Gaskell girls and the disastrous results of rejecting Mr. Right

It's perfectly natural to expect proud, independent heroines to be vehemently resolute in their judgements. After all, the girls who slide into compliance with traditional expectations and customs would hardly make an exciting story. But boy do Gaskell's girls create a ton of trouble for themselves when they pour on the stubborn resistance to the magnetic pull of Mr. Destiny! 

I'm finding many parallels between Margaret Hale and Mary Barton, but what's most striking to me is how similarly they must struggle to find a way to make restitution for a monumental mistake: rejecting the best offer of marriage they'll ever receive. 

 The look you get when you've just rejected the violently passionate Mr Thornton!

The look you get when you've just rejected the violently passionate Mr Thornton!

Both Mary and Margaret have predetermined to hold themselves superior to the men who desperately want to marry them. They both receive wildly passionate speeches of undying love. (I just love the sweet and fervent proposal in Mary Barton!) And each of these girls find themselves powerfully shaken by the intense interaction. Their hearts are jostled open by the honesty and fervency of the devotion expressed by the amazing specimen of a man they just turned down.

Of course, both these hard-headed ladies have aha moments about the hero and their own feelings -- but they're just too dang late! The aftermath of each of these feisty decisions isn't pretty.

So what do you get for turning down the best man in town? 

  • Guilt, with the distinct knowledge of how much pain you've caused
  • Remorse, with the accumalating recognition of what kind of man you dismissed
  • An earful from your future mother-in-law
 The wrath of Mrs. Thornton unleashed on Margaret. 

The wrath of Mrs. Thornton unleashed on Margaret. 

  • Avoidance by The Rejected One
  • The agony of not being to tell him you've changed your mind

It's the last reason -- being unable to clearly communicate with the hero -- that really caught my attention as I read Mary Barton. For those of you who have trouble understanding Margaret Hale or who find it hard to forgive her for allowing John to suffer so long, Gaskell spells out the repressive position the heroine endures much more clearly in Mary Barton:

Maidenly modesty ... seemed to oppose every plan she could think of, for showing Jem how much she repented her decision against him, and how dearly she had now discovered that she loved him. She came to the unusual wisdom of resolving to do nothing, but strive to be patient, and improve circumstances as they might turn up ... She had been very wrong, but now she would endeavor to do right, and have womanly patience, until he saw her changed and repentant mind in natural actions.

This explains Margaret perfectly! We see her doing exactly this -- humbly trying to show her repentance by her demeanor in every interaction with Thornton. 

 Margaret's maidenly meekness.

Margaret's maidenly meekness.

But her tongue is tied as a woman of that era. A good Victorian girl could not approach a man to explain herself. She is forced by propriety to wait until the man initiates any further communication concerning the subject. How torturous it must have be for these passionate and bold heroines to repress the expression of their thoughts and feelings!

And, of course, in Margaret's situation the complications in communicating seem to accumulate with Frederick's ill-fated arrival in Milton. It's clear that Margaret suffers from this constant repression and inability to explain herself as a woman:

Oh! thought she, 'I wish I were a man, that I could go and force him to express his disapprobation, and tell him honestly that I knew I deserved it.' (Chapter 37)

The suffering lasts two years for Margaret. Two years of misunderstanding and the repression of deep-held emotions because the moral culture of the day does not allow her to express herself. And two years that Thornton must also suffer in believing she doesn't care for him.

For Mary Barton, the suffering is loaded with imminent danger, but only endures for a short span of time. Her beloved almost loses his life because of her rejection!

Ah, but love prevails in the end. Happy endings are hard-wrought in Gaskell's tales. And both of Mary and Margaret play an active and unconventional role in "saving" their respective Mr. Right. After all the heartache they have caused, these girls are able to make full restitution for their catastrophic mistake.

And tell me, who wouldn't suffer two years, three years, or even ten to earn Mr. Thornton?! He truly is -- in so many ways -- Mr. Right.