Throughout Gaskell’s novels, she interspersed themes of social reform and improvement.
A contemporary of the great novelist reformer Charles Dickens, Gaskell used her books as her platform. In many ways Gaskell was far ahead of her time as Victorian-era England did not readily discuss themes such as feminism, social reform, and the plight of the working laborer.
The heroine in the novel is Margaret Hale, the daughter of a British minister who resigned his position after a theological dissent. The character of Margaret Hale was a self-portrait of Gaskell. “The character of Margaret Hale is the finest piece of delineation of a pure-hearted and proud young English girl that I know,” wrote Thomas Seccombe in his introduction to Cousin Phillis, another of Gaskell’s books. “Margaret, with her lustrous eyes and regular curves of serene beauty, is a more or less unconscious portrait of Elizabeth Gaskell herself.”
Forced to move away from their beloved home at the parsonage in Helstone, the Hale family relocates to Milton, a town in the north of England. Not only is Margaret depressed by the dark industrial surroundings and uncomfortable in her reduced circumstances, she is disgusted by the attitude of the town’s leading citizen John Thornton.
One of the main premises in North and South is Margaret Hale’s prejudice against gentlemen in trade—or rather, the lack thereof. To the cultured and sophisticated Helstone resident, the words trade and gentlemen hardly belonged together in the same sentence. The working class existed, but solely for the benefit of others and was hardly deemed as an appropriate acquaintance. The Thornton family, namely John Thornton, ultimately changes Hale’s perception.
Like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Margaret Hale is initially repulsed by her future lover after unjustly judging him cold and unfeeling. Pride is not as great an issue in North and South, but John Thornton is arguably a working man’s Mr. Darcy. “The developing relationship between Thornton and Margaret is representative of the process of synthesis between North and South. Her traditional Anglican paternalism, exhibited in her care for the rural poor in Helstone, which she shares with her mother, the daughter of Sir John Beresford, modifies Thornton’s simple laissez-faire views,” wrote Malcolm Pittock in The Dove Ascending: The Case for Elizabeth Gaskell.
Another social issue prominent in North and South was the working conditions of the lower classes. Cotton was the primary export in the town of Milton. Marlborough Mills, managed by John Thornton, was one of the most successful and had the most fair working conditions, yet Margaret still urged Thornton to make a difference in the circumstances of his employees.
“After a quiet life in a country parsonage for more than twenty years,” wrote Gaskell in the novel, “there was something dazzling to Mr. Hale in the energy which conquered immense difficulties with ease; the power of the machinery of Milton, the power of the men of Milton, impressed him with a sense of grandeur, which he yielded to without caring to inquire into the details of its exercise. But Margaret went less abroad, among machinery and men; saw less of power in its public effect, and, as it happened, she was thrown with one or two of those who, in all measures affecting masses of people, must be acute sufferers for the good of many. The question always is, has everything been done to make the sufferings of these exceptions as small as possible? Or, in the triumph of the crowded procession, have the helpless been trampled on, instead of being gently lifted aside out of the roadway of the conqueror, whom they have no power to accompany on his march?”
Throughout the novel, Gaskell effectively weaves a tale filled with at the time revolutionary new ideas for social reform. The Industrial Revolution was stirring in England, but the mill owners were slow to equate this sweeping change with a need to improve the lives of their slave laborers. Labor strikes, such as the one in North and South, were common as the unions attempted to achieve fair wages and working conditions.
Education is exalted as a means to improve one’s fate, while Gaskell even goes so far to promote mutual respect between laborer and master, something foreign to the time period. Change was slow to reach England, but partly due to the tireless efforts of authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell, public sympathy and influence finally produced a change in the lives and working conditions of the labor force.
Editorial Note: This piece was originally written as a college paper and republished at Heiress in Training.