Margaret Hale: The Morbid Homemaker

23 March 2012

Daniela Denby-Ashe Portrays Margaret Hale in the BBC Adaptation of “North and South.”

Margaret Hale is a good and proper English lady who confronts angry rioters and challenges men on questions of industrial labor relations. Her brother is a mutineer living in exile in Spain. Her father is former vicar turned non-conformist who has relocated his family from an idyllic southern village to a bleak northern industrial town where her mother’s health promptly begins to fail. At nineteen years old she has to contend with death, civil unrest and the police, but along the way she grows  enamored to her dynamic new way of life in the North of Britain.

Published as a weekly from 1854-55, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South takes an unflinching look at the fault lines in British society in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Weaving contemporary social issues into an elegant coming-of-age story, Gaskell takes a frank yet even-handed view of the cultural differences between the industrial North and agrarian South, and the emergence of labor unions. She portrays religious intolerance, the injustice of courts martial, and the entrapment of women. She takes on all of these issues and more with a combination of clarity, nuance and sophistication that is rare among social critics of any century.

North and South is a veritable treasure trove of historical detail and nuance of the sort beloved by social historians and period writers alike. Here the cultural norms that form the background of more conventional works are brought into the forefront, contrasted across regional and class lines, made the topics of passionate debate, and—best of all—transgressed. It is also a good story. One of its most poignant features consists in its portrayal of ritual mourning and compassion toward dying as wellsprings of social cohesion.


Class War in Milton-Northern

The novel is set amid a conflict between the city of Milton-Northern’s (get it?) striking mill workers (“the hands”) and its industrialists (“the masters”). The industrialists point of view is personified by John Thornton, an archetypal self-made man who has risen from poverty to become a successful mill owner. Having demonstrated his superior judgement in matters financial he resents the “ungrateful” hands who would, by their collective action, seek to enforce their own uniformed plans upon his capital. We learn that trade is expected be poor in the future, and that, to remain competitive, the masters need to think about reducing their labor costs in order for their factories to stay afloat.

Thornton’s well-reasoned arguments are contrasted with the pathetic circumstances of Nicholas Higgins, a struggling labor leader whose daughter, Bessie, is dying from consumption caused by the “fluff” (cotton dust) that she has inhaled while working in a poorly-ventilated mill. Higgins takes the position that the masters are seeking to keep the hands in a state of dumb preoccupation with the day-to-day demands of survival, and it is only by collective action that they can hope to improve their lot. As Higgins and the striking hands resolve to “clem” (starve) to death before accepting a wage reduction, the Thorntons hold a sumptuous dinner party.

As the story develops Margaret Hale hears points and counterpoints from both sides. Higgins and Thornton do not meet for most of the novel, but Margaret maintains relationships with both men, and is she not afraid to ask some very pointed questions. In one scene we hear what Thornton has to say; in the next, we hear Higgins’s take on the same issue, and so on and so forth.

Margaret cannot seem to understand why these two interdependent classes cannot simply communicate with one another, but rather insist in digging into their separate camps until their disagreements become intractable. Her feeling, and Gaskell’s, is that if people of separate classes were willing to intermingle on equitable terms, just a little, they might find that they come to like each other a bit more; and while that might not bring an end to strikes, it might, at least, keep them civil.


A Proto-feminist Heroine

Margaret Hale is an archetypal proto-feminist heroine who challenges some of the constraints that are imposed upon her sex, but only from within the overarching context of existing gender roles. She prefers to discuss politics with men than fashion with women, asserts her right to attend a funeral, travel alone, and, ultimately, to an form an independent destiny for herself.

At the same time, her influence upon the story is consistently in keeping with the Victorian woman’s role as homemaker. She is a gentle and motherly peacemaker. She does not force her will, but sets an example of maidenly innocence that inspires the novel’s male characters to greater virtue. She does not mediate disputes, but sets the conditions for harmony and reconciliation by her kind attentions to the needs and suffering of others. In one particular moment of self-reproach she comes across as almost comically Victorian:

‘…What has happened to make me so morbid to-day? I do not know. I only know I cannot help it. I must give way sometimes. No, I will not, though,’ said she, springing to her feet. ‘I will not—I will not think of myself and my own position. I won’t examine into my own feelings. It would be of no use now. Some time, if I live to be an old woman, I may sit over the fire, and, looking into the embers, see the life that might have been.’

Margaret seeks greater self-determination, it is true, but only so that she may more effectively give of herself.

An Angel of Mercy

Many of Margaret’s actions in the novel are framed around her responsibilities toward the dying or recently departed. When she meets the mob of striking mill workers at the Thorntons’, she has come there to fetch a bed for her ailing mother. When she engages Nicholas Higgins on labor questions it is often while paying visits to his dying daughter. When we first meet her, she is already wearing a silk mourning dress for “some distant relative of her father’s,” and, by the time the book is finished, that dress has seen a lot of mileage.

It would be incorrect (not to mention hackneyed) to say that death forms an “ominous backdrop” to the novel; it is, rather, beautifully woven into the story. In some cases, characters’ deaths are tied to social conditions in Milton-Northern, but just as often they come naturally. Some characters linger sorrowfully on the precipice before dying, while others steal away in the night. Some are granted the luxury of a peaceful death surrounded by relatives, but, as Gaskell shows us, it can take work to make this happen. Margaret’s ailing mother wants to see her son before she passes away, but Frederick is wanted for mutiny and faces execution if he is caught reentering the country; meanwhile, poor Bessie Higgins is poised to die any moment. Under these conditions, it is easy to see why Margaret cannot afford to become absorbed in her own suffering, longing or desires.

On the contrary, in Gaskell’s book death and mourning serve a template for Margaret to develop and display her womanly virtue. It is by her nurturing self-sacrifice in tending to the dying she comes to inspire the story’s male actors to think beyond their own immediate interests and reach out to one another, and it is as a consequence of having thus fostered their moral growth that Margaret’s own unspoken desires are ultimately satisfied. Margaret Hale is, in essence, a homemaker-writ-large, bringing domestic harmony to the strife-town city if Milton-Northern, but that harmony is symbolized less by the hearth than by the death bed.


Further Reading


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