I am hoping to write three or four posts on North and South, since it is definitely worthy of much thoughtful consideration. So, I hate to disappoint, but this post actually isn't going to be about the romance between Margaret Hale and John Thornton (sigh . . . ). I will definitely get there, but I want to talk about something else, first.
And that is the concept of the safety net. Because, as Gaskell makes clear, Victorian England didn't much have one.
There is luxury in be able to follow your conscience - the only person who is able to choose is the person who can support himself with either choice. Many people have no ability to choose. They take what is offered because they are unable to do otherwise. One of the themes of this book, as I read it, was about the ability to follow your conscience. And the ability to follow one's conscience, as Gaskell explains, is clearly a luxury.
Margaret's father, Mr. Hale, has a crisis of conscience early in the book, and he feels compelled to resign his position as vicar of Helstone. Ultimately, Gaskell reveals to us that this crisis of conscience was over something rather trivial - a disagreement with a part of the liturgy that he was ordered to use. Many of his peers who suffered this same crisis forced themselves to, basically, make their peace with it. Mr. Hale simply cannot do this, so he resigns and hauls his family off to Milton. He remains firm in his conviction that he was right to do it, even unto death.
And let me mention right now that there will be spoilers in my posts.
He is, in part, able to make this decision because he has the support of Margaret, at least, and also because of Mr. Bell. Mr. Bell is the fairy godfather of the story - a wealthy Oxford lecturer who has been friends with Mr. Hale since they were both students there. Mr. Hale is the less obviously successful of the two, although Mr. Hale has a wife and a family, while Mr. Bell has remained unmarried. One, perhaps, is more emotionally successful, the other is obviously more financially successful. Mr. Bell doesn't give him money, but he does give him, more or less, a job. He sends him to Milton to be a tutor, with a recommendation that will land him work.
On the flip side of this, we have Nicholas Higgins, who is a man of great conscience. He is an uneducated mill worker, a union leader and a bit of an activist, and at one point in the book, he convinces his fellow mill workers to go on strike for better wages because they believe that they are being exploited by the mill owners.
The strike is, more or less, an unadulterated failure and it is painful to watch everyone suffer as a result of it. Gaskell doesn't give us a clean ending to the strike - there are no winners and she doesn't actually answer the question of "who was right.". There is violence, and strike breakers are brought in, and the mill workers suffer (a lot). Mr. Thornton, who is the owner of Marlborough Mill, ends up going bust as a result of the strike because he is unable to fill orders with his unskilled Irish workers that he brought in as strike breakers. Literally, everyone suffers (although some more than others, to be sure).
In the end, though, Nicholas Higgins is simply unable to follow his conscience, which tells him that he is being exploited. He is forced to go, hat in hand, to Thornton to ask for a job because he has ended up with the care of a bunch of children that don't belong to him when one of the strikers commits suicide. This striker, Boucher, leaves seven children behind when he drowns himself, and Higgins assumes responsibility for them.* Thornton initially tells him to pound sand, but ultimately gives him a job, and they make a sort of an uneasy peace between the two men.
I am so impressed with Gaskell and the depth and complexity of this book. I love it that she set it in the industrial north, which was one of the primary drivers of the industrial revolution. I love it that she doesn't erase women from the narrative, including working class women - both Bessy and Mary Higgins play a significant role in Margaret's re-education. Bessy is, perhaps, a bit too good to be true (she's the real Mary Sue of the book, in my opinion) gracefully dying in order to teach Margaret an object lesson in societal oppression and inequality. Mary is more flesh and blood, with vices as well as virtues. She is so full of life that she practically jumps off the pages in her uneducated and (as Gaskell puts it) slatternly gloriousness.
I highly, highly recommend reading North and South as well as watching the mini-series.
And, because I can't resist Richard Armitage as John Thornton, I leave you this image of Mr. Thornton gazing dreamily at his beloved Margaret:
as a preview of posts to be written later.
*I actually learned a new word reading this book. Clemming is apparently vernacular for "starving." Boucher couldn't bear to watch his children clem.