Falling for Mr. Thornton - an anthology of N&S stories

This Fall, get ready to fall for John Thornton all over again…

…with a brand new collection of short stories!

Twelve authors are collaborating to bring a new book to your N&S collection soon!

Photo from the BBC’s mini-series masterpiece: North & South.

Photo from the BBC’s mini-series masterpiece: North & South.


Falling for Mr. Thornton: Tales of North and South

will be published sometime late October or early November.



Catch all the updates and details at our Facebook page.


Thanks so much for your interest — we’re excited to put out more North and South lore out there!






What if Margaret never married?

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Have you ever imagined a different ending to North and South—one where Margaret remains single the rest of her life? Would she find happiness and fulfillment without marrying John Thornton?

I occasionally run into North and South fans who wish the ending of Gaskell’s story wasn’t so traditional. Something in them cringes to watch the independently-minded Margaret Hale sign up for married life. And it bothers them that according to Victorian laws, Margaret would be turning over her entire fortune to John the instant they marry. These particular fans feel sad that Margaret would be giving up her independence.

I can understand their wish to see Margaret continue to be a strong model of womanhood. She acts like an equal to the men in her life, and shows no signs of depending on a husband to establish her identity. She follows her own individual convictions of what’s right or important. And it’s exciting to see a woman like that come into a large inheritance. Margaret’s wealth gave her more freedom to choose her own path.

So what was is it she wanted to do with all her money? Was she having a grand old time being rich in London? She wasn’t having a fantastic time spending her money on herself, or on making the social rounds. She is bored out of her mind living in a house full of people who only think of how to entertain themselves next. She certainly wasn’t interested in marrying just because that’s what you were supposed to do.

What did she want, after all? Did she want to be alone?

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The Margaret Hale in the last few chapters of the book is very melancholy. She spends a great deal of time trying to get over losing her relationship to John. She resolves to make the best of her life, despite her deep longing for “what could have been.”

Does Margaret want to have a family? Yes. Gaskell draws this desire out by showing how much Margaret loved it when Edith’s little boy fell asleep in her arms:

Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied her forever.

But she’s not going to marry just anyone to have a family. She has made a commitment with herself to “speak and act the truth for evermore.” She’s already in love with Thornton. There’s no way she will compromise herself by marrying someone she doesn’t love. This is why Margaret tells Edith she will never marry. Margaret firmly believes she has lost her one chance at happiness.

I’m not buying the idea that Margaret would have been happier on her own than with John in Milton. I’m not able to imagine her living her best life all alone in London with no one to really understand her. Not a single person in her social circle comprehends her.

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Margaret wanted to make a difference for others. She wanted to be involved in her community. She wanted to have a purpose beyond herself. She longs to love and help others. When she resolves to do as she pleases at Harley Street, she chooses to do charity work to fill her time and give her some purpose.

If she had lived her life alone, she would have continued to find ways to help people who needed help in London. This, she felt, was being true to herself. She would be satisfied in some sense, but I doubt she would ever be completely rid of the lingering sadness for the life she might have had.

I trust Margaret’s instincts for her own happiness. As a women wholly free to chose NOT to get married and to spend her wealth as she pleased, she chose to throw all her money into John Thornton’s hands. She offered him every pound she had in her account when she got the chance. She wasn’t interested in offering a token investment in his mill, she put her whole heart in her offer to help him revive the mill.

She trusted him with all her money, and wanted to join forces with him. And when he revealed his heart to her by calling out her name in earnest, she laid her head on his shoulders — she was tired of being alone. The relief and joy she and John both felt suddenly discovering that they would neither of them be condemned to a life alone is beautifully expressed in the holy silence described in those first few moments of physical contact:

…she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

It’s going to be a challenging life in Milton, but it’s the life she chooses, and she’s equipped for it. And she won’t have to spend the rest of her life kicking herself for turning down John Thornton!

The look of a woman who sees what she wants.

The look of a woman who sees what she wants.

All the World in Gaskell's North and South

Although Margaret Hale herself never steps a foot beyond England and not a single scene in North and South takes place abroad, Gaskell doesn't let the reader forget that England is the center of the world. The lives of her characters and the events of the story are intertwined with the larger activity of the Empire and the world beyond England’s shores.

On the very first page of North and South we learn that Edith will be married to an army captain stationed in Corfu — a Greek island that at the time was a British protectorate from the Napoleonic Wars. A few pages further in the book we find Margaret modeling luxurious shawls from India for Aunt Shaw’s friends. The opening chapter also reveals that the Lennox family is from Scotland. All three of these places — Corfu, India, Scotland — are part of England’s realm.

Edith enjoys the comforts of England’s wealth and power.

Edith enjoys the comforts of England’s wealth and power.

Gaskell begins and ends the story in London —the very hub of the great British Empire at the height of its power. Characters flow in and out of England throughout the book: Edith goes to Scotland and Corfu, Aunt Shaw vacations in Italy, the exiled Frederick risks coming home for a time from the sunnier shores of Spain, Irish workers are brought in to replace the striking mill workers, and John Thornton himself goes to France to find out what’s happening with the price of cotton.

England’s central role in the world of that era is undeniable, and Gaskell subtly but unmistakably hints at this global power when she makes references to the military presence of characters in far off places. General Shaw gave his wife shawls and scarves from India. Captain Lennox's regiment is sent to Corfu, near the Greek mainland. And Frederick was a midshipman in the Navy who led a mutiny somewhere in the high seas where a West-Indian steamer picked up the abandoned Captain Reid.

Frederick Hale is off to his Navy adventures.

Frederick Hale is off to his Navy adventures.

It is Frederick Hale that brings an element of the exotic world to Milton when he makes his daring visit to see his dying mother. The exiled Frederick tells his family about his adventures living in Mexico and South America. Frederick marries a Spanish girl and make the southern coast of Spain his permanent home.

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Other countries or regions are mentioned incidentally in North and South:

Henry examines a copy of Dante’s Paradiso …“in the proper old Italian binding of white vellum and gold.”

Mrs. Hale keeps her letters from Frederick in the japan cabinet.

There are China roses covering the Helstone parsonage.

Mr. Bell asks Mr. Hale if perhaps Thornton and Margaret have “what the French call a tendresse for each other.”

And when the Hales arrive in Milton, Mr Hale rethinks his choice. “I wish I had gone into some country place in Wales." (Ah, but then they would never have met John Thornton!)

That Gaskell’s story should have so many references to the world beyond is no surprise, knowing how well the author liked to travel. Elizabeth loved getting away from Manchester and went several times to the Continent, often without her busy spouse. She traveled to Germany, Wales, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Italy, and Scotland. She also attended the Great Exhibition of 1851—that great showcase of innovations and art, where all the world was brought to London. Of course she did!

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Placing John Thornton at the Great Exhibition in the film adaptation was a stroke of genius by BBC screenwriter Sandy Welch. In this cleverly constructed scene, we see Thornton as not merely as a Milton businessman, but as a master of a global industry—a man of great power in the ever-accelerating world of manufacturing.

It is England’s internationally renown industrial prowess, of course, that is central to the story. The cotton industry of Lancashire in which John Thornton is involved is at the very summit of the industrial revolution in mid-century England. And the business of making cotton cloth in England is unequivocally an international affair. Cotton is grown and imported from foreign lands, and the resulting cloth made at the mill is sold both in England and abroad. Mrs. Thornton boasts of her son’s position in the world: Go where you will—I don’t say in England only, but in Europe—the name of John Thornton of Milton is known and respected amongst all men of business.

We find details of some of the issues of international trade and finance that affect his business in Gaskell’s book. Thornton speaks of the American competition in the yarn market that forces him to lower prices, making him unable to give the workers the raise they demand. And in the end, it is an American exchange house that begins the tumble of the financial markets across the ocean, and which ultimately forces Thornton to close his mill.

In the closing chapters of the story, as the lovers finally break through the misapprehensions keeping them apart, Gaskell is still weaving strong tones of far-reaching industrial power amidst emotionally intense romantic scenes:

Thornton leaves a very great impression upon Mr Colthurst, the Member of Parliament that comes to dine at Harley Street.

Margaret’s act of offering a loan to Thornton is an invitation to renew his business as well as a proclamation of her deep love and trust.

Far from concluding with a happy provincial ending, North and South leaves the reader with the strong feeling that together Margaret and Thornton will make a great impact in Milton that may just reverberate around the world.

The Fantastically Strong Women of North and South

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Who do you consider a strong woman in Elizabeth Gaskell’s story? I immediately think of Margaret Hale and Hannah Thornton for their amazing ability to endure whatever life throws at them. Edith, Fanny, and Aunt Shaw are models of the more fashionable and useless Victorian woman — living a coddled life of vanity where problems must be invented in order to have something to complain about.

Weaker women tend to complain a lot, they’re often unable to make decisions for themselves, they can’t cope with stress or tragedy, and they hardly bother to think of how situations or events affect others — they’re too consumed with their own concerns or wants. Weaker women let society and fashion mold them.

In contrast, strong women keep their complaints mostly to themselves, make decisions without consulting others, handle stress and tragedies without shutting down, and most importantly — they think of how their actions affect others. Strong women create their own path in life.

Margaret picks up the slack in housework

Margaret picks up the slack in housework

Of course, we all have our weak moments (or days or years), and I’m not saying that Margaret is always strong. On the contrary, she has her breakdowns — although they are kept very private. She’s human and she cries and complains at times. But she keeps moving forward, despite all that happens to her.

Margaret’s ability to remain strong throughout three long years of endless troubles impresses me. She’s a great model for feminine fortitude for her era. What proves she can carry herself through any situation? Here’s an incomplete list of situations she manages all on her own during the events of the novel:

  • Keeps a sense of self-worth while serving as a companion to her wealthier and prettier cousin

  • Accepts the task of dropping an emotional bomb on her mother, for her father’s sake

  • Shoulders the responsibility of moving a household when her parents can’t cope

  • Leaves a beloved childhood home for a darker, dirtier place without complaining

  • Tries to soften her mother’s complaints and keep a cheerful attitude to keep her father from slipping into depression

  • Argues with a respected businessman about his questionable moral attitudes toward laborers

  • Tries to single-handedly stop a riot

  • Rejects Mr. Right who happens to be dad’s best friend (talk about complicated relationships!)

  • Consoles the father of her dead friend — the only friend she had made in Milton

  • Consoles her father and brother when her mother dies

  • Tries to keep her exiled brother from getting caught and sentenced to death

  • Endures severe social censure for containing her brother’s secret

  • Loses the respect of Mr. Right (she thinks)

  • Steps up to tell Mrs. Boucher her husband is dead

  • Tries to keep her father from devastating depression while she mourns her mother’s death

  • Loses her father and is forced to move from Milton

That’s a quite a lot to muddle through before you turn twenty-one! And throughout it all, Margaret maintains a remarkably strong sense of her identity and worth. She does not let others define her. She makes some courageous decisions and she accepts responsibility for following through. She’s the backbone of the family.

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In so many ways, Hannah Thornton is like Margaret. She suffers her hardships silently, takes decisive action when things get really hard, and does what it takes to keep her family going. The fact that Hannah didn’t wait around for charity or accept the stigma society placed on her family for her husband’s suicide tells you tons about this woman. She laid the foundation for John’s success, which required her to take a determined path centered on her own values, not the ones society laid out for her.ff

These two are the obvious powerhouse women of North and South, but I see a few others who were able to endure hardship and made great efforts to protect or help others:

Bessy Higgins

For a dying teenager, Bessy keeps her complaints to a minimum (how many teenagers do that?!) and doesn’t make a lot of drama. Even during her last dying days, she’s worried about her father and distressed about how her father is treating Boucher. She isn’t focused on her own condition or terrorized by it. Her passionate desire to calm her father is stronger than her own self-concern. Her last words to Mary are for her to keep her father from drinking. Clearly, she had a strong love for others.

Mary Higgins

Bessy’s younger sister stays in the periphery of the story, but she is a silent strength in her own right. There’s no indication that Mary is a troublesome or selfish girl. She works to contribute to the family and tries to be helpful. After Boucher’s death, Mary takes care of his children. Mary is actually the main breadwinner of the family while Nicholas is out of work.

Maria Hale

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I had no intention of including Maria when I set out to write a piece about strong women. I’ve never been a fan of Maria; I have practice being very critical of her. When we first meet her in the book, she is small-minded, self-pitying, and a rather vocal complainer.

I tried to think if she had any strengths, and had an epiphany of sorts in realizing that she did. How did I miss it all these years? I had never really stopped to consider why—after years of making a habit of complaining—she suddenly keeps her serious illness a secret. She must have made this decision out of love for her husband, knowing it would be a terrible blow to him.

She didn’t want to distress her family with this trouble, so she kept her physical suffering to herself (and Dixon) as long as possible. I find her motive in doing this very noble. Whether or not her decision was wise or not, it demonstrated strong desire and self-control to protect others from emotional pain.

And so I have a new appreciation for Maria that I had not had before. She showed her strength in the end.

What strengths do you admire in the women of North and South?




The 7 scenes I wished were included in the BBC's "North and South"

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The 2004 film adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a masterpiece. I have only a few criticisms, one of them being that it was too short! There was time for more — an hour more in this world would have been wonderful.

As a lover of the book, I can’t help bemoaning the absence of a few of my favorite moments.

Here are some of the scenes that I wished this cast and crew could have filmed for me:

1 - Mrs. Hale running into her husband’s arms.

Although Aunt Shaw tells us that Richard and Maria Hale married for love, we never really see this affection played out. Mrs. Hale’s rather tentative and polite smile as she takes her husband’s hand in the adaptation isn’t terribly convincing. There’s a poignant moment in the book, though, where we catch a glimpse of the affectionate bond between them. It’s when Mr. Hale returns home after Margaret had been given the dirty work of telling her mother of her father’s decision to quit the clergy and move to Milton.

….he opened the room-door, and stood there uncertain whether to come in. His face was gray and pale; he had a timid, fearful look in his eyes; something almost pitiful to see in a man’s face; but that look of despondent uncertainty, of mental and bodily languor, touched his wife’s heart. She went to him, and threw herself on his breast, crying out: -

“Oh! Richard, Richard, you should have told me sooner!”

2 - Margaret sadly roaming the garden the night before she leaves her childhood home

The adaptation skips over so much of the beginning of the book, the viewer doesn’t truly get a full sense of how much strength it took for Margaret to come to Milton without crying for a week. I would have loved for the film to show Margaret busy packing crates of belongings while her mother languished in despair and her father busied himself in sorting his books — all this to give the viewer a sense that Margaret was the one who took over all the hard responsibility of moving.

But what would have been truly beautiful and poignant was if the film had showed Margaret walking through the property at twilight as she says her final goodbyes to the landscape she loves so well. Gaskell’s description of it in the book is very moving.

3 - Thornton carrying an unconscious Margaret up the stairs of his home

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Ok, so Gaskell doesn’t exactly describe how he feels as he carries Margaret up to his drawing-room, but can you imagine the powerful emotions pulsing through Thornton as he carries a lifeless Margaret up the stairs?! This has got to be one of the most dramatic scenes you could make from this film!

Seeing her injured and holding her body close to his is shattering all the remaining emotional barricades he has tried to form around his heart. As he climbs the stairs, powerful feelings must be compounding — and it all explodes into this:

He bore her into the dining-room, and laid her on the sofa there; laid her down softly, and looking on the pure white face, the sense of what she was to him came upon him so keenly that he spoke it out in his pain:

“Oh, my Margaret—my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to me! Dead — cold as you lie there, you are the only woman I ever loved! Oh, Margaret—Margaret!”

4 - Margaret pacing and crying in her room as she realizes she’s in love.

After Mrs. Thornton’s famous visit to give Margaret a tongue-lashing, Margaret runs upstairs to her room to sort out all the strong feelings rushing through her after the encounter. She realizes for the first time that Thornton thinks she’s in love with someone else—and she’s mightily distressed that he knows her to be a liar on top of it all! And so she finds herself crying as she gets ready to go out. Maybe in the film, she could whisper a few of her desperate thoughts to herself, to let the viewer know what turmoil is going on inside.

“I dare say, there’s many a woman makes as sad a mistake as I have done, and only finds it out too late. And how proudly and impertinently I spoke to him that day! But I did not know then. It has come upon me little by little, and I don’t know where it began….”

5 - Thornton being a comfort to Mr. Hale

The relationship between Mr. Hale and his would-be son-in-law is so beautifully portrayed in the book, I wanted to see more depth to this sweet bond shown in the film version. John is the only one Mr. Hale can really talk to during his great grief and these two men become very dear friends to each other. I would have loved to see just one brief scene in which Margaret sees her father clasp John’s hand as he is about to leave while Mr. Hale mentions how immeasurably better he feels after talking with him. Margaret’s awareness of how much her father loves and respects John, must be another binding reason for loving John.

“It was curious how the presence of Mr. Thornton had power over Mr. Hale to make him unlock the secret thoughts which he kept shut up even from Margaret…..Mr. Thornton said very little; but every sentence he uttered added to Mr. Hale’s reliance and regard for him. Was it that he paused in the expression of some remembered agony, Mr. Thornton’s two or three words would complete the sentence, and show how deeply its meaning was entered into….Man of action as he was, busy in the world’s great battle, there was a deeper religion binding him to God in his heart, in spite of his strong willfulness, through all his mistakes, than Mr. Hale had ever dreamed.”

6 - Thornton coming to dinner at Aunt Shaw’s house

This is the scene I long most to see on film! When Thornton comes to dinner in London, he and Margaret have not seen each other for over a year. The emotional tension is incredible as each of them strives to act as though this meeting again isn’t causing tremors of pent-up anguish within them. But alas, the internal agony slips into view for a brief moment from John. And Gaskell captures the moment so well, it’s just gut-wrenching. THIS is a moment Richard Armitage would have absolutely nailed. It would have been so brilliant to see this scene performed by the 2004 cast.

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“…Margaret was watching Mr. Thornton’s face. He never looked at her; so she might study him unobserved, and note the changes which even this short time had wrought in him. Only at some unexpected mot of Mr. Lennox’s, his face flashed out into the old look of intense enjoyment; the merry brightness returned to his eyes, the lips just parted to suggest the brilliant smile of former days; and for an instant, his glance instinctively sought hers, as if he wanted her sympathy. But when their eyes met, his whole countenance changed; he was grave and anxious once more; and he resolutely avoided even looking near her again during dinner.”

7 - The kiss in Aunt Shaw’s back drawing-room.

I cannot criticize the final scene of the adaptation. It’s romantic film history. The symbolism and the drama is perfect. Do I care that it’s a public display of affection and would never have happened? No, it’s too romantically perfect to condemn. And I never shall.

However, if all my dreams were fulfilled, I’d love to see an alternate ending that follows that London dinner scene — the book’s more intimate ending, where the wall of misunderstanding crumbles down in private, without Henry’s peering glare!

What I miss most is the playful teasing between these two serious souls that turns into that toe-tingling tender-passionate first kiss that we all have watched a hundred times from the film. I’m imagining that very same kiss as Gaskell’s “delicious silence” — but in that elegant, private sphere where no one interrupts them. Although I can imagine that without that train whistle to interrupt things, it might be very hard to stop indeed!

What favorite moments from the book do you wish were included in the film version?

Me on podcast + thoughts on Fanny Thornton

I got to guest on a podcast! Thanks to the Bonnets at Dawn podcasters, I was honored to speak about my North and South passion with Lauren Burke, who is the Team Bronte host. Bonnets at Dawn are active on Facebook and Twitter as well, and they’ve only recently discovered the magic of Gaskell’s story.

I loved chatting with Lauren, and nearly forgot our conversation was being recorded for a podcast! We talked about how I found North and South and what my favorite characters are, among other things.

I was truly surprised that Lauren was interested in talking about Fanny since I’ve never been that intrigued by her. Fanny Thornton always appeared to me as one of Gaskell’s most shallow characters. I see Gaskell using her as a comparison figure - to her hardworking brother, to the socially compassionate Margaret, and to her austere and tough-as-nails mother. Fanny is also, like Edith, a symbol of the self-consumed behavior of those in a position of wealth and leisure.

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I’ve followed conversations about Fanny on C19 years ago. The debate on Fanny seems to always come down to nature or nurture: is Fanny the way she is by nature or did her upbringing mold her into the person she is? Was she coddled too much in those early years? Or was she always going to turn out to be self-centered and rather weak-minded?

Here’s what her own mother thinks of her daughter:

“Mrs. Thornton…had an unconscious contempt for a weak character; and Fanny was weak in the very points which her mother and brother were strong….she felt instinctively that nothing could strengthen Fanny to endure hardships patiently, or face difficulties bravely; and though she winced as she made this acknowledgement to herself about her daughter, it only gave her a kind of pitying tenderness of manner towards her; much of the same description of demeanor with which mothers are wont to treat their weak and sickly children.”

I have to wonder if Gaskell uses Hannah Thornton’s assessment of Fanny as a true observation, or if the reader is meant to realize that Hannah has standards that most people will never meet.

Certainly, part of Hannah’s passionate love for her son is that he lives up to all her expectations. Fanny doesn’t. She’ll never be as good as John. Even Hannah feels uncomfortable knowing that she doesn’t love her equally, which is why she makes an effort to call Fanny endearing names — to make up for the lack of adoration she can’t help but pour on John.

So yes, I feel compassion for Fanny. She’s had to live under her brother’s shadow all her life. Her mother never loved her as much. Can she feel that? Does she resent it?

What I don’t really have much compassion about is how Fanny somehow learns to only care about herself. Was it the treatment of being protected and pampered as a child? Did she never see how hard her brother and mother worked and sacrificed to provide for her? Is she ever grateful?

Fanny is phenomenal as comic relief in the film! Joy Joyner was hilarious in the part.

Fanny is phenomenal as comic relief in the film! Joy Joyner was hilarious in the part.

What makes Fanny a character I can’t warm to is that I can’t find any clues in the book that she really loves anyone. From the mini-series, the way she turns on her brother at his lowest point is especially cruel— even digging in a comment about his chances of marriage to sink him lower.

And I understand that she’s suffered her whole life with her mum and brother dismissing her. Still, it’s hard for me to give her the benefit of the doubt when she fails to show any interest in what her brother and mother have done for her.

Maybe I’m being too harsh in judging her. After all, Fanny’s still just a teenager. It’s not at all uncommon for wealthier teenagers to be wrapped up in their own world — scarcely cognizant of all the things their parents do to make their lives easy. Maybe Fanny will mature some day, and become more engaged with the world in something purposeful. (There is a fan fiction story about Fanny’s life available by request at C19.)

As Lauren mentions in the podcast, she was more interested in studying Fanny as a nouveau riche character in the Industrial Era. Was Fanny more typical of this up-and-coming class?

Maybe Fanny is more fascinating than I thought! What are your thoughts on Fanny Thornton?

North and South by the Numbers

The BBC’s Hannah Thornton, writing those dinner invitations

The BBC’s Hannah Thornton, writing those dinner invitations

2 miles — the route from the Hales’ house to Marlborough Mills

5% — the raise the workers demand

5 shillings — the weekly amount the union pays each worker during the strike

5 hours — how long Higgins waits to speak to Thornton about getting work

6 — how many children Boucher has, all under 8 years old

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7 to 8 years — how long it’s been since Margaret has seen Fred

8 years — how much older Mr. Hale is than his wife

9 to 10 shillings — what Higgins might earn for a week’s worth of spading in the South

10 hours — the work day for the mill hands

10 years — the time Margaret spent living with Aunt Shaw and Edith before Edith married

14 months — how much younger Dolores (Fred’s wife) is compared to Margaret

15 shillings — Thornton’s first weekly wage as a draper’s assistant

16 years — how long ago George Thornton committed suicide

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18 years — Margaret’s age in the opening chapter

19 years — Bessy’s age when she dies

£30 a year — the rent the Hales could afford in Milton

44 — Nicholas Higgins’ age

55 — Mr. Hale’s age

60 — Mr. Bell says he’s “upwards of 60”

96 — the street address of the Harley Street house

£170 — the Hales’ yearly income, 70£ of which went to Fred

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220 square yards — one of the rooms at the Marlborough Mills factory

£250 a year — what Margaret pays Aunt Shaw for her keep in London as an heiress

700 men — the number of workers Higgins says will come to work as soon as they get their raise

£18,057 — the amount Margaret offers to Thornton

£42,000 — Margaret’s inheritance from Mr. Bell (£40,000 of it in property value)

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And what would Margaret’s offer to Thornton be worth today in dollars?

…. roughly $1,800,000. Nearly a cool 2 million!




In Defense of Gentleness

Circumstances have led me to look for full-time work after nearly twenty years of being a stay-at-home mother. At a recent job interview, they asked a very typical question: what are your best qualities?  

The answer came tumbling out of me: "I'm gentle." Where did that word come from? I knew as soon as I'd said it, that it was the wrong thing to say. I thought immediately of a few close synonyms: 'kind' or 'friendly'. But no, I said gentle. Gentle? Who even uses this word anymore? When is the last time you heard someone list "gentleness" as one of their strengths? How often is gentleness listed as a virtue to strive for? It's actually perceived as a weakness in some competitive, prove-yourself circles.

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When the word 'gentleness' is mentioned, how many of us think of children, infants, or pets?Smaller, weaker beings need someone to be gentle with them, to care for them. Women -- themselves considered to be weaker creatures in comparison to men-- have long been the caretakers of children and infants. Thus it seems natural to attribute gentleness as a feminine attribute; we are the gentler sex. But does gentleness necessarily equate with weakness?

Far from it, gentleness requires great strength. Gentleness, true gentleness -- not forced politeness -- is love. Gentleness is evoked from caring about or considering the condition of another. It has a foundation in unselfish love. This is its strength. For it takes no intelligence or self-command at all to follow our selfish, base impulses. Gentleness, however, demands a mastery over self. It puts aside self-absorption to care about others. The determination to be gentle in this world isn't easy. It takes practice.

I could go on speaking of the nature and value of gentleness without mentioning a word about North and South. But I find that whatever topic I find vital to life, I ususally find woven into the fabric of Elizabeth Gaskell's story. And indeed, gentleness is a foundational factor in Gaskell's treatment of John Thornton. Gaskell uses the word "tender" to describe an essential component of John Thornton's character. She explains in a letter to a friend that in writing her novel she wanted to "keep his character consistent with itself, and large and strong and tender, and yet a master."

Hannah softens at the bedside of the dying Mrs. Hale

Hannah softens at the bedside of the dying Mrs. Hale

In Thornton, the gentleness is all the more beautiful because its so carefully guarded. But it comes pouring out when he can't help himself: in bringing fruit to Mrs. Hale, in speaking soft words of condolence to Margaret, in ensuring that his financial stress does not explode into harshness with his employees. 

Mrs. Thornton looks down upon any signs and signals of weakness. "She had an unconscious contempt for a weak character." The softer virtues verge on weakness in her mind, so she attempts to keep her tender emotions sealed up behind a steely exterior. It's especially touching, then, when her "icy crust" melts enough to reveal the tenderness inside.

John Thornton follows his mother's practice in attempting to hide his gentleness.

He had tenderness in his heart -- 'a soft place,' as Nicholas Higgins called it; but he had some pride in concealing it; he kept it very sacred and safe, and was jealous of every circumstance that tried to gain admission.
The BBC's John Thornton has a tender moment with Boucher's son.

The BBC's John Thornton has a tender moment with Boucher's son.

Truly, it's the gentleness in Thornton, in Margaret, in Mr. Hale, and in Higgins that  make me admire them so fervently. I admire gentleness in characters. They cannot rise to greatness in my estimation without it. This is why Colonel Brandon , Gabriel Oak (Far from the Madding Crowd), and Roger Hamley (Wives and Daughters) are my some of my favorite literary heroes. There's so much gentleness in these men. It's their greatest power.

So why hide our gentleness? Why be ashamed of it? We should be enthusiastically committed to gentleness in our everyday lives. Make gentleness an attribute that great men and women attain and exhibit. 

With all the harsh, violent emotions swirling in the world today, I champion gentleness as a greater strength. It takes self-discipline and humility to meet every circumstance with a resolution to firm kindness. Being gentle means being constantly aware that your individual actions have the power to affect all those you come into contact with.

Let's not hide gentleness, but get better at practicing it. Especially when it's difficult to do so. And we should be gentle with ourselves as well while we're at it.

About that job I applied for? I didn't get it. But I'll never change my determination to be a force for gentleness in the world.

Here's my gentleness battle cry, from the words of a hymn I've always dearly loved:

Speak gently, it is better far To rule by love than fear;
Speak gently, let no harsh word mar The good we may do here.
Speak gently to the erring ones, They must have toiled in vain;
Perchance unkindness made them so; O win them back again.
Speak gently, 'tis a little thing, Dropped in the heart's deep well;
The good, the joy that it may bring, Eternity shall tell.
(poem by David Bates)

John Thornton's Wedding

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As a hopeless romantic, I can't help grinning with satisfaction when a good love story ends with a wedding! It is rather ironic, then, that my favorite romantic story, North and South, contains no such traditional conclusion. Although Gaskell meticulously describes all the heart-pounding moments that lead up to John and Margaret's discovery of their mutual feelings, she leaves us to imagine for ourselves all the complications that will be involved in arranging the marriage between the London heiress and the former master of Marlborough Mills. Is there anyone who hasn't imagined something of the scenes to follow that abrupt ending? 

What happens next and where they marry will differ depending upon whether the last scene in your mind includes a little delictable kissing on a northbound train or some time of "delicious silence" in Aunt Shaw's back drawing room. No matter which ending you choose, there are still some rather sticky matters the lovebirds will have to handle:

  • Telling Aunt Shaw and Edith
  • Telling Mrs. Thornton and Fanny
  • Deciding where to marry
  • Deciding when to wed
From the BBC adaptation, Fanny gets married. This church is St John at Hampstead (north London).

From the BBC adaptation, Fanny gets married. This church is St John at Hampstead (north London).

I can't think of a fan fiction story that doesn't have them marry fairly quickly. And that seems entirely natural since both these individuals are passionate and decisive. Neither of them will care about whether or not the wedding is elaborate.

According to the span of events in the book (see my N&S timeline here), by the time these two lonely souls come to an understanding, two whole years have passed since John first proposed to Margaret! After such a lengthy and angst-ridden separation on both their parts, I cannot fathom them waiting any longer than a month to arrange a wedding. They could wait three weeks for the banns to be read at Margaret's parish or John could purchase a special license to let them marry even earlier. I'm certain John would prefer the latter!

Where to marry wouldn't be a very difficult decision if the engaged couple were to follow custom. It would be traditional for the bride to be married in the parish the bride resided in. So to follow the book's ending, John would most likely return home Milton and then come back a few weeks later to marry in the London church where Margaret has long attended. This is indeed what takes place in the best sequel to the book I've ever found, Pack Clouds Away. (This wonderful fan fiction can only be found at C19.proboards.com.)

Most fan fiction weddings, however, happen in Milton. And this is where things get a little more tricky. Margaret is no longer member of a parish there, and we know that John is not Church of England. So do they marry in John's church? [Gaskell is purposely vague about what church the Thorntons might attend, although she does throw in that Mrs. Thornton studies a Presbyterian Bible commentary, Matthew Henry's Commentaries.] Since both John and Margaret are devout Christians, a civil ceremony would feel incomplete. 

MOIRE SILK WEDDING GOWN, 1855-1860. (from theebonswan.blogspot.com)

MOIRE SILK WEDDING GOWN, 1855-1860. (from theebonswan.blogspot.com)

There are many versions of John and Margaret's wedding in Milton. The Mistress of Marlborough Mills and True North (both at C19) have Milton weddings. Elaine Owen's Common Ground and Nancy Klein's How Far the World Will Bend also have Milton weddings, although the circumstances behind each are entirely different!

I enjoyed creating an entirely different wedding scene in A Heart for Milton by having them marry in Helstone. I wanted Margaret to marry in her childhood home, where her father had been vicar for so many years. And of course I couldn't resist the romantic country setting. I'm not sure there are any other variations that have the wedding take place in Helstone.

Although I haven't read it yet, I'm told Nicole Clarkston's No Such Thing as Luck has neither a London, Milton nor a Helstone wedding! You'll have to read it to find out all about this unique wedding scene.

Tell me your thoughts on John and Margaret's wedding, and share you favorite fan fiction weddings!

Was John Thornton a "Mama's Boy"?

The BBC's Hannah Thornton comforts her son.

The BBC's Hannah Thornton comforts her son.

This month, I'm taking a closer look at one of the most fascinating mother-son relationships in romantic literature. 

My immediate response to the occasional accusation that John Thornton is a mama's boy is a vehement "no," but then again there is a very strong bond between John and his mother. The trials they suffered and conquered together forged a deep trust and admiration between them. There's something profound about a relationship between two people who have endured deep waters together. If a strong bond between mother and son makes a man a "mama's boy" then perhaps he is one.

So what exactly is a mama's boy? According to Merriam-Webster, a mama's boy is "a usually polite or timid boy or man who is extremely or excessively close to and solicitous of his mother."  Well, that doesn't sound too condemning, does it? Although I hardly think the term "timid" applies to Thornton's general nature, nor do I think he's excessively solicitous of his mother. 

I'm guessing that part of the reason one would call Thornton a mama's boy is the fact that he and his mother still live in the same home. From a modern American point of view, a man of Thornton's age shouldn't be living with his mother. But there's a very great distinction to made in the fact that Thornton isn't living in the old family homestead, still tethered to his mother's apron strings. His mother is living in the home that he worked hard to provide for his family. She's living with him, not the other way around. And it would be perfectly normal for Thornton to take care of his widowed mother in this way at that time. 

But what about all the negative connotations that go with the term 'mama's boy'? It's meant to be derogative, isn't it? Oh yes, and the derogative meaning of the term comes to light when Merriam-Webster goes on to explain the meaning of the phrase for English language learners:  

a boy or man who is seen as weak because he is controlled or protected too much by his mother.

Ouch! That strikes at a man's masculinity and sense of independence. And the Oxford Dictionary isn't much nicer in their definition of  'mummy's boy:'

 a boy or man who is excessively influenced by or attached to his mother.

I revolt against these more demeaning definitions.  Is a mama's boy defined by how he acts or how his mother acts? Or is it a combination of both? I concede that on Hannah's part, she is excessively attached to and vehemently protective of her son. John is her heart's pride and joy. The world revolves around him in her view. But the center of John's universe has become his work, not his mother.

Although "excessively influenced" by his mother might have defined him in his teenage years, I don't see Thornton influenced by his mother's opinions as a man. In fact, there are several instances in the book where we see that Thornton makes his own decisions, despite his mother's strong opinions. She thinks John is wasting his time studying the classics with Mr. Hale. And when Mr. Bell asks if Mrs. Thornton helps with the workers dining hall, Thornton replies: 

Not a bit .... She disapproves of the whole plan, and now we never mention it to each other.

Clearly, John moves forward with whatever he thinks is important without his mother's approval.

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As for controlling her son, there's only one instance in the story where Hannah stops him from doing what he intends to -- when she asks him not to go to see Margaret the night of the riot.

And he doesn't. It's the only time we see him abide by her demands.

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However much Hannah would like to be in control of her son's social agenda, it's John who controls his mother. He must demand that his mother and sister go call on Mrs. Hale and Margaret, even though Hannah and Fanny put up quite a bit of resistance. And is there any doubt that it was John who requested the Hales be invited to the Thornton dinner party? Months later, he asks his mother to go offer womanly counsel to Margaret.

Hannah's attempts to influence her son against falling for Margaret, taking up the classics, and working more sympathetically with his workers all fall flat. If anything, I see John shaping and molding his mother throughout the book. He refuses to let her unbending ways keep his thought from expanding into new realms, and prods her into at least outwardly following his sense of kindness to the Hales. 

I like to think that Hannah mellows, her heart softens, and her defensive barriers lower little by little as she watches her son's happiness and contentment grow as a husband and father. And when those grandchildren come on the scene, Hannah can indulge all her fervent watchfulness, protective solicitude, and bursting pride upon the new little creatures of her son's lineage. 

What do you think of Hannah's influence on her grown son?