A Novel out of its time

North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell is a novel out of its time.

A misleading cover showing a demure young woman (presumably Margaret) holding a bouquet of flowers, suggesting a wedding. Actually, no wedding takes place in the novel and while Margaret might be many things, demure she is NOT!

Miss Margaret Hale, the Heroine

Unlike most Victorian misses Margaret Hale doesn’t flutter, faint, or claim that she is unable to understand anything complicated, as does her cousin Edith (who is the perfect foil for her.)

No. Miss Margaret Hale is Queenly. She is Opinionated. She is Articulate and Highly Intelligent. She enjoys arguing and is not shy about joining the men in their conversations. She even (gasp!) gets into sparring matches with them.

Needless to say, many people do not like Margaret. It is hardly surprising that many of these people are other women, especially those who do not know her well. (Those who do, like Cousin Edith, Betsy Higgins and Aunt Shaw are extremely fond of her.)

Men are attracted to her, not only for her good looks but also for her mind. It is so refreshing for a man in 1840s England to find an intelligent woman to confide in about his business problems.

This cover encapsulates the story by showing the grimy industrial town of Manchester (called “Milltown” in the novel) and the forceful John Thornton, who plays the role of anti-hero in this tale.

Mr. John Thornton, the Anti-Hero

John Thornton, a young but highly respected cotton manufacturer in Manchester (referred to in this novel as Milltown) has gone bust and is forced to sell everything off. He is saved by a woman, by Margaret no less, who gives him the enormous fortune of eighteen thousand pounds to restart his business.

If this were the 21st century, Margaret would show up on a motorbike, clad in leather from head to toe, wearing four-inch heels, and throw the money at him before taking off.

But this is 1840s England, so when John Thornton realizes what she has done for him, what does Margaret do? Does she stand proud and tall, lifting her chin as he comes towards her, calling her name?

No, she sits in a chair, hiding her face in “her little white hands”, while he kneels before her, proposing marriage. Her answer (yes) is to bury her face in his shoulder.

The Striking End of the Novel

Thus is this reversal of roles made palatable for a Victorian audience. For while Margaret has in actual fact saved John Thornton from certain disaster – as if he were a damsel in distress – John behaves like the masterful husband he intends to be.

The novel ends as John claims Margaret as his own. 

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