means, of course, that they’re going to fall in love. (But we’ll get to that.)

The mill worker characters, unfortunately, are less complexly drawn and their complexity tends to fall towards stereotype; Gaskell attempts to undercut their credibility by noting that some of the mill workers are alcoholics or are lazy and prone to violence. “Maybe they don’t deserve more money because they’re lazy” is not a particularly strong argument, and the chapters that feature the Higgins and Boucher families ring less true than the chapters that deal with the Hale and Thornton families.

Margaret gives the thesis of the book in Chapter 15, as she and Mr. Thornton have one of those delightfully spirited conversations that serve as precursors to marriage proposals:

“I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own; I never lived in a place before where there were two sets of people always running each other down.”

And yes, there is a marriage proposal after Margaret saves Mr. Thornton from being attacked by his striking workers. But—and this book is so wonderfully thoughtful—Margaret refuses because she believes Mr. Thornton only loves that single action, not the full and complex person she actually is.

She had never perceived that he had cared for her opinions, as belonging to her, the individual.

What a beautiful statement about the nature of misplaced love.

So. Will Mr. Thornton resolve the strike? Will the workers get paid what they believe is fair? Will Margaret and Mr. Thornton end up falling in love after all? Will both of them learn something important about what it means to be a good person? Will Margaret’s mutineer brother Frederick get executed when he comes back to England to say goodbye to their dying mother? (Will that subplot have any relationship to the rest of the book?) Will Bessy Higgins get some super-weepy death scene? Will Mama Thornton teach the Hale family how to make a budget?

And, most importantly: is it possible for workers and employers to work together in a way that is equitable and fair to both parties? North and South was written in 1855, after all, and most of the problems in the book are still with us today.

Let’s discuss. Also, get ready to read the second half of the book, chapters 26-52, for Thursday, November 20.

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