Marrying for love in North & South

Elizabeth Gaskell begins her novel with one wedding and ends it with the imminent prospect of another. In the opening pages, eighteen year-old Margaret Hale is caught up in the flurry of preparations for Edith's forthcoming wedding. And by the end of chapter two, Gaskell has depicted the general outcome of two marriages (the Shaws and the Hales). Clearly, Gaskell has something to say on the subject of choosing a life match. And well she should, since her heroine has arrived at the threshold of the marriage mart and will need to navigate her way through two unexpected proposals and the possibility of spinsterhood.

Should one marry for money or love? This appears to be the rather stark choice presented to every Victorian girl. Gaskell gives us a glimpse into the result of both choices by comparing two sisters. 

Margaret's Aunt Shaw married for money. She chose to marry a man she didn't love who was much older. She has every material comfort and no financial woes.  Aunt Shaw romanticizes the concept of marrying for love and insists that Edith marry for love. Regularly complaining of the age disparity in her marriage of convenience, Anna Shaw imagines that her sister must be happy:

'Married for love, what can dearest Maria have to wish for in this world?' Mrs. Hale, if she spoke truth, might have answered with a ready-made list, ' a silver-gray glacé silk, a white chip bonnet, oh! dozens of things...."
 the BBC's Maria and Richard Hale

the BBC's Maria and Richard Hale

Mrs. Hale married for love, but has found it difficult to be happy with the modest income and somewhat isolated life of a country parson's wife. She complains that her husband hasn't risen to a more profitable and socially satisfying position. 

Gaskell doesn't present a clear winner out of either of these two marriages. Is there any hope that her protagonist, Margaret Hale, will find some kind of happily-ever-after? How should she choose a life partner?

The answer may lie in looking a little closer at what "marrying for love" may mean in different cases.

Mr Hale and his wife may have been in love, but they don't seem well suited to each other on an intellectual level. Gaskell points out that early on in their marriage, Mr Hale wanted to spend time reading aloud to his wife but that she was annoyed with it. Thus, he began to retreat to his study and read alone. 

So, in finding a good match, it's best to match both hearts and minds. It's important to find someone who engages your mind and enjoys similar pursuits or you may find your marital bond weakening instead of strengthening.

 Henry Lennox gets a "no" from Margaret.

Henry Lennox gets a "no" from Margaret.

Margaret's rejection of Henry Lennox tells us much about what she expects, consciously or unconsciously, from marriage. When Henry asks if he may still hope that she may someday accept him as a lover, she is "silent for a minute or two, trying to discover the truth as it was in her own heart." Ultimately, she couldn't say "yes" when her heart said "no." She clearly intends to marry for love. Henry is a good catch for her, according to the prevalent assumptions of what a girl should aim for, yet she wasn't at all tempted to accept. 

Marriage isn't even on Margaret's mind at the time Henry proposes. She doesn't seem to be worried about who or when she'll marry at all. She's just happy to return to her home in Helstone. Securing a comfortable position as someone's wife isn't on her current agenda.

Someone else in this story also doesn't appear to be thinking about finding a spouse: John Thornton. He hasn't been making any plans or showing any interest in the ladies that his mother says are pursuing him. 

What are John's expectations of marriage? There's no indication that he had planned on marrying at all. He has been too occupied with his work. 

What was the model of marriage his parents left for him? We can only surmise that Hannah Thornton may have loved her husband, however much pain his suicide caused her. She wears black, the color of mourning, years after first becoming a widow. She has kept with pride the Dutch damask napkins with her husband's initials, given as a wedding present, through all the years of hardship. She never speaks unkindly of him or seems to blame him with bitterness.

If it's possible, then, that Thornton recalls his parents' marriage as one based on real affection, then it's certain that Fanny was too young to remember anything of her mother's marriage at all. Fanny doesn't appear to have any other aim than to marry well according to social status and wealth. She, like Aunt Shaw, chooses to marry a rich, older man.

It's fascinating to watch how Margaret and John  discover that they have found someone that they want to marry -- someone who engages their heart and their mind -- when marriage had been the furthest thing from their minds! 

 John Thornton also gets a "no."

John Thornton also gets a "no."

It's a rocky road to love. Margaret is compelled to say "no" to the second offer of love she receives because she isn't aware that she is falling in love with the Milton master yet. Too much confusion. 

And by the end of the novel, when Margaret tells Edith she will never marry, the reader knows it's because she will not compromise on marriage. She will marry for love, or not at all. And she believes that the door to marital bliss has been closed forever for her.

And that mistake is all cleared up in the last two pages....