The best love stories involve a fierce devotion and fidelity that suffer through time and agonizing circumstances. This is certainly the case for John Thornton and Margaret Hale.
But what would have happened if Margaret and John had never cleared up the misunderstandings that kept them apart? What if they had never met at the train station (or in that back drawing room at Harley Street)? Would they have eventually settled into a mature complacency and have settled down to marry someone else?
All my romantic sensitivities scream "NO!"
Fortunately, I can find plenty of contextual evidence to support my emotional response.
So why do I believe John and Margaret's love for each other would inspire a lifetime of devotion? Because for both of these passionate introverts, falling in love was a once-in-a-lifetime event that ran very deep.
From the moment he meets Margaret, John is tongue-tied and dazed (see my post about this first encounter here). He's somewhere around thirty years old and he has never felt such a powerful attraction to a woman before. He's completely blindsided by the whole experience of falling in love; which throws him into a vortex of emotions that are entirely beyond his normal self-control. Falling for Margaret appears to entirely upend his regulated mental world.
Before Margaret, marriage was not on John Thornton's mind. From what he quips to his mother, the most eligible man in Milton doesn't even appear to be aware that women have been angling for him for years.
"I never was aware of any young lady trying to catch me yet, nor do I believe that any one has ever given themselves that useless trouble."
Was he really that clueless?! Apparently so. It's rather painfully clear that John Thornton was not making the social rounds looking for a bride. And he doesn't seem to have any intimate friends either. He's busy. And he keeps to himself for the most part. He and his mother -- his closest companion -- don't share their deepest thoughts and feelings with one another.
So when he does fall in love, it's intense. And Gaskell lets us know it. Margaret is the only one who has drawn him out and fired up ALL his emotional buttons. And could it be any clearer that he's obsessed with Margaret and Margaret alone? Check out all these swoon-worthy quotes:
Margaret ... you are the only woman I ever loved!
I have never loved any woman before: my life has been too busy, my thought too much absorbed with other things. Now I love, and will love.
If Mr. Thornton was a fool in the morning, as he assured himself at least twenty times he was, he did not grow much wiser in the afternoon. All that he had gained ... was a more vivid conviction that there never was, never could be, any one like Margaret....
It's an all-consuming love for John. He doesn't dabble in cotton; he doesn't dabble in love. It's all or nothing for him.
Poor John is devastated by her rejection of him, and he's absolutely tortured by the thought of her being in love with another man. Even five months after his rejection, he discovers that his passionate feelings are wildly out of control.
....the very sight of that face and form, the very sounds of that voice....had such power to move him from his balance. Well! He had known what love was -- a sharp pang, a fierce experience, in the midst of whose flames he was struggling! but, through that furnace he would fight his way out into the serenity of middle age, -- all the richer and more human for having known this great passion.
It's this stunning quote from the book that reveals how deeply he feels this connection to Margaret. He considers it foundational, transformative. He expects the effect of this singular powerful devotion to continue to reverberate throughout his life.
I don't think there's a chance he'll marry anyone else.
One of the most striking differences between Margaret and girls like Edith and Fanny is how little Margaret's mind is occupied in finding a husband. For a girl of marriageable age in that era, it's rather startling that it doesn't even seem to occur to her to consider Henry as a possible match. She's not thinking of Henry that way because she doesn't have any romantic feelings for him. And she refuses him because she cannot reciprocate his ardor.
Margaret expects to marry for love (see my post here). She believes that when a man asks a woman to marry him, it should be "the deepest, holiest proposal of his life." Margaret is no flighty, flirtatious girl looking for the most comfortable option in life. She cannot accept his proposal because "her instinct had made anything but a refusal impossible." Her heart is not in it.
Although Margaret's journey to a deep-held devotion takes much more time to develop, the impact on her is still very powerful. She's attracted to John's strength, integrity, and honesty. And his passion for her, once communicated, frightens and fascinates her. By the time she fully realizes that she's in love with him, she cannot control her strong feelings and obsessive attraction any more than he can.
She knows she made a mistake in refusing him, and cries helplessly to think of the opportunity for happiness she has lost:
Some time, if I live to be an old woman, I may sit over the fire, and looking into the embers, see the life that might have been.
Poor Margaret also doesn't have anyone to truly open up to in her despair. She, like John, keeps her emotions hidden from those around her. This solitary struggle makes the longing for each other even more intense. They are both desperate for that intimate connection -- to find an emotional home where they can love and be loved without repression.
Even after he declares that his foolish passion for her is over, she cannot stop thinking of him.
At present it seemed to her as if all subjects tended towards Mr. Thornton; as if she could not forget him with all her endeavors.
She can't stop thinking of him when Mr. Bell takes her to Helstone many months later. And she can't stop thinking about him back in London.
Henry is never an option. And when Edith talks about finding her a match, Margaret tells her "I shall never marry." She knows her heart belongs to another, and she will not live a lie by marrying anyone else.
Thank goodness for Mr. Bell's inheritance and Margaret's determination to help John in his business failure! It's a great relief to see these two love-sick creatures finally make those first sweet, intimate gestures that hint at the strong bond of love that has long been formed between them.