Elizabeth Gaskell has written a lengthy (fictional) expose of life in mid-nineteenth century England in a mill town. Exploring the themes of poverty, class, snobbery, working unions, and personal integrity, she weaves the story of Margaret Hale and her genteel family with that of the working-class Higgins’ family.
Margaret Hale has to be one of the most tragic heroines in literature. The move from her childhood home in the country that she loved so dearly, after having been away from it so long visiting her cousin in London… the loss of her father’s ‘prestige’ (if one can use such a word to describe a man of the cloth), in his position… the adjustment to life in a small narrow house in a dirty smog-gy manufacturing town… and then later on the loss of both her parents and her father’s good friend. And then, lurking underneath it is, there is her brother’s threatening court-martial. How would one person recover their wits and preserve their character amid such hardships within the space of just a couple of years? and yet, we find Margaret, her pride lowered by her own failings, rebound in the end to find happiness with one that used to be (more or less), her enemy.
At times I found it hard to like Margaret. She seemed too proud and snobbish to me. But as I read on, the author explains much later in the book how Margaret’s sheltered life had led to her clinging to her pride as a safety net. Margaret’s kindness in reaching out to poor, sickly Bessie Higgins does a lot toward redeeming her character for the reader.
When Margaret lies to shield her brother from danger, she must reconcile herself to her failings and agonises over whether she did the right thing. Her periods of self-examination show her to be, rather than untrustworthy, a woman of great integrity as she considers her motives and willingness to appear flawed in the eyes of others (in particular, John Thornton). Her one besetting fault is pride:
“At first, when I heard from one of my servants that you had been seen walking about with a gentleman, so far from home as the Outwood station, at such a time of the evening, I could hardly believe it. But my son, I am sorry to say, confirmed her story. It was indiscreet, to say the least; many a young woman has lost her character before now –‘
Margaret’s eyes flashed fire. This was a new idea – this was too insulting. If Mrs. Thornton had spoken to her about the lie she had told, well and good – she would have owned it, and humiliated herself. But to interfere with her conduct – to speak of her character! she – Mrs. Thornton, a mere stranger – it was too impertinent! She would not answer her – not one word.”
John Thornton is more sympathetically drawn, rising from obscurity and hardship to ownership of a mill. His mother is not as sympathetic a character, being blinded to anyone (especially Margaret Hale), who is not loyal to, or deeply impressed by, her son.
“I wonder when you Milton men intend to live. All your lives seem to be spent in gathering together the materials for life.’
‘By living, I suppose you mean enjoyment.’
‘Yes, enjoyment, – I don’t specify of what, because I trust we should both consider mere pleasure as very poor enjoyment.’
‘I would rather have the nature of the enjoyment defined.’
‘Well! enjoyment of leisure – enjoyment of the power and influence which money gives. You are all striving for money. What do you want it for?’
Mr. Thornton was silent. Then he said, “I really don’t know. But money is not what I strive for.’
I sympathised greatly with Mr. Hale, Margaret’s father, who for reasons of conscience resigns his position as vicar, in spite of the great cost and repercussions to his family.
There are a LOT of literary references in this book, and I was thankful for the many notes and listing of references at the end of the book.
Mrs. Gaskell is a talented writer, and I am looking forward to reading more from her.