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The Quilty Reader

Lawyer, mother, avid reader. Game host extraordinaire! Partner in crime to Obsidian Black Plague! My bookish weaknesses include classics, fantasy, YA, and agreeing to read more books than is even remotely possible.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell #2 (how to build a better badass, Victorian style)

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell, Patricia Ingham

There are many remarkable characters in North and South, but perhaps my favorite of all was Hannah Thornton, John Thornton's mother. 


By way of background, John Thornton is the master of Marlborough Mills, a cotton mill. But, it is important that John Thornton did not inherit wealth, nor was he, necessarily, destined to be a master as opposed to a millworker.


For that, he has his mother to thank.





We learn that when John was a boy, his father died, a ruined man - actually, we are told that:


His father speculated wildly, failed, and then killed himself, because he could not bear the disgrace. All his former friends shrunk from the disclosures that had to be made of his dishonest gambling — wild, hopeless struggles, made with other people’s money, to regain his own moderate portion of wealth. No one came forwards to help the mother and this boy. There was another child, I believe, a girl; too young to earn money, but of course she had to be kept. At least, no friend came forwards immediately, and Mrs. Thornton is not one, I fancy, to wait till tardy kindness comes to find her out. So they left Milton.


From that time, they lived simply and extremely frugally, so much so that by essentially sheer dint of will, Mrs. Thornton and John were able to put by enough money that John was able to discharge his father's debts and enter into business. John tells Margaret:


"My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me."


Make no mistake about it - Hannah Thornton is a tough lady, resilient and determined. I love it that Gaskell wrote her so strong. One of my enduring complaints about Victorian novels is the occasional tendency to infantilize women, with tropes like the angel in the house, and female characters who are delicate and incapable, even to the point that occasionally they seem to drop dead from things that don't actually kill you, like broken hearts or learning that their beloved has died in war. 


So Elizabeth Gaskell writing a character that so completely busts those stereotypes is amazing. But, at the same time, she didn't caricature Mrs. Thornton - she makes it clear that along with her incredible strength, she is shy, and ill at ease among strangers (which makes her appear even more formidable than she actually is) and she adores her children, but especially her son.


‘Mother’s love is given by God, John. It holds fast for ever and ever. A girl’s love is like a puff of smoke, — it changes with every wind."