Gaskell’s ‘North and South’, set in Victorian England, is the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman whose life is completely turned on its head when her family moves to northern England. As an outsider from the agricultural south, Margaret is initially shocked by the aggressive northerners of the dirty, smoky industrial town of Milton, but as she adapts to her new home, she defies social conventions with her ready sympathy and defense of the working poor. Her passionate advocacy of the lower classes leads her to repeatedly clash with charismatic mill owner John Thornton over his treatment of his workers. While Margaret denies her growing attraction to him, Thornton agonizes over his foolish passion for her, in spite of their heated disagreements. As tensions mount between them, a violent unionization strike explodes in Milton, leaving everyone to deal with the aftermath in the town and in their personal lives.
Gaskell’s novel could certainly be described as a social commentary; England at the time was extremely class-conscious, yet In almost all cases, Margaret does not so much choose sides as acknowledge mutually dependent and beneficial relationships. Though her family has very little in the way of money or assets, her family roots are in the gentry, yet when the family is moved up North to Milton, Margaret befriends and socializes with both ends of the social spectrum, mill owners and workers. Margaret is even capable of initiating a friendship of sorts between worker and owner, Higgins and Thornton even come up with a plan together to provide a canteen for the workers to get hot food. Differences in life in the South and life in the North are compared and contrasted often in a very subtle fashion, as are the differences in values and class structure. It is also very interesting to note that the difficulties of the lives of the impoverished factory workers are highlighted, however the difficulties faced by the factory owners are also presented.
Through Margaret, Gaskell is able to transcend social class and at the same time create a hero amongst the industrial poverty of Milton, she acts in a way that would have been unconventional and frowned upon at the time for the good of such people as the Higgins family. When she is seen bringing a basket of food to the house during the workers strike, her peers condemn her at a dinner at the Thornton’s. Highlighting both the differences between northern and southern culture and the clashes between social conscientiousness.
It could be said that ‘North and South’ is a novel defined by the resolution of binary conflicts; Margaret Hale is presented with a number of divisions of sympathy, between industrialists and the working class, between conflicting views of Mr. Thornton, and even between her conflicting views of her own intelligence. Nancy Mann, in her essay “Intelligence and Self-Awareness in ‘North and South’: a Matter of Sex and Class” stipulates that the novel “concentrates on a crucial problem of the development of the novel in the nineteenth century, the relationship between abstract intelligence and self-awareness, and the ways in which this relationship may be affected by factors of sex and class”(1). What Mann is saying is that Gaskell is successful in throwing off the conventional boundaries of the classic romantic Victorian with all its feminist connotations and persuasions and has created a character that transcends the constraints of class and what is proper to actually do some good in her new environment.
Gaskell’s most prominent social explorations however come in the form of contrasts. For example Margaret’s relationship with the Higgins family, especially Bessie, both nineteen years old when they meet, one healthy and the other gravely ill can be seen as a dramatic comment on class iniquity. Gaskell uses Bessie as a dramatic device in the novel to draw Margaret and her father closer, a task some literary...