“North and South” is a novel by the English author, Elizabeth Gaskell that was originally published in serial installments in the Dickens’ magazine, “Household Words” between September 1854 and January 1855. Notable for it’s focus on the industrial revolution and the oppression and ill-treatment of factory workers during that time, the novel is also considered a great love story.
It centers around a young woman named Margaret Hale, who moves with her elderly parents into the industrial town of Milton in northern England. Margaret becomes involved in the rapidly heating strike of the destitute factory workers in the town against the factory owners. One of the factory owners, Mr. Thornton befriends Margaret and falls in love with her.
Over the course of the novel, Thornton slowly learns to treat his workers better and pay for improvements to his mill. In the end, Margaret and Thornton go into business together and marry. The story has been adapted into two BBC miniseries in 1975 and 2004.
The first chapter begins with Margaret trying to gently wake her cousin, Edith from a nap on the sofa. Edith is about to marry Captain Lennox and move to the Greek island of Corfu. Margaret and Edith grew up together and Margaret is sad to see her cousin move away. Margaret is set to move back to her parents’ house in Helstone but she has not lived there in ten years. For the past decade, she has lived with her aunt. Margaret is now eighteen. That evening, Margaret speaks with Captain Lennox’s brother, Henry who she considers a friend.
A few days later, the wedding takes place and Margaret travels back to Helstone with her father. Margaret is sad to say goodbye to everyone she knows at her aunt’s house and when she returns home, she notices that her parents are more melancholy than she remembers. Trying to amuse herself, Margaret takes long walks outside. Her brother, Frederick is mentioned. Frederick was in the Navy until he was embroiled in a mutiny and had to leave the country to avoid arrest. Margaret’s parents receive letters from him but he is not able to return to England.
One day, Henry Lennox visits and proposes to Margaret during a quiet walk. Margaret politely refuses him. Henry becomes angry and then sad, telling Margaret that he thinks she is his only hope for marriage. When they return to the house, Henry acts like nothing happened, which confuses Margaret. She assumes that this must be how he masks his pain and lets it go.
That evening, Margaret’s father, Mr. Hale calls her into the study for a private talk. He confesses to her that he is leaving his position as minister in the church because he has been having theological doubts and cannot remain with the Church in good conscience. He tells her that they are going to have to leave town. They are moving to a mill town named Milton-Northern where no one will know them. Her father says that he does have one old friend there who can get him a job as a private tutor. He then asks her if she can explain all this to her mother for him and Margaret reluctantly agrees. Margaret’s mother is initially shocked and angered but when she sees her husband she pities him and forgives him. After packing all of their belongings, the family moves two weeks later.
On their way through London, Margaret spots Henry Lennox but avoids his eyes and manages to escape his notice. When the family arrives in Milton, Margaret is shocked to see how dark and dirty the industrial town is and how poorly most of the residents are. A thick cloud of smoke hangs over the entire town. Margaret and her father set about looking for a house, managing to find one that will work although it is shabby. Margaret hopes that she can change the wallpaper. At the hotel, a man named Mr. Thornton comes to visit them.
Mr. Thornton is the owner of the main mill in town. Margaret speaks to Mr. Thornton before her father returns and the two are equally impressed and unsettled by each other. Mr. Hale returns and tells Margaret that their new landlord will not let them change the wallpaper. After Thornton leaves, Margaret tells her father that the man is difficult to speak to because he seems reluctant to talk and only gives short answers. She tells her mother that Thornton is “not quite a gentleman” but that he is tall and about thirty years of age.
When the Hale’s move into their house they are shocked to find that the old wallpaper is gone and that Thornton spoke to their landlord to get him to change it. The family move into their new house and suffer though their first few weeks in their lowered circumstances with no money. Margaret receives a happy letter from Edith and her new husband but the letter makes her wonder if any of her other old friends wonder where she went. Mr. Thornton recommends many new pupils to Mr. Hale for his tutoring. Thornton himself is also a pupil as he was taken out of school at a young age by his father in the hopes that he would concentrate solely on the factory. In her sojourns around town, Margaret befriends a factory worker named Nicholas who has a daughter named Bessy that is ill. Mr. Hale invites Thornton over for tea one evening.
Thornton tells his mother that he is going out and his mother warns him against Margaret who she thinks may be angling for a rich husband. Thornton merely laughs at this. Thornton enjoys spending time in the Hale’s home not only for the company but because he feels like, although the home is much smaller than his, it is filled with more happiness and love. Margaret and Thornton begin to notice each other more as Thornton talks with Mr. Hale about the differences between the blue-collar men of the north and the aristocratic men of the south.
Thornton feels that he would rather work himself to death than living in the south. This angers Margaret who tells him that he does not understand the south. He calmly replies that she does not understand the north which silences her. They talk about Parliament and how Thornton is angered at the law telling him what to do with his business. He tells them that his father died when he was sixteen and his mother raised he and his sister. At this age, he worked for a draper and his mother ran the finances of the household. He believes that it was his mother’s teachings that lead him to financial success and he thinks that the poor people in Milton are just spending too much of their money on personal pleasures.
When Thornton leaves, he starts to shake Margaret’s hand but she unintentionally slights him by bowing instead. He takes this as an insult and assumes that she is rude. After Thornton leaves, Mr. Hale tells Margaret that Thornton’s father actually killed himself after falling into financial ruin. Young Thornton paid off all of his father’s debts years later. Margaret is impressed by this but still thinks that it is unfortunate that he went into factory-owning as a profession. Margaret also notices that her father does not seem to be entirely well. She goes to visit Bessy and Nicholas and finds Bessy’s is iller than ever. Margaret tries to pray with her but Nicholas stops her and admits that he does not believe in God because of all that Bessy has been through.
Thornton urges his mother and sister to visit the Hales. Margaret struggles to find something to talk about with the sister, Fanny and eventually they talk about Milton and Mrs. Thornton reveals that she was born and raised there and does not wish to travel anywhere else. After they leave, Mrs. Thornton warns Fanny not to befriend Margaret because she does not seem like a good person. The next time Margaret visits Bessy, the girl tells her that she is ill from working in the factory. She says that she inhaled too much of the cotton fluff that she worked with. There is a system for getting rid of the fluff in the air so that it won’t be inhaled, but many of the factory masters are too cheap to install it. Margaret also learns that Bessy is the same age as she is and is shocked by the differences in their circumstances.
Mrs. Hale also becomes ill and Margaret is brushed off when she tries to talk to her father about her mother’s illness. Over the following months, Mrs. Hale grows closer with Margaret as she becomes iller. She tells Margaret that she is worried that she will die before getting to see Frederick one last time. Margaret and her father are called to Thornton’s house and are impressed by its size and cleanliness. Margaret finds it cold, however. Mrs. Thornton informs them that her son is dealing with threats from his workers about a strike. Mr. Hale asks if the workers want higher wages and Mrs. Thornton tells him that is in their demands but in reality, she feels that they only want to be masters. Thornton returns home and gives the Hales the name of a good doctor for Margaret’s mother.
The topic of the strike is brought up and Thornton realizes that Margaret seems to support the workers somewhat in their rebellion. The doctor visits the next day and tells Margaret that her mother is dying. Margaret is shocked and feels guilty that she lived away from her mother so long and missed so much time with her. Margaret talks with Nicholas and Bessy about the strike. Nicholas tells her that the workers are striking because five or six of the masters had threatened to lower the wages even though they, themselves were richer than ever. He tells her that the masters are using the excuse that the laborers don’t know anything about a trade. The Thornton’s invite the Hale’s to a dinner party.
Mr. Thornton talks with his mother about Margaret who tells him that she feels that the girl is full of herself. Mr. Thornton tells his mother that he wishes that she would try to like Margaret and Mrs. Thornton wonders if he is thinking of marrying Margaret. This makes Thornton laugh as he thinks that Margaret, though poor, would never agree to marry him. Mrs. Thornton agrees to try to befriend the girl since her son asked. Thornton talks more about the strike and the fact that the new American market means that British goods have to bring their prices down. He talks about bringing in workers from Ireland if his desert him. He decides to give his laborers two weeks to straighten out before doing so.
Margaret is perturbed to hear Thornton speak of the strike as if the workers are less important than the factory. She cannot reconcile the cold man that talks about the strikes with the compassionate one she has come to think of as a friend. While visiting Bessy, Margaret is upset by an anguished neighbor who comes to tell Nicholas that he cannot provide for his family. Margaret sets aside some money for the man and tells Bessy to say that it is from Nicholas. At the dinner party, the spread of food seems almost an insult to the starving workers in Margaret’s eyes.
Though Mrs. Thornton is a penny pincher in her regular life, she prides herself on throwing lavish parties. Thornton is struck by Margaret’s beauty and wit during the party and they touch for the first time although she does not notice. When she returns home that evening, Mrs. Hale has worsened and Margaret spends the night with her. In the morning, she goes to visit Thornton and is surprised to see that a crowd has gathered around his house and the mill is not operating. Fanny tells Margaret that Thornton has brought in the workers from Ireland which angered the workers so much that they began threatening the Irish men.
The Irish workers were now holed up in the factory, unable to leave. Mrs. Thornton looks out at the crowd in fear. Thornton is surprised that Margaret is there and apologizes to her for the bad timing. He tells them soldiers are on their way. Margaret sees the man whom she gave money to in the crowd. She is terrified but commands Thornton to go speak to the crowd and explain the situation. He agrees although he does not like it. Margaret can only see him addressing the crowd and not hear him. She watches as the crowd grows angrier and start picking up things to throw. She rushes down without thinking and tells the crowd to go home because soldiers are coming. Someone throws a rock at Thornton and strikes Margaret in the head instead.
Thornton yells at the crowd and in shock, they move off out of the area. Margaret lies on the ground, having fainted. Thornton sweeps her up into his arms and tells her that he loves her, assuming that she cannot hear him. He brings her inside and wonders if she jumped in front of him to protect him from the stone. A surgeon is called for, but Margaret recovers on her own and insists that she walk home. A servant tells Fanny that she saw Margaret throw herself in front of Thornton to shield him and Fanny tells her mother. Margaret feels that she did some good but is embarrassed that everyone will now think that she is in love with Thornton. She believes that she would have thrown herself in front of anyone in that situation.
The next day, Thornton visits Margaret early in the day and apologizes for what happened the day before. He confesses how grateful he is for her rescue and admits that he loves her. Margaret is shocked. She admits that her rescue of him was misconstrued and that she would have done it to save anyone. He leaves but insists that he loves her and won’t stop loving her even though she seems to despise him. Margaret is furious as Thornton and his attitude toward her. She goes to visit Bessy who tells her that her father was against the strike that day and had not wanted anyone to get hurt.
Back home, Mrs. Hale cries as she tells Margaret that she must see her son one last time before she dies and charges Margaret with getting him into the country without getting arrested. Margaret writes a letter to her brother immediately.
Thornton is upset after his botched proposal and tells his mother that she is the only woman that will ever love him. Mrs. Thornton is sad for him but relieved, as she still does not like Margaret. Thornton begs her to never mention the proposal again. After speaking to the police about the strike the day before, Thornton visits the Hales, desperate to put the proposal behind him and act like it never happened. He brings Mrs. Hale some of her favorite foods and she is delighted to see him.
Margaret discovers that Bessy has died and that her sister, Mary is outside, wishing to speak to her. Mary requests that Margaret comes and see the body and Margaret reluctantly agrees. She is glad to see that Bessy looks peaceful in death but upset when she sees how bereft Nicholas is. Margaret brings Nicholas to talk to her father and Nicholas confesses to the former parishioner that he is having trouble rationalizing why God would take Bessy. Nicholas talks about the strike as well and tells Margaret about the Union that the workers have started. Thornton continues to visit the Hale house but he and Margaret do not speak to each other.
One day, Frederick shows up at the house suddenly. The family is relieved and pleased to see him and Mrs. Hale passes away the next day with her whole family by her side. Margaret is responsible for tending to the funeral arrangements as Mr. Hale’s grief is too much for him to function. Margaret is told that a former shipmate of Frederick’s named Leonards is in town as well and that he is intent on catching Frederick to turn him over for the reward. She realizes that she needs to get Frederick back out of town quickly.
Before he leaves, she tells him to seek out Henry Lennox as a lawyer so that he might combat the charges against him. At the station, they see Mr. Thornton walk by but do not say anything to him. A drunken man grabs Frederick and asks if his name is Hale. Frederick shoves him away and the man falls back. Margaret assumes that it is Leonards and rushes Frederick onto the train. Frederick escapes and writes them a note when he gets to London. Mr. Thornton asks the Hale’s maid how they are doing and she answers that Mr. Hale is not well but Margaret is doing better. Thornton is tempted to ask about the man that he saw Margaret with at the train station but he assumes that it was a lover of hers and this idea makes him hate her even though he still very much loves her.
A policeman visits the Hale house and tells Margaret that the man at the station died as a result of his injuries after Frederick threw him down. An eyewitness had said that a woman that looked like Margaret was there when the incident happened. Margaret lies and says that she wasn’t there. Unsure of what to think, the policeman leaves. Mr. Thornton bumps into the inspector after he leaves and, as Thornton is the magistrate, the inspector tells him what happened. Thornton begins to believe that he has to save Margaret and tells the inspector to stop the investigation. When Margaret learns of Thornton’s help in this matter she is confused and feels that he probably thinks of her as a criminal now. A letter arrives from Frederick saying that he is safe in Spain and that Henry Lennox agreed to work on his case.
When Margaret is visiting Nicholas she learns that the man that threw the stone that hit her, Boucher has been found dead. It is discovered that he killed himself. Margaret realizes that she wants to see Thornton again to explain what happened at the train station. Margaret tells Nicholas that he should go see Thornton about getting a job. Mr. Hale realizes that Margaret’s opinion of Thornton seems to have become kinder. Mrs. Thornton hears about what her son saw at the train station and goes to speak to Margaret. Of course, Margaret cannot confess the truth of what happened to the woman but she does learn that Thornton told her that Margaret was innocent. Nicholas tries to speak to Thornton but is refused. He tells Margaret who is surprised and apologizes for telling him to speak to the man.
However, Thornton soon shows up at Nicholas’ house and offers him a job. When he arrives, Margaret is there and she rushes out quickly. He catches up with her and tells her that he gave Nicholas the job. The two dance around the subject of the train station incident and Margaret tells him that she cannot admit what really happened. He tells her that he is no longer in love with her and asks her if she believes that. She admits that she does. Margaret’s godfather, Mr. Bell visits and she is pleased to see him.
Thornton meets him and afterward, Bell tells Mr. Hale that he thinks that Margaret and Thornton might be in love. For months, Mr. Thornton and Margaret do not speak. Frederick marries in Spain and Henry Lennox writes to Margaret saying he does not think that he can do anything for her brother but that Frederick seems to be happy in his new life. Mr. Hale dies suddenly one night and Mr. Bell rushes back to Milton. On the way back, he bumps into Thornton and tells him of the news.
Thornton is horrified and asks what is going to happen to Margaret. Bell is unsure. Mr. Bell stays in Thornton’s house while he is in town and accidentally admits to Thornton Frederick’s plight. Thornton wonders if Frederick might have been the man that he saw Margaret with at the station. Mr. Thornton reveals that he is getting on better terms with his workers as he is treating them better and fixing up the factory for them. He says that Nicholas has become indispensable in helping him figure out what his workers want. Thornton now even sometimes eats lunch with his men so that he can talk to them face to face. Margaret is sent back to her aunts’ house and must say goodbye to Nicholas, Mary, and the Thorntons. Thornton himself is quiet when she says goodbye and seems withdrawn.
Margaret goes back to her aunts’ house and is mired in boredom. One day, Mr. Bell visits and brings her back to her parents’ old village of Helstone. Margaret confesses to Mr. Bell about Frederick’s visit. She asks Bell to tell Mr. Thornton the true story of what happened the next time he sees him. Margaret hears the news that Fanny has married and that Thornton bought some of Mr. Hale’s things at his house sale. She soon receives a letter that Mr. Bell is ill and Margaret rushes to his home in Oxford. By the time she arrives, however, he has already died. Soon, Margaret learns that Mr. Bell has left all of his money to her, of which there is a great deal. When Henry Lennox hears this, he devotes himself to trying to win her hand again.
Back in Milton, Thornton is beginning to lose more money than he is earning and feel the strain of catering to his workers and new machinery. Nicholas asks him if he has heard of Margaret lately and Thornton admits that because of Mr. Bell’s death, Margaret is now his landlord. Nicholas mentions Frederick and confirms that he was in town when Mrs. Hale died. Despite this, Mr. Thornton loses his business as he declines to partner with another mill owner whom he does not trust. Margaret hears that Thornton is coming to dinner at her aunt’s house with Henry Lennox. She hears that Thornton’s business failed as well. When they meet again they are kind to each other but awkward. Thornton tells her that his men told him they would come work for him again if he started another business.
The next day, Margaret has the barrister draw up a proposal that says that Thornton can take some of her money and restore the mill. Thornton is so overwhelmed by the gesture that he falls to his knees in front of her. He confesses that he still loves her and Margaret admit that she doesn’t feel she is good enough for him. He shows her some dried flowers in his wallet and admits that he visited Helstone to see the place where she grew up. Margaret and Thornton become engaged and laugh at what everyone will say when they hear about their relationship.
Margaret Hale – The main character of the story. At the start of the story, Margaret is a 19-year-old woman who has been living with her wealthy aunt for ten years. After Margaret’s best friend and cousin, Edith gets married and moves away, Margaret is sent back to live with her parents. The upheaval in Margaret’s life begins when her father suddenly leaves his job as a parishioner and moves the family to Milton. But it never really stops, Margaret is forced to deal with one major change after another throughout the book. The move, the death of her mother, the death of her father, the death of her godfather and inheriting his wealth. All of these things happen within a very short amount of time and Margaret, only a young woman deals with them with grace and aplomb. She is brave enough not only to deal with her own tragedies without breaking but brave enough to dive in front of Thornton when the stone is thrown at him and enough to maintain a calm facade when she is being questioned by the police about Frederick. Margaret is also kind. She befriends Nicholas and Bessy and helps care for Boucher’s family when he comes to Nicholas’ door and she continues to care for his family even after he throws the stone at her and kills himself. Margaret is more reluctant to fall in love with Thornton than he is with her. She only begins to believe that she might be in love with him after she realizes that he might view her differently for seeing her at the train station late at night with a strange man. In the end, she inherits the money from Mr. Bell and immediately begins using it to better the lives of the people of Milton. She marries Thornton and gets her happy ending.
John Thornton – The hero of the story. Thornton moral trajectory through the story is directly influenced by his growing love for Margaret. Although he came from a poor family and seems to have built his business from the ground up, in the beginning, he is prideful and much like the other mill masters in Milton, he is more concerned with the money he is making than the welfare of his workers. This type of attitude was prevalent at the onset of the industrial revolution and Thornton’s character is the avatar for the sensitive master that Gaskell was trying to portray. Over the course of the novel, Thornton softens toward his workers. He begins to see them as real people instead of a faceless worker and beings improving the factory and even eating meals with his men. Though this makes them come to respect and even love him as a master, it as means that he eventually runs his company almost into the ground. However, Thornton only seems to care about this insofar as it affects his now out of work men. Margaret’s kindness and pure spirit infect him and by the end of the book, he is as compassionate as she.
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Biography
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was born Elizabeth Stevenson on the 29th of September, 1810 in Chelsea, London, England. The youngest of eight children, she was one of only two that survived infancy. Elizabeth’s father was a minister who resigned his position on conscientious grounds. His wife died after giving birth to her youngest, stillborn daughter and Elizabeth’s father was left to raise herself and her brother alone.
Elizabeth was sent to live with her aunt in Knutsford, Cheshire. Elizabeth’s future was uncertain as a child. She had no money and no real home although she was considered a permanent guest at her aunt’s home. Still, she spent many years without seeing her father after he remarried and began a new family. Elizabeth’s only living brother joined the Merchant Navy and went missing in 1827 during a trip to India.
Growing up, Elizabeth was a kind and considerate young woman. She went to school at a place called Barford House where she received the proper education given to young women of the era until she left school at the age of sixteen and traveled to London to spend time with her cousins.
On August 30th, 1832, Elizabeth married William Gaskell, a Unitarian Minister. Elizabeth then moved to Manchester with her new husband. The industrial town inspired some of her best novels. In 1834, after losing two children in infancy, Elizabeth gave birth to her first daughter, Marianne who ended up being the first of four daughters, all of whom lived to old age.
While a young mother, Elizabeth began writing a diary of her experiences raising her children. This inspired her to write further and in 1836, she and her husband co-authored a collection of poems that was published in Blackwood’s Magazine the following year.
In 1840, she published her first solo poem that was attributed to “A Lady”. Throughout the 1840’s, Elizabeth published several short stories under the pseudonym, “Cotton Mather Mills”. In 1848, after losing her only son in infancy, Elizabeth began working on her first novel, “Mary Barton” which was published in October of that year. The novel, that was about the working class people of Manchester, was a success and widely praised by critics.
At this point, Elizabeth became a member of high society and her social circle included other famous writers of the time as well as social reformers and religious dissenters. In particular, Elizabeth was close friends with the author Charlotte Bronte.
Elizabeth later wrote a biography of Charlotte that was very popular. Early in the 1850’s, Elizabeth wrote to Charles Dickens asking for advice about assisting a friend of hers in prison. Dickens began publishing Elizabeth’s stories in his magazine, Household Words.
Over the course of that decade, she wrote some of her best works, including “North and South” in 1854 and “My Lady Ludlow” in 1859. Elizabeth’s last novel, “Wives and Daughters” began in August of 1864 just a few months before she died of a sudden heart attack with visiting a house she had purchased.
A memorial for Elizabeth Gaskell in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey was erected in 2010 by her great-great-great granddaughter, Sarah Price.