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
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.
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...
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.