The ‘divide’ between North and South in this Victorian novel still exists today in Britain. As a resident of the North there’s no need to say which ‘side’ I’m on. The title of the novel piqued my interest and it took some effort to feel warm towards Miss Margaret Hale and her haughty ways for most of the book.
I’m sure if Austen’s heroins were put into this book they would all behave a hundred times worse. But that’s the magic of a novel, isn’t it? I never rolled my eyes on them because they existed solely in the South (except the scoundrel Wickham and wayward Lydia when he was dismissed to Newcastle at the end of Pride and Prejudice as a bit of a punishment from the author).
In this novel, we see how the North and South clash spectacularly. This novel was written by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1854 and 1855 when she lived in Manchester. Among all the relationships in the book, I was most drawn to the one between Margaret and the Higgins family. I’ll focus on a few snippets of their interaction in this post.
Litcharts identifies many themes in the book: Nostalgia and identity, female agency and strength, religious diversity and conscience, class antagonism, personal character, environment and change, and education. Partly because of my academic background in cross-cultural communication, partly because of my own experience living in a non-native culture, from the start my eyes were drawn to Margaret’s experience of culture shock in the North and how her attitude towards the North changed over time.
Our protagonist Miss Margaret Hale was removed by chapter 6 from the idyllic South and her home village Helstone, to a smokey and noisy manufacturing town in the North called Milton-Northern (based on Manchester), carrying the rose-tinted memory of the South and the class-based prejudice against all people ‘in trade’. In her own words:
‘Gormans,’ said Margaret. ‘Are those the Gormans who made their fortunes in trade at Southampton? Oh! I’m glad we don’t visit them. I don’t like shoppy people. I think we far better off, knowing only cottagers and labourers, and people without pretence… I like all people whose occupations have to do with land; I like soldiers and sailors, and the three learned professions, as they call them. I’m sure you don’t want me to admire butchers and bakers, and candlestick makers, do you, mamma?’ (p19)*
According to Wikipedia, “Medieval and early modern tradition recognised only three professions: divinity, medicine, and law, which were called the learned professions. A profession is not a trade and not an industry.” There, for your next pub quiz.
When she found out her father decided to become a poor private tutor in this Northern town, she said, “looking scornful”,
‘What in the world do manufacturers want with the classics, or literature, or the accomplishments of a gentleman?’ (p39)
It really was hard not to roll my eyes at her.
In chapter 7, we see Milton-Northern from Margaret’s eyes:
Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke… Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick. Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up, like a hen among her chickens, puffing out black ‘unparliamentary’ smoke, and sufficiently accounting for the cloud which Margaret had taken to foretell rain… great loaded lurries blocked up the not over-wide thoroughfares… (p59)
Culture shock comes thick and fast as the family settles. For example, the family found the local young women too “rough” and “uncourteous” to be their servants, but the local young women didn’t want to be the servants of this family who was a mysterious outsider and with uncertain means and position among the Milton community. They would rather work in a mill which gave them “the better wages and greater independence” (p70).
Another example would be Margaret’s unexpected interaction in the streets with the locals. I really loved it and it brought back memories of similar encounters in my northern town. When Margaret went out for her errands, she kept walking into crowds of factory workers in the streets during their breaks. I’ll quote the whole paragraph here:
They came rushing along, with bold, fearless faces, and loud laughs and jests, particularly aimed at all those who appeared to be above them in rank or station. The tones of their unrestrained voices, and their carelessness of all common rules of street politeness, frightened Margaret a little at first. The girls, with their rough, but not unfriendly freedom, would comment on her dress, even touch her shawl or gown to ascertain the exact material; nay, once or twice she was asked questions relative to some article which they particularly admired. There was such a simple reliance on her womanly sympathy with their love of dress, and on her kindliness, that she gladly replied to these inquiries, as soon as she understood them; and half smiled back at their remarks. She did not mind meeting any number of girls, loud spoken and boisterous though they might be. But she alternately dreaded and fired up against the workmen, who commented not on her dress, but on her looks, in the same open fearless manner. She, who had hitherto felt that even the most refined remark on her personal appearance was an impertinence, had to endure undisguised admiration from these outspoken men. But the very out-spokenness marked their innocence of any intention to hurt her delicacy, as she would have perceived if she had been less frightened by the disorderly tumult… their speeches… when she reached the quiet safety of home, amused her even while they irritated her. (p71)
One of the men who paid her compliment was Nicholas Higgins, a careworn middle-aged mill worker, who became a key character in the rest of the book. After learning Margaret was from Hampshire, Higgins said he was from forty miles north of Milton and commented “yo see, North and South has both met and made kind o’ friends in this big smoky place.”
Their meeting was one of my favourite passages in the book. Margaret did become genuine friends with Higgins and his teenage daughter Bessy, who was sick and later died of lung diseases from working in a cotton mill.
Here was another amusing incident of culture shock. After the initial ice-breaking, Margaret asked their address and their name. Higgins answered the questions and said,
‘I’m none ashamed o’ my name… Whatten yo’ asking for?’
Margaret was surprised at this last question, for at Helstone it would have been an understood thing, after the inquiries she had made, that she intended to come and call upon any poor neighbour whose name and habitation she had asked for.
‘I thought – I meant to come and see you.’ she suddenly felt rather shy of offering the visit, without having any reason to give for her wish to make it, beyond a kindly interest in a stranger. It seemed all at once to take the shape of an impertinence on her part; she read this meaning too in the man’s eyes.
‘I’m none so fond of having strange folk in my house.’ But then relenting, as he saw her heightened colour, he added, ‘Yo’re a foreigner, as one may say, and maybe don’t know many folk here, and yo’ve given my wench here flowers out of yo’r own hand; – yo may come if yo like.’
Margaret was half-amused, half-nettled at this answer. she was not sure if she would go where permission was given so like a favour conferred…
As the village clergyman’s daughter in Helstone, Margaret was used to going around people’s houses and her visits would be natural and welcomed as a honour to the one who received the visit. She took her role for granted. But here in Milton, that proved not to be the case. Higgins rejected her inviting herself to their home initially because she was a stranger, but changed his mind because he recognised she was kind as a person.
There were many similar incidents. When Margaret visited Bessy in their home, a large fire burnt in the grate although the day was hot, “making the whole place feel like an oven”. “Margaret did not understand that the lavishness of coals was a sign of hospitable welcome to her…” (p99)
Margaret often told Bessy stories full of reminiscence about the woods and villages in the South and Bessy, sick of the smoke and the noise, naturally wished to live down South. There was one turning point in the story where the readers heard Margaret say negative things about the South, for the first time. Compared to working in a factory, Margaret admitted there was also much hardship working in the field, “in heavy rain” and “in bitter cold”, old men racked with rheumatism but who had to work on just the same.
Before Margaret moved away from Milton, the chapter finished with a heartfelt conversation between Margaret and Higgins that brought tears to my eyes. They both suffered great loss but found strength and comfort in their friendship. The North changed Margaret for the better – when she once again lived in a luxurious house in London, she thought of the poor “of which she knew neither hopes nor the fears; they only seemed to start into existence when some want or whim of their master and mistress needed them. There was a strange unsatisfied vacuum in Margaret’s heart and mode of life”; and she missed Milton. At the same time, Margaret left her mark on the North and it was for the better too, more than she realised.
You see, North and South have met and made friends.
*Oxford World’s Classics 2008 edition