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


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

Dead Bessy.jpg

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

large mill room.jpg

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)

clasped hands.jpg

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.

Dandelion Allison Photo.jpg

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


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

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

MOIRE SILK WEDDING GOWN, 1855-1860. (from

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.

Don't go.jpg

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.

don't go 2.jpg

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?

John Thornton's treatment of women

Where would John Thornton fit in today's #MeToo movement? As head of Milton's largest cotton mill, Mr. Thornton is in a position of authority and power over 700 workers, including women and children. But there's nothing in Gaskell's North and South to suggest he has ever abused his power in pursuing women or girls in his employ. 

And Gaskell doesn't shy away from telling about men who prey on girls. In Mary Barton, the son of a mill owner does indeed take advantage of his wealth and position to pursue a working class girl. He has no intention of marrying her, although "having" her would ruin her in the eyes of strict Victorian culture. And then, of course, there's the predatory young man of the gentry class who pursues and ruins a working class seamstress in Ruth.

We can discern what kind of a man Thornton is in this regard largely by what he doesn't do in comparison to these other despicable Gaskell men, but also by how he treats all the women we see him interact with in North and South.

Mrs. Thornton and Fanny

 The BBC's John Thornton at home with his family.

The BBC's John Thornton at home with his family.

Is there any other classic romantic hero who is surrounded by females at home? Thornton has had the strong guidance and support of his mother through the harsh years of poverty and social exclusion following his father's suicide. For years, Thornton had only his mother and his sister for his companions through the defining trials of his young life. Through the incredible fortitude and determination of his mother and the frailer, self-absorbed nature of his sister Fanny, John knows firsthand both the amazing capabilities and more traditional failings of womanhood.

Remember the old adage that assures that you can judge how a man will treat his wife by how he treats his mother? Although not necessarily true, there's much to be said by carefully observing how a man treats his mother. In Thornton's case, he makes it quite clear that he admires and respects the foundational moral guidance his mother gave him. He knows it was pivotal to the entire direction of his life:

I had such a mother as few are blest with; a woman of strong power, and firm resolve...My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings, our of which three people had to be kept. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.

He speaks to his mother as an equal, and admires her for her strong character. He has less patience with Fanny's pettiness and self-coddling and has to command her to go visit Mrs. Hale and Margaret, acting like a father figure when necessary. But he also shows a father-like tenderness of heart in spoiling her -- allowing her to have a rather lavish wedding when she marries, despite the mill's unstable financial condition.

Mrs. Hale

 Mrs. Hale receives some of the best fruit money can buy in Milton.

Mrs. Hale receives some of the best fruit money can buy in Milton.

Mr. Thornton is deeply jarred to discover the seriousness of Mrs. Hale's condition from Dr. Donaldson. He hand-selects the finest fruit he can find to help ease her suffering. Despite being rejected the day before, he can't help wanting to offer a token of kindness and sympathy to his tutor's wife.






There's a little-known story related in the book about how John and his mother acted benevolently toward a young woman whose father (a friend of the late George Thornton) had fallen into financial difficulty. Martha, who works as a servant for both the Thorntons and the Hales, tells Margaret that she and her sister "would have been 'lost' but for Mrs. Thornton; who sought them out, and thought for them, and cared for them." 

I had the fever, and was but delicate; and Mrs. Thornton, and Mr. Thornton too, they never rested till they had nursed me up in their own house, and sent me to the sea and all. (Chapter 41)


One of the truly remarkable things about Thornton's treatment of Margaret, is his respectful interest in her as a moral thinker. Although it's clear he's attracted to her physically from the very first, his interest in her mind is evident in the way he eagerly listens to her. As a leader of Milton industry, he could have easily been dismissive of what a young woman has to say about the management of his workers and the social imperatives of his position. But he wants to know what she is thinking and we find him asking her for her opinion at various points in the book.

We know his intentions toward the vicar's daughter are honorable. He wants to make her his wife, but she won't have him. At least not at first...

 Looking for Margaret's opinion.

Looking for Margaret's opinion.

John Thornton appears to be set apart from the traditional male model of the time period. He shows no sign of using women for personal pleasure (see my article Was Thornton a Virgin?) or for social or material advancement. He's not looking at women as tools for his use at all. 

The Lennox brothers, by contrast, reveal elements of the traditional mindset. Henry Lennox assumes he can mold Margaret into supporting his interests. Edith's husband is eager for his wife to always look her best for his own possessive vanity and self-satisfaction. Women are a subordinate accompaniment for men, a side acquisition of sorts that men can train to suit themselves.

Thornton thinks more deeply about individual human value. In his discourse with Margaret concerning the usage of the term "gentleman" he explains that "a man is to me a higher and completer being than a gentleman" and implies that the highest indicator of a man's character and worth is not found in a comparison to others, but in the proof of his own endurance, strength and faith.

And gathering all the evidence of Thornton's dealings with the women around him, I believe he'd evaluate women the same way: that their value is not based upon their relation to others -- husbands, fathers, etc. --- but upon their own merits. Women are individuals, not props or playthings.

He'd make a great modern man. 

My Favorite Romantic Literary Heroes

These are the men who made me feel their pain when the course of love did not run smoothly. Both in the book and on film, these are the guys who suffered long and silently before finally winning their one true love. I adore a tortured hero, one whose devotion endures through much tribulation. So these few are my absolute favorite book-to-screen Valentines.

Who is your favorite literary Valentine?

John Thornton

 Margaret may not have looked back, but we couldn't stop staring at this forlorn face. (Richard Armitage as the BBC's John Thornton in  North and South )

Margaret may not have looked back, but we couldn't stop staring at this forlorn face. (Richard Armitage as the BBC's John Thornton in North and South)

Of course. Who else could possibly top John Thornton? No one reveals the agonized longing to be loved like Thornton -- both in prose and in smoldering looks. Thornton will always be my King of Hearts.


Master of the Smoldering Stare

Dad-approved Spouse Material

 Kisser Extraordinaire

Edward Rochester

 As tempestuous, rugged, and sublime as nature itself. (Toby Stephens as the BBC's Edward Rochester in  Jane Eyre )

As tempestuous, rugged, and sublime as nature itself. (Toby Stephens as the BBC's Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre)

He's moody and a bit unpredictable, but once he's smitten by Jane, his passion and devotion are unwavering. Caught in an impossible situation, he makes a desperate attempt to secure his happiness. I love Rochester's good side: the man who was tricked into marrying a woman that swiftly slid into insanity but still took care of her; the man who took care of a bastard child not his own. His yearning to align his life with the good and pure Jane is heartrending. Whenever he calls out "Jane!" my heart does a little flip.


Top Jokester

Skeleton in the Closet Winner

Most Likely to be Burned by Life (and fire!) Award 


Col. Brandon

 A gentle kindness pervades this man's every word and act. (Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon in Sony Pictures'  Sense and Sensibility )

A gentle kindness pervades this man's every word and act. (Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon in Sony Pictures' Sense and Sensibility)

I adore Col. Brandon's quiet selflessness. Patient, meek, but all the while a strong and reliable force for good -- I can't help thinking what a fool Marianne is for overlooking this gleaming gem of a man. 


Sweetest Man in the Shire

Reliable to the Core

Will Buy You a Piano Even if You Snub Him Award

Gabriel Oak

 Holding in his pain one last moment. (Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak in  Far from the Madding Crowd)

Holding in his pain one last moment. (Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd)

Gabriel Oak is the anti-Alpha male, which is why I really, really love him. Here is a man who patiently puts others' concerns largely over his own and is as steady and constant in his affection, purpose, and duty as any hero of more ostentatious fame or nobility. He's not rich, but has a character of gold.


Nature Boy (Excellent with sheep)

Won't Lie to You Award

Still Loves You Even if You Marry an Idiot Award

How to kill a marriage

I'm having a lot of fun watching an Austen & Brönte group discover the depths of Gaskell's book for the first time. There's a great discussion of the first ten chapters of North and South on the Bonnets at Dawn podcast (Apple audio here; SoundCloud playlist here). I'm always intrigued to see what the opinions are about who is to blame for the sad state of the Hales' marriage.

The opening chapters of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South give us plenty to consider regarding the choices involved in selecting a life partner. The reasons for marrying -- whether it is love, security, money, status -- inevitably affect who is chosen as a spouse. We get a glimpse of three different situations: Edith's marriage, Aunt Shaw's, and the marriage of Margaret's parents. 

kill marriage.jpg

It's the Hale marriage, however, that Gaskell lets us get a deeper look at when Margaret returns to Helstone. The reader hopes that Margaret is taking mental notes of all the errors her parents have made. In case she hasn't consciously recognized these deadly mistakes for what they've done, I've composed a handy list for anyone wanting to avoid desperate anguish and loneliness in marriage. This rather snarky guide will help you (and Margaret) know what NOT to do:

  1. Complain. There's always something your spouse should have done to improve your situation. Let them know you're not satisfied with their chosen work position and your current locale.
  2. Discourage your spouse from sharing their deepest interests with you. Best to wrinkle your nose when they want to include you in their joy and send them off to their study instead.
  3. Keep secrets. Hide vital information that will affect your spouse's life to yourself as long as possible. Don't let them know you're quitting your job and moving the family across the country until a few weeks beforehand. And if you discover you have a terminal disease, pass it off as just a distressing malaise.
  4. Have a close friend who constantly harps on your spouse. These close confidants can reliably remind you how much you deserved so much better.

As the Bonnets at Dawn podcasters would say, I'm firmly Team Mr. Hale. Although I recognize the faults in both these characters, I find myself less compassionate for Maria Hale's unhappiness because she is the one who had social and material wealth ambitions that made her dissatisfied. She knowingly married "beneath" her lifestyle as Sir John's ward, so it seems unjust for her to complain later in her marriage about the simpler life of a vicar's wife. 

I'm always trying to discover what the bigger picture is that Gaskell may be trying to paint; in regard to Maria's discontent, I believe Gaskell is challenging her class-consumed Victorian readers to consider what values are truly important. Was it a calamity that Maria couldn’t have a fancier life although she lived in a picturesque hamlet with a gentle-hearted man for a husband? Was status and stuff worth fretting her life away? 

 The Helstone parsonage

The Helstone parsonage

It's rather sad to see Maria unhappy in the middle of that lovely setting. She had a good situation, just not grand. She could have been happy, but she wanted what she didn’t have instead.

In contrast to the discontent expressed in Maria's marriage, Georgette Heyer describes a very similar marriage in Arabella in which a country vicar's wife is satisfied with her lot:

The living ... was respectable, being worth some three hundred pounds a year....The Vicar, himself the son of a landed gentleman, had married the beautiful Miss Theale, who might have been expected to have done better for herself than to have thrown her cap over the windmill for a mere younger son, however handsome he might be. Indeed, it had been commonly said at the time that she had married to disoblige her family, and might, if she had chosen, have caught a baronet on her hook. Instead she had fallen in love with Henry Tallant at first sight. Since his birth was genteel, and her parents had other daughter to dispose of, she had been permitted to have her way; and apart from wishing sometimes that the living were worth more...she had never given anyone reason to suppose that she regretted her choice. To be sure, she would have liked to have installed into the Parsonage one of the new water-closets, and a Patent Kitchen Range...but she was a sensible woman, and even when the open fire in the kitchen smoked, and the weather made a visit to the existing water-closet particularly disagreeable, she realized that she was a great deal happier with her [husband] than ever she could have been with that almost forgotten baronet.

Perhaps the saddest thing Gaskell reveals about the Hale marriage, is the simple description of how they slowly disengaged with one another. 

Mrs. Hale had never cared much for books, and had discouraged her husband, very early in their married life, in his desire of reading aloud to her, while she worked. Mr. Hale grew to take an increasing interest in his school and his parishioners, he found that the interruptions which arose out of these duties were regarded as hardships by his wife, not to be accepted as the natural conditions of his profession, but to be regretted and struggled against by her as they severally arose. So he withdrew, while the children were yet young, into his library, to spend his evenings (if he were at home), in reading the speculative and metaphysical books which were his delight.

My sympathy goes to Mr. Hale for wanting to share his passion with his wife, and being snubbed. Maybe it was his fault for choosing someone who was never really into books? 

As for Dixon, I think the damage she caused the Hales' marriage can hardly be overestimated. Imagine the distress of having someone living in your home who continually badmouths you to your spouse! It would be like housing the enemy. Dixon would have been a better friend to Maria had she encouraged her to be happy instead of reminding her of what she “deserved” because of the happenstance of her birth. 


Of course all this doesn't justify Mr. Hale's negligence in letting his wife know of his decision to leave his position. But I can see how he avoided this conversation like the plague. Mr. Hale is extremely averse to upsetting anyone, so he avoids communicating with his wife--knowing how unhappy she will be: 

"Margaret, I am a poor coward after all. I cannot bear to give pain. I know so well your mother's married life has not been all she hoped -- all she had a right to expect -- and this will be such a blow to her, I have never had the heart, the power to tell her. 
...the idea of her distress turns me sick with dread."

Was it Mr. Hale's responsibility to move up the career ladder in getting a larger parish if he was perfectly happy in Helstone? Would Maria have been happier in a small town? At what level of wealth would she have been satisfied? These are hard questions to answer.

As in real life, marriage is a complex arrangement, and it takes dedication to keep both partners relatively happy. I like to imagine that Margaret does indeed learn something from her parents mistakes, and is perfectly aware of what will and won't make her happy when she condescends to leave the luxury of London to marry a Milton manufacturer!

The problem with Henry Lennox...

sorry henry.jpg

Looking into the character and role of Henry Lennox in North and South can be fascinating and somewhat complex. Are we supposed to like him or not? Is he really in love with Margaret? What is it that makes him just not quite Margaret's type? And then, of course, there's book Henry and then there's film Henry.

Film Henry has a much more aggressive streak, which we see in the scene at The Great Exhibition. Noticing that there seems to be something going on between Margaret and Thornton, he takes a stab at Thornton to try to put him in his place: 

"Mr. Thornton ... all the way from Milton?"  [Snark translation: "You're from the Neanderthal northern regions, not a cultivated Londoner."] 


"My brother is interested in dabbling in cotton."  [Snark translation: "You're a tradesman, who only speaks cotton terms, yes? We find your kind amusing and occasionally profitable."]

Thornton wins this verbal battle by throwing Henry's own words back into his face: "I'm not sure I'm the one to speak to. I'm not sure I'd know how to dabble." It's not only a killer comeback, this brilliant line from the adaptation can also be taken as a good summary of the contrast between these two men. Henry dabbles. Thornton does not. (More on this later.)

And how does Henry affect Margaret? What is her reaction to Henry's snide remarks? We can tell by her expression and her replies that Henry has won no points with her at all. It's pretty plain who she is standing up for here in this brief exchange. And it's not the barrister from London. 

Although this alpha male confrontation doesn't happen at all in the book, this scene from the BBC adaptation still provides an accurate glimpse as to why Margaret isn't interested in Henry as a possible husband -- he lacks depth, he can be arrogant, and he doesn't really know her. 

Now let's look at these disqualifying aspects one by one in the light of the character Elizabeth Gaskell created -- by what we know of Henry from the book:

Lack of depth

Dabblers lack depth. They're not totally committed or wholly involved. 


We know with John Thornton, whether in love or in his lifework, -- he's all in. Whatever he does he does with a consuming commitment; when he falls in love, he is shaken to the core.

Henry, however savvy and worldly clever, just doesn't have the same substance through and through. He's mostly about doing whatever gets surface results: a good career, the right social circle, the esteem of others. Margaret isn't the only girl that would ever suit him, she's just the first one he's decided who could work really well (he thinks) in his sphere.

His casual, flippant manner is revealed in the very first chapter. Margaret is annoyed when he pokes fun at her description of Helstone, a place very dear to her heart. Henry often treats conversation as a social game of wit, no matter the subject matter. It's a habit of his that Margaret finds superficial and cold. 

Henry's reliance on empty, sarcastic conversation is shown more clearly when he visits Helstone. After he has proposed and been rejected, he finds some measure of recovery from his embarrassment in "a few minutes [of] light and careless talking" with Mr. Hale. 

Before a quarter of an was over he had fallen into a way of conversing with quiet sarcasm; speaking of life in London and life in the country, as if he were conscious of his second macking self, and afraid of his own satire. Mr. Hale was puzzled. His visitor was a different man to what he had seen him before...a lighter, cleverer, more worldly man, and, as such, dissonant to Mr. Hale.

Henry seems to have something of a dual nature -- a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde complex. When alone with Margaret, he can often be sympathetic and gentle. But, he can change in an instant and become more distant and snidely sophisticated. 

Mr. Hyde.jpg

Margaret is struck by his caustic side. It really bothers her when he acts this way. And here, especially after letting his guard down in telling her of his love, she is surprised at the shallowness of his behavior afterward:

...he, not many minutes after he had met with a rejection of what ought to have been the deepest, holiest proposal of his life, could speak as if briefs, success, and agreeable society, were the sole avowed objects of his desires. Oh dear! how she could have loved him if he had but been different, with a difference which she felt, on reflection, to be one that went low -- deep down.


Henry's arrogance plays a big part in the way he presents himself to Margaret. One of the reasons Henry seems to switch over to his urbane cynical self is to preserve his pride. He's always posturing to win social acclaim for his cleverness and cool intellectual judgement. And it appears he sees himself as superior to others. "Margaret saw glimpses in him of slight contempt for his brother and sister-in-law, and for their mode of life."

Although Henry is rather impressed by Thornton (in Gaskell's book), he still manages to feel superior over the tradesman who was forced to close his mill. Margaret senses his arrogance and calls him out on it in the following exchange:

 "You've no idea what an agreeable, sensible fellow this tenant of yours is....I can't conceive how he contrived to mis-manage his affairs."
"With his powers and opportunities you would have succeeded," said Margaret.
He did not quite relish the tone in which she spoke, although the words but expressed a thought which had passed through his own mind.

Ignorance of the real Margaret

Henry doesn't really know Margaret, although he's arrogant enough to assume he does. When he asks her how she spends her days in Helstone, he can't fathom what she could possibly do to fill the time without archery parties, social picnics, or lawn game gatherings. He assumes Margaret needs planned social activity as much as he does. He never seems to comprehend that she does not thrive on the luxury London routine that he enjoys. He even hopes to find that Margaret will have missed her London life when he visits her in Helstone. Not a chance. She loves the freedom of her life in the wide-open country.

Henry in Helstone.jpg


Henry also makes the mistake of ignoring or underestimating Margaret's strong moral core. His enthusiasm for witty intellect over moral substance actually makes Margaret angry. Even when he does acknowledge her Christian nature, he's rather annoyed with it. And he has the audacity to tell Edith that he wishes Margaret were a little more pagan! If he doesn't appreciate her foundational values and her corresponding behavior, he really should be looking for someone else.  

Can Henry really be in love with Margaret, considering that he doesn't really know her?  He seems to be in love with his perception of her or, perhaps with the promise of what she could be to him. Indeed, Henry's concept of marriage is clearly revealed in the following musing:

...the clever and ambitious man bent all his powers to gaining Margret. He loved her sweet beauty. He saw the latent sweep of her mind, which could easily (he thought) be led to embrace all the objects on which he had set his heart.

Henry's looking for a girl he can mold to his personal requirements. He's assuming his marriage will take on the traditional pattern, where the wife is subservient to her husband's wishes. The fact that Henry can believe that Margaret will be happy conforming to this model is the final proof that he doesn't really know her. Margaret shows no interest in following the customary path of making a comfortable life in the pursuit of wealth, ease, or social acclaim.  She wants to actively engage with the world outside her comfort sphere. She is looking for a life of purpose -- a way to help others. Henry's pursuit is to project himself onto the world, to find satisfaction in pleasing himself according to all of society's standards of success. 

Margaret and Henry want different things. They're following two different paths.

Margaret realizes this, and knows she will never marry him. Henry doesn't see this, and blindly believes he's slowly winning her over.

Now of course Henry isn't really a bad fellow. I give credit to Henry for being attracted to Margaret in the first place. There are times Henry is a good friend to Margaret, when he isn't being so concerned about his own self-image. But his focus on self and worldly gain and satisfaction is just so very -- typical. Henry is following the crowd in his life habits and desires. His quick wit and keen intelligence are not enough to commend him. He's far too focused on Henry and how Henry appears to the world. 

If we take a broad look at Henry Lennox's role in North and South, we can see how Gaskell uses him to bring out various facets of Margaret's character.  And, of course, Henry is a striking foil for John Thornton. The contrast between the two men shows us exactly what Margaret is attracted to and what repels her.

The kiss.jpg

And now -- at long last, we need to take into account the overriding reason why Henry will never do: the lawyer from London could never combine the passion and tenderness in one kiss that one lonely Milton master could -- and did.


 Henry discovers the real reason Thornton is called "the master." 

Henry discovers the real reason Thornton is called "the master." 

The real problem with Henry?  He's just not John Thornton.

The powerful effect of human touch in North and South

My stories have occasionally been criticized for making too much of the physical dynamics between John Thornton and Margaret Hale. Perhaps they do, but I take my cues from Elizabeth Gaskell's own writing, which conveys a tremendous amount of physical emphasis when describing Margaret's effect on John Thornton.

From John's very first encounter with Margaret in that hotel sitting-room, Gaskell makes clear that Thornton is completely discombobulated. Margaret's presence does things to him. Physical things. Things that affect his ability to coordinate and control his own body. He finds it hard to formulate complete sentences, he cannot stop staring at her, and when he leaves "he [feels] more awkward and self-conscious in every limb than he [ever had] in all his life before."

And that's just the first meeting. We haven't even begun to talk about what effect actually touching Margaret will do to the poor man!

First Contact

So, when is their first physical contact with each other? Thornton knows -- the handshake at the dinner party. The occasion is significant enough for Thornton to take notice:

He shook hands with Margaret. He knew it was the first time their hands had met, though she was perfectly unconscious of the fact.

He must remember, as we do, how hurt he was when she did not shake his hand when he came for tea. Shaking her hand now must feel like a small victory. It's far more than a mere social formality to him. It's apparently something he's been longing to do -- touch her.



The mini-series makes this moment -- this first touch between future lovers -- sizzle with a sexual tension that makes a Victorian handshake more passionate than most modern kissing scenes. And this spark of longing portrayed in the film -- at least on Thornton's side -- is perfectly matched by Gaskell's prose. Thornton spends the rest of that evening acutely aware of where she is and who she is talking to. There's definitely a strong attraction going on, which Margaret is not aware of.  

That Frantic, Brief Embrace

Far beyond a social handshake, Gaskell multiplies the physical contact a hundredfold when she has Margaret throw her arms around Thornton in a body-to-body embrace -- a shockingly intimate gesture. Granted, Margaret does this out of pure terror for his life, in front of a frenzied crowd  -- hardly the sweet, loving gesture John may be dreaming of, but that doesn't in the least change the enormously powerful effect that one brief moment of intimacy has on Thornton.

He can't stop thinking about what she did, how she wrapped her arms around her neck, how her body was pressed next to his ... he's fairly consumed with the longing to feel her in his arms again! 


Take note of all the impassioned physical reaction Thornton has immediately following that very tangible interaction with Margaret during the riot: 

"All the blood in his body seemed to rush inwards to his heart as he spoke, and he absolutely trembled."
"He went away as if weights were tied to every limb that bore him from her."
"Every pulse beat in him as he remembered how she had come down and places herself in foremost danger.... He went to his Irish people, with every nerve in his body thrilling at the thought of her ..."

I count four times in the twenty-four hour period after the riot where Gaskell specifically mentions his longing to feel that touch again:

Mr. Thornton remained in the dining-room, trying to think of the business he had to do at the police-office, and in reality thinking of Margaret. Everything seemed dim and vague beyond - behind - besides the touch of her arms round his neck -- the soft clinging which made the dark colour come and go in his cheek as he thought of it. (Penguin edition, page 186)
His heart beat thick at the thought of her coming. He could not forget the touch of her arms around his neck, impatiently felt as it had been at the time; but now the recollection of her clinging defence of him, seemed to thrill him through and through, -- to melt away every resolution, all power of self-control, as it were wax before a fire. (page 191)
Was he bewitched by those beautiful eyes, that soft, half-open, sighing mouth which lay so close upon his shoulder only yesterday? He could not even shake off the recollection that she had been there; that that her arms had been round him, once -- if never again. (page 205)
He went along the crowded streets mechanically, winding in and out among the people, but never seeing them, -- almost sick with longing for that one half-hour --that one brief space of time when she clung to him, and her heart beat against his -- to come once again. (page 210)

Where does all this explosive passion come from? In large part, from loneliness and years of keeping his emotions mostly hidden. His mother is his closest confident, yet we know she is not exactly the warm and fuzzy type to give out hugs and listen to all your troubles. If you really think about it, when was the last time this man was hugged? When has he last felt the warm affection of a heartfelt embrace? I'm guessing he hasn't felt human touch like that in years.


But clearly it's not just human touch he's longing for. John Thornton's frenzied longing is not commonplace lust. It's truly a longing to love and be loved in return. And it's Margaret that has brought out his strong passion. He sees in her an inner strength, independence, intelligence, and deep devotion to others that matches his own. 

His feelings for her have been silently accumulating. Her frantic embrace of him is the touchstone that releases all his repressed passion. It's as if this moment of intimate human connection has lit a fire inside him. Now he sees -- his body has felt for a brief, sensuous moment of time -- what could be. And he wants that close relationship with Margaret desperately.

Gaskell draws a very sensual image by having Margaret cling to Thornton. How many other romantic heroes get a taste of physical intimacy before they ever even declare their feelings? 

It's a touch that Thornton never forgets the thrill of. It reverberates through his whole being. It's hardly any wonder, then, that at the end of the book the first thing he does after they become a couple is to take her arms and place them around his neck -- just as he remembered she had done. Just as he had ached for so long for her to willingly do again.


Quitters are winners in North and South

Did you ever notice how the leading male characters in North and South all quit or lose their jobs? Mr. Hale, Nicholas Higgins, and John Thornton. Even more striking is the realization that they all do so based on principle. 

The entire plot of the story gets its initial push from Mr. Hale's decision to leave his life vocation. This is a tremendously serious and weighty decision in an era when your profession constituted your identity and your social status. I know many condemn Margaret's father for the way he handled his family in relation to this life-altering choice, but the choice itself is one of courage and personal integrity. Because he could not in truth uphold all the doctrines of the Church, Mr. Hale could not in good conscience continue to play the part of a leader of the Church. He was unwilling to fake it just to keep hold of his living.

Mr. Bell admires him for his hard decision and tells him so just hours before Hale passes away: 

[God] gave you strength to do what your conscience told you was right; and I don't see that we need any higher or holier strength than that; or wisdom either. I know I have not that much; and yet men set me down in their fool's books as a wise man; an independent character; strong-minded, and all that cant. The veriest idiot who obeys his own simple law of right, if it be but in wiping his shoes on a door-mat, is wiser and stronger than I. But what gulls men are!

Henry, who represents the mediocre mindset of traditional society, doesn't see why Mr. Hale couldn't have just swallowed his doubts and kept his position. He's rather perplexed that anyone should inconvenience themselves and lose their money and status over a minor moral issue. He apparently sees nothing wrong with playing the game of appearances.

...there was no call upon Mr. Hale to do what he did, relinquish the living, and throw himself and his family on the tender mercies of private teaching in a manufacturing town; the bishop had offered him another living, it is true, but if he had come to certain doubts, he could have remained where he was, and so had no occasion to resign.

If income was any barrier to acting on principle, Nicholas Higgins would have the strongest reason to avoid leaving his livelihood. With two daughters to care for, and one of them gravely ill, it's more than inconvenient for him to quit his job. As one of the Union leaders, he helps organize the strike. Here he's not only giving up his own job, he's actively involved in pressing other mill workers to quit their work! And his reasons are noble, if his methods are less than savory. He is moved to act in defiance of the perceived injustice and indifference of the masters to the struggling lower class. 

Higgins holds to his principles, even after taking on Boucher's children. He refuses to go back to work at any mill that refuses to allow the workers to contribute to the Union. Clearly, Higgins has the mettle to take a stand for what he believes is vital, despite the personal cost.

John Thornton's case is a bit different. He doesn't quit his work, but he does make a moral decision that precludes him from the chance of recovering his business. He refuses to join the speculation that could save his mill. He will not risk the money that rightfully belongs to his creditors and the workers. It's a heartrending decision that only a nobler man could make. His own mother is inclined to take the risk to avoid failure:

'I know now that no man will suffer by me. That was my anxiety.'
'But how do you stand? Shall you -- will it be a failure?' her steady voice trembling in an unwonted manner.
'Not a failure. I must give up business, but I pay all men. I might redeem myself -- I am sorely tempted--'
'How/ Oh, John! keep up your name -- try all risks for that. How redeem it?'
'By a speculation offered to me, full of risk; but, if successful, placing me high above water mark, so that no one need ever know the strait I am in. Still, if it fails.... As I stand now, my creditors' money is is my creditors' money that I should risk.'
'But if it succeeded, they need never know. Is it so desperate a speculation? I am sure it is not, or you would never have though of it. If it succeeded--'
'I should be a rich man, and my peace of conscience would be gone!'

Note that John's concept of failure is quite different form his mother's. Hannah, more like Henry, appears concerned with the outward appearances, whereas John considers it a failure to act against his moral judgement. He knew it that if he risked saving his position, it would always rankle him to know what he had gambled. He would lose a portion of his self-esteem and honesty. And so he felt he had no choice but to close the mill.

For Thornton and for Higgins (and to a lesser degree for Mr. Hale), the decision to quit involved not only an evaluation of the consequences for oneself, but for the responsibility of one's obligations to the community of people you are involved with.

In each of these cases, it's crucial to the ongoing plot that these three characters make dramatic decisions to quit their jobs. But more importantly, Gaskell is clearly emphasizing that the courage and moral integrity of these men is a cut above the common breed. It takes guts to quit your work in any era, but more so in an age when your role in society -- your very identity as a man -- is dependent on the working position in which you are engaged in. Stripped of their outward vocation, all three of these men must define themselves on a higher order. And they do. These men are moved and strengthened by their inner convictions of what is right, and their duty to others. They cannot act contrary to what their conscience dictates. Their sense of identity rests on something far more important and substantial than a job. Their true vocation is to think and act according to their individual convictions of honesty and justice. There are men because of how they form themselves according to their highest ideals, not because they perform certain ascribed functions for compensation.

Is it any wonder that these three men are friends with one another? There's a wonderful sense of warm camaraderie in the scenes where any two of these men meet in friendship and care. 

 Photos from the BBC mini-series North & South (2004)

Photos from the BBC mini-series North & South (2004)

I love the way Gaskell forces these men to step out of the traditional evaluations of manhood based on social position and economic structures. She always compels the reader to look under the surface for the real individual - not defined by vocation, wealth, or social status. As always, Gaskell is pointing out our highest calling -- each of us -- as human beings attempting to live up to our best selves for our own and humanity's good. 

These quitters are winners in my book.