The final title of her novel ‘North and South’, suggests the important role setting and location play in Gaskell’s story of Margaret Hale and her relationship with Milton mill-owner John Thornton. During the course of the novel, we see Margaret settled in three locations; Harley Street, Helstone and Milton. Each of these settings represents a different social stratum and we see Margaret develop in her perception and attitude towards each of them.
They all contribute, in some way, to making Margaret the girl that she is at the end of the novel. The book opens in Harley Street, where we are presented with the character of Edith. Edith’s role in the novel is to act as a contrast to Margaret or ‘control sample’. Through her, we can see what Margaret’s life would have been like had she accepted Lennox. Edith is the model Victorian woman and she fits in perfectly with her Harley Street surroundings, but Margaret is far more independent, strong-minded and unconventional.
When having her lover describe her future life in Corfu, “the very parts which made Margaret glow as she listened, Edith pretended to shiver and shudder at… because anything of a gipsy or make-shift life was really distasteful to her. Margaret, on the other hand appears to be ill at ease with the superficial attitudes and concerns of those around her. As she tells her mother; “I think what you call the makeshift contrivances at dear Helstone were a charming part of the life there”.
Margaret has no pretensions and this dislike of the superficial relationships is particularly evident in her description of her aunt’s view of her “neighbours whom Mrs Shaw called friends, because she happened to dine with them more frequently than with any other people, and because if she or Edith wanted anything from them, or they from her, they did not scruple to make a call at each other’s houses before luncheon”. This relationship contrasts with her experiences in Milton were the term ‘neighbours’ is applied to people such as Higgins and his daughters; a far more personal and sincere relationship.
The opening scenes also provide the reader with an explanation of Margaret’s position in Aunt Shaw’s house. It is shown to be a warm and affectionate household with her “gentle aunt and dear cousin”, but Margaret’s position within it was that of ‘poor cousin’ and companion to Edith. Margaret’s proud character and regard for social stature is clear from her eager “delight of filling the important post of only daughter in Helstone parsonage”. This perception of class and positions in society is one that shapes many of her dislikes of Milton and its inhabitants and is one that she must eventually overcome.
The title of chapter two, “Roses and Thorns” has significance in that is shows the contrast between the life Margaret expects at Helstone, surrounded by roses and the outdoors, and the “thorns” in her life that she hadn’t expected. It shows how beneath the idyll of her memories of Helstone, lie problems waiting to cause pain. Margaret feels that she belongs in Helstone where “its people were her people”. As an example of this, she “learned and delighted in using their particular words”.
However, she is later to acquire the language of the people in Milton, showing her adaptability and also how she ‘belongs’ in Milton to the same extent as she does in Helstone. Margaret is aware that “one had need to learn a different language and measure by a different standard up here in Milton”. The embracing of the local dialect by a middle-class girl is highly unusual in novels, showing the unconventional, clever and independent mind that Margaret possesses. Her return to Helstone and her “keen enjoyment of every sensuous pleasure” shows how Margaret is a sensuous woman, greatly appreciative of the outdoors.
The loss of the countryside and the geographical differences between Milton and Helstone are perceived greatly by Margaret. In Helstone, Margaret walks “out on the broad commons into the warm scented light, seeing multitudes of wild, free, living creatures, revelling in the sunshine, and the herbs and flowers it called forth” whereas “at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and strove perpetually. Senseless and purposeless were wood and iron and steam in their endless labours”.
The difference in the environments is emphasised through Gaskell’s use of language and tools such as alliteration. Margaret shows her attitude to social class on her first arriving at Helstone, to have been shaped by her childhood in the fashionable Harley Street. She conforms to the conventional perception that a man’s status as a gentleman is reliant on birth, property and an appropriate (or no) occupation. This topic is one that is discussed at length with Mr Thornton and we see that Milton, and her acquaintance with Thornton, changes Margaret’s opinion on this.
Thornton believes that “”gentleman” is a term that only describes a person in his relation to others”, whereas the term “a man” comprehends more, a person not merely considered “with regard to his fellow-me, but in relation to himself”. It is one of the many prejudices concerning class relations that Margaret must overcome before she can be happily united with Thornton. Although she declares that “I am not standing up for [the cotton spinners] any more than for any other trades-people”, she is later to stand up for both the masters through Thornton and the workers through Higgins.
The change in Margaret is forced upon her through her change in situation and circumstance. The frailties and failings in Mr Hale’s character can be seen in his being unable to tell his wife of his change of conscience and their subsequent more to Milton-Northern. This means that greater responsibility is placed on Margaret’s shoulders, but her strength of character shines through because although she “did dislike it, did shrink from it more than from anything she had ever had to do in her life before” she then manages to “conquer herself”. This is something that Mr Hale is unable to do.
The area the Hales move into in Milton is cleverly named, Crampton. Like Dickens in ‘Hard Times’, Gaskell uses the names of places to suggest their nature. Edith’s letters from Corfu provide not only the reader, but Margaret also, with a constant reminder as to what her life could have been like. The first letter from Edith tells of her arrival and is received on the day of Margaret’s own arrival in Milton. The lively and gay description of their happy days in Corfu provides a stark contrast between the dark, chaotic and cramped life in Milton.
The lives of the two young cousins have diverged completely. At this point in the novel, Margaret would have preferred Edith’s life, but later on we see that she would not have been content with such a life. Margaret’s humanitarian interest is awakened in her through her life in Milton. She provides a counter-argument to that of J. S. Mill and those of the utilitarian movement such as Gradgrind in ‘Hard Times’. She sees a smaller section of Milton society and was “thrown in with one or two of those who, in all measures affecting masses of people, must be acute sufferers for the good of many”.
She, like Dickens’ Sissy Jupe sees the cost in terms of human suffering, her concern is for the individual. Margaret is interested in people and it is through her acquaintance with Higgins and his family that Milton “became a brighter place… in it she had found a human interest”. She does not like to hear the mill workers referred to as “Hands”. This is an issue discussed also in ‘Hard Times’ but it reflects on her interests in the individual in society. Referring to a whole class of people by the same generic term, removes the personal contact and identity of the workers. They no longer have “independence of character”.
As we hear of Frederick and his story, we see how and why Margaret looks up to him. Her creed in life is 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”. This is what Frederick did. She sees his crime as elevated through his motives to a “heroic protection of the weak”. This concords with her great interest in humanity. When she saves Thornton from the mob at the mill, “she did it because it was right, and simple, and true to save where she could save”.
Margaret, coming fresh to the industrial troubles in Milton, provides a new outlook on the problems. Although she is biased in that she considers the south a lot less hostile and full of suffering, she can see “two classes dependant on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own”. She correctly identifies communication as being the root of a lot of their problems and endeavours to improve this. Margaret’s relationship with Dixon shows her capacity to love fiercely.
It also highlights her perception of her position in the household and her willingness to take on all the responsibilities of nursing her mother. Mrs Hale’s fatal illness brings Dixon and Margaret together in sympathy and support for one another. Through Mrs Thornton’s scathing opinion of Margaret and her condescending attitude to her surroundings, we see others’ perception of Margaret’s breeding and social awareness. Although her opinions as regards her surroundings change gradually during her time in Milton, Mrs Thornton never credits her with this.
Bessy too is surprised that Margaret is associating with the “first folk in Milton”. More particularly because it is unusual that someone of Margaret’s middle class breeding visits both the masters and the men, thus straddling the two very distinct classes in the industrial town. Margaret finds this hard to come to terms with when she is invited to dine at the Thornton’s, where she is expected to “dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today”.
Margaret, with all the sorrow and hardship she has to bear, has all the propensity to become a martyr. Many a self-sacrificing heroine has had her true character poorly developed throughout the history of the novel. Despite this, Margaret is not a martyr, she is a much more three-dimensional character. While she bears the responsibility and pain of her life and family troubles, “her whole life just now was a strain upon her fortitude”. She doesn’t deny the hardship and must struggle against complaining. This makes her a much more ‘real’ and enjoyable character.
In her darkest times in Milton, she still looks back to Helstone as the “sunny times of old”, showing that her character has not yet completed its journey. In the wake of her mother’s death, we see Margaret beginning to redress her prejudices regarding trades people; “her cheeks burnt as she recollected how proudly she had implied an objection to trade (in the early days of their acquaintance)” This is also a sign of her growing feelings for Thornton, which she is yet to admit to herself. When Higgins visits, he is asked upstairs; something which astonishes Dixon, as “folk at Helstone were never brought higher than the kitchen”.
During their time in Milton, class distinctions as perceived by the Hales have weakened. The change in Margaret is also shown through her beginning to address the poor in the south with a more objective attitude. Margaret’s view of trades people goes full circle when her brother goes into trade in Spain and she reflects on her “old tirades against trade”. Not only does her perception of trade go full circle, but also in her returning to London, her lifestyle does likewise. Her London life no longer satisfies her and she fears becoming “sleepily deadened into forgetfulness”.
The pace of life in London is very different from the bustle of Milton and she finds that it is the commotion and excitement of the industrial town that she prefers. Leaving it has left a “strange unsatisfied vacuum in Margaret’s heart”. She also longs for contact with other classes such as she experienced while in Milton. On returning to Helstone, Margaret comes with the view that she was returning ‘home’, but she finds that little things have changed and moved on and Helstone will never be the place it once was.
It is this realisation of the changes that “carry us on imperceptibly from childhood to youth and thence through manhood to age, whence we drop… into the quiet mother earth” that allows Margaret to make a break with Helstone and all the memories attached to it. She is able to come to terms with it as her past and remember it solely as such. Mr Lennox comments that Margaret returns at the end of the novel to the “Margaret Hale of Helstone”, but he is wrong; she is quite a different woman to the now.
Thornton too fails to see that it was her time in Milton that made Margaret the independent woman she is at the end of the novel, describing Helstone as “the place where Margaret grew to be what she is”. Margaret’s character is shaped not only by her young childhood in Harley Street, her summers in Helstone, but also her young womanhood in Milton. It is probably the latter that had the most substantial impact on her, causing her to see both Harley Street and Helstone through different eyes on her return.
Ultimately, she chooses the life and spirit and vigour of Milton over the laziness of London, through her choice of Thornton over Mr Lennox as a husband. The vast differences in the scenery and setting over the course of the novel reflect Margaret’s attitude and her changing opinions regarding herself and those around her. The changes she undergoes in Milton are highlighted by her return to the familiar scenes of Helstone and Harley Street, her new attitude to them and the people connected with them.
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