Tuesday, 27 November 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Part One)

My Thoughts on Reading the First Fifteen Chapters:

In the fairy world of Harley Street, London, where Titania curls up, asleep on the chesterfield, Margaret Hale inhabits a world pleasure and ease, where friends are defined as the people you dine with more frequently than any others, and emotions are never so strong that they cannot be appeased with a culinary delicacy.  But, under the superficial veneer of perfection, we see a world in which a nine-year-old girl, separated from her parents for the first time must muffle her homesick sobs uncomforted.  Margaret, surrounded by an assortment of frivolous behaviour is a model of balanced thinking and clear perception, keeping the fairy tale alive, and her individually intact (although subdued).  She is in tune with all that goes on around her and constantly fills in the gaps in courtesy created by her aunt and cousin: she sees when the guests have been left unattended, and rises unbidden to be a page-turner while Edith plays the piano.  The poor country cousin, she has lived in Harley Street as a companion to Edith for many years.  Now, Edith is to be married to Captain Lennox and will be living in Greece; Margaret will return to her parents' home in Helstone.

Helstone, as described by Margaret is like a village in a Tennyson poem; a small parish in the New Forest, too sacred and special for her to discuss flippantly with Mr. Henry Lennox, the brother of Edith's fiance, who teases her about it's fairy tale qualities.  When she returns to Helstone from London, Margaret revels in the outdoor world and enjoys long walks with her father; she visits with the local inhabitants and has freedoms she could not enjoy in the city.  But like Harley Street, the life in Helstone is couched in the language of fairy tales; Dixon, lady's maid to Mrs. Hale considers herself "the good and protecting fairy whose duty it was to baffle the malignant giant, Mr. Hale." (21)

In Harley Street we have glimpsed Margaret's self-restraint (in contrast with the behaviour of impulsive Edith), but when she returns to Helstone it is challenged in quick succession by an unwanted marriage proposal, and the revelation that her father is giving up his livelihood as an Anglican minister and relocating the family to a northern industrial town.  While Mr. Hale, dithering and indecisive, desires a change in external surroundings to distract him from the challenges of his decision, Margaret is able to draw on her own inner strength and resolve and to accept his decision.  Emotionally orphaned by her parents, Margaret is nevertheless able to move forward.  In one day, Margaret has made the transition from girl to woman (by a marriage proposal), and from child to adult, with all the responsibilities that entails.  She now joins the other adults indoors, her life of freedom in nature has been left behind. It is only through her strength of mind that she is able to survive this transition.  Lack of moral fortitude and self-control is exhibited by each of her parents in turn and serves as contrast for Margaret's strength of character.

Margaret is not without her doubts and anxieties, however.  In the privacy of her bedroom, she is able to go over all her thoughts about her day, the proposal, and her father's resignation from the church.  It is here, alone, that she is able to get in touch with her darkest fears.  This is Margaret's Dark Night of the Soul:
That morning when she had looked out, her heart had danced at seeing the bright clear lights on the church tower, which foretold a fine and sunny day.  This evening - sixteen hours at most had passed by - she sat down, too full of sorrow to cry, but with a dull cold pain, which seemed to have pressed the youth and buoyancy out of her heart, never to return. [...] She looked out upon the dark-gray lines of the church tower, square and straight in the centre of the view, cutting against the deep blue transparent depths beyond, into which she gazed, and felt that she might gaze for ever, seeing at every moment some farther distance, and yet no sign of God!  It seemed to her at that moment, as if the earth was more utterly desolate than if girt in by an iron dome, behind which there might be the ineffaceable peace and glory of the Almighty: those never-ending depths of space, in their still serenity, were more mocking to her than any material bounds could be - shutting in the cries of earth's sufferers, which now might ascend into that infinite splendour of vastness and be lost - lost for ever, before they reached His throne. (40)
Closed off, even temporarily from the comfort of her spirituality, and her religious faith, Margaret is also challenged by her isolation in society.  She realizes the implications of her father's resignation: they will no longer be accepted by their familiar society, either in Helstone, or in Harley Street.  One night whilst walking in the garden, Margaret sees the poachers who roam the New Forest in the dark.  In the past "the wild adventurous freedom of their life had taken her fancy," but this night she is very afraid.  She is entering a dark forest of her own as she leaves Helstone, and like the poachers will be outside the bounds of law-abiding, socially-acceptable, church-approved society that is her familiar home.  They will have to make their own rules and set their own boundaries in a foreign and (perceived) hostile environment.  As a child, the freedom and excitement of the poacher's life thrilled her; now, as an adult, she recognizes the dangers that come with such a life.  When she is very nearly locked outdoors in the dark, she fears her imminent exclusion from acceptable society.

But onward they must move, and Margaret maintains her role, and controlling her behaviour so well that the servants assume she does not have any strong feelings about Helstone, although her heart is breaking.  It is Margaret who makes all the arrangements for the move, taking the leadership role from her parents who have abdicated all their responsibilities.  In the transition from Helstone (Heaven) to Milton-Northern (Hell) is a short stay in Heston (Purgatory) where they are able to live fully in the present, where Margaret sits and rests, walks on the beach.  But although these Elysian Fields are enticing, she must continue to move forward.  On the train approaching Milton, they see the "deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay," (55) and Margaret is trepidatious but stolid.

The dark cloud over Milton foreshadows the darkness and gloom that will surround them as they settle in to their new home.  The fog surrounds them, pressing in upon them, and the stupour and sense of isolation that results increases the potential for lethargy.  The potential for everyone to sink into a deep lethargy and depression is very real.  Mrs. Hale has no inner strength upon which to call in these times of difficult transition.  Her fondest attributes have been her status and her beauty.  When these fail to support her she begins to collapse.  However, Mr. Hale is energized by his interactions with his pupils, the bustle of commerce, the machinery of industry and the men of power.  Margaret too, reminded of Henry Lennox's ability to change his thoughts, to put negative thoughts away from himself, begins to venture forth, and feels more comfortable in Milton when she meets local factory workers Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy.  Home is where the heart is, and for Gaskell, and for Margaret, the bonds of the heart are formed by connections made with people.

Until this point, we have gotten to know Margaret through her actions and her thoughts.  While still in Helstone, Elizabeth Gaskell had described Margaret's appearance ironically, comparing her to a subservient beauty:
Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a 'yes' or 'no,' and 'an't please you, sir.'  But the wide mouth was one soft curve of rich red lips; and the skin, if not white and fair, was of an ivory smoothness and delicacy.  If the look on her face was, in general, too dignified and reserved for one so young, now, talking to her father, it was bright as the morning, - full of dimples, and glances that spoke of childish gladness, and boundless hope in the future." (17-18)
For the first time, we now see Margaret from the perspective of a stranger.  In Milton, she meets Mr. Thornton, a mill-owner with whom Mr. Hale has formed a connection.  When Margaret and Mr. Thornton are thrown together unexpectedly, we see a different Margaret.  He is over-awed by her undeniable beauty, by her social graces and her simple elegance.  "Mr Thornton was in habits of authority himself, but she seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once," for:
Margaret could not help her looks; but the short curled upper lip, the round, massive up-turned chin, the manner of carrying her head, her movements, full of a soft feminine defiance, always gave strangers the impression of haughtiness. (58)
Margaret, on the other hand, is dismissive of Mr. Thornton, although she does notice that he is "sagacious and strong, as becomes a great tradesman."  Her prejudice of what she calls "shoppy people" is clear.  However, she is able to see in his attitude a man "of resolution and power."  Ironically, she has seen him at a moment of uncharacteristic weakness.

Veering again from the predominant point of view of the Hales, Elizabeth Gaskell changes perspective, and takes us inside the Thornton home as Mr. Thornton prepares to visit the Hales for tea.  In a home that reflects the well-ordered and disciplined lives of the inhabitants, the books lie in careful arrangement and the surfaces are clean and well-polished.  Mrs. Thornton and her son both share the same decisive step, just as they share the same hard resolve and uncompromising focus.  Their relationship is open, honest and easy - everything Margaret's relationship with her mother is not.  This contrast continues as Thornton enters the Hale home and sees the graceful cares and hominess that his own austere and showy home lacks.

Margaret has more opportunity to observe Mr. Thornton and although she finds that she "liked his smile," she is at odds with his defence of free market economics and his rejection of the way of life in southern England as indolent.  Mr. Thornton believes in a free market, one in which the market, free from legislative interference will find it's own balance.  He has a perspective on the industry that none of the Hales have.  He claims that "the power of masters and men became more evenly balanced; and now the battle is pretty fairly waged between us." (78) And the war-time terminology is apt, although the Hales are not comfortable with his discussion in terms of outright class battle.  To illustrate his economic theories he uses his own life as an example of how, by self-denial and good habits he has risen to a place of authority in Milton society.  His life story, although more dramatic, and more tragic parallels the transition Margaret has just made, with the loss of all that was important to him, and the necessity "to become a man (as well as I could) in a few days." (78)

North and South is a kind of inverted fairy tale.  From her place in refined and educated London society, Margaret is removed through no fault of her own, and ends up in a very different life that involves work as a scullery maid, doing the laundry in a pokey kitchen.  Mr. Thornton has definite ideas about the power of self-denial and hard work resulting in an elevation of "authority and order."  the Hale's loss of social status can be equated with Thornton's own disgrace when he was removed from school and had to become a wage-earner for his mother and sister.

Elizabeth Gaskell
A deeply ingrained sense of responsibility is a central characteristic of Margaret's socialism, and is the focus of her debate with Mr. Thornton about his workers.  He fails to see, as she does, that as a recipient of his mother's wisdom and good teaching that he has a duty to pass these skills along to his workers.  As a capitalist, he is more inclined to see that he and his workers are in an economic relationship for the duration of their working hours, and that he bears no responsibility for them afterwards. This, he claims, is none of his business.  If the workers were only to apply themselves, they too could rise to positions of authority.  Margaret asserts this as a moral responsibility (invoking Biblical teaching), although not perhaps a legal one, while Thornton looks to the rules of capitalist economics for his guidelines.

If the industrial workers are treated as children, Margaret believes they will remain infantile in their development, but if the mill owners, and others in authority were to act as mentors, to teach the skills of self-denial, and discipline, then they would stand more chance of elevation.  To re-enforce the point beyond demonstrating the obvious examples amongst the mill owners and the workers, Elizabeth Gaskell gives Mr. Thornton the most weak-willed, the most frivolous, petty and silly sister it is possible to imagine.  In the character of Fanny Thornton we see Elizabeth Gaskell's argument for the necessity of offering a guiding light to those without internal strength of character.  Raised by the same domineering mother, John and Fanny Thornton are the products of both their own natures, and the influence of their powerful mother.  Whereas she taught all these skills of discipline and self-denial to her son, she had abdicated her responsibilities for teaching Fanny.  She had accepted that Fanny was weak-willed and:
she felt instinctively that nothing could strengthen Fanny to endure hardships patiently, or face difficulties bravely; and though she winced as she made this acknowledgement to herself about her daughter, it only gave her a kind of pitying tenderness of manner towards her; much of the same description of demeanour with which mothers are wont to treat their weak and sickly children.
 If Mrs. Thornton had only exposed Fanny to the same rigorous upbringing, as she did for her more loved son, perhaps she could have overcome some of her natural defaults and been a person of more depth and less impulsive frivolity and weakness.

Illness as a manifestation of this weakness of character is demonstrated in the character of Mrs. Hale, who, unable to adapt to the changed circumstances of their new life in Milton has no inner resources left and literally cannot stand on her own feet.  The illness experienced by Bessy Higgins, the cotton worker Margaret be-friends, is not however a matter of her own individual weakness so much as an indication of the weakness of the system that caused her illness.  Like the peasants trampled under the feet of the triumphal returning generals, the Industrial Revolution has it's own innocent victims.  Getting to know Bessy greatly influences Margaret's attitudes toward the economic system she sees as responsible for her friend's illness.

It is also hearing the details of her brother Frederick's exile that re-enforces for Margaret the importance of her socialism, and her Christian moralism.  Frederick had been convicted of mutiny aboard his naval vessel, and fearing for his life had fled the country.  He had lived many years abroad, finally settling in Spain.  It is the main tenent of the Hale family that:
Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used - not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless. (100)
Helping the helpless is also a central tenent of Christ, and as Margaret nurses both Bessy and her mother and encourages Thornton to do the same with his workers, she is bolstered to hear the story of her brother who made such a courageous sacrifice for the weaker members of his crew.

These are my thoughts, such as they are as I read the first quarter section of North and South.  I am thoroughly enjoying Elizabeth Gaskell's writing.  There is much to ponder in every short chapter.

(Please see here for my thoughts on Part Two)

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