Although Margaret Hale herself never steps a foot beyond England and not a single scene in North and South takes place abroad, Gaskell doesn't let the reader forget that England is the center of the world. The lives of her characters and the events of the story are intertwined with the larger activity of the Empire and the world beyond England’s shores.
On the very first page of North and South we learn that Edith will be married to an army captain stationed in Corfu — a Greek island that at the time was a British protectorate from the Napoleonic Wars. A few pages further in the book we find Margaret modeling luxurious shawls from India for Aunt Shaw’s friends. The opening chapter also reveals that the Lennox family is from Scotland. All three of these places — Corfu, India, Scotland — are part of England’s realm.
Gaskell begins and ends the story in London —the very hub of the great British Empire at the height of its power. Characters flow in and out of England throughout the book: Edith goes to Scotland and Corfu, Aunt Shaw vacations in Italy, the exiled Frederick risks coming home for a time from the sunnier shores of Spain, Irish workers are brought in to replace the striking mill workers, and John Thornton himself goes to France to find out what’s happening with the price of cotton.
England’s central role in the world of that era is undeniable, and Gaskell subtly but unmistakably hints at this global power when she makes references to the military presence of characters in far off places. General Shaw gave his wife shawls and scarves from India. Captain Lennox's regiment is sent to Corfu, near the Greek mainland. And Frederick was a midshipman in the Navy who led a mutiny somewhere in the high seas where a West-Indian steamer picked up the abandoned Captain Reid.
It is Frederick Hale that brings an element of the exotic world to Milton when he makes his daring visit to see his dying mother. The exiled Frederick tells his family about his adventures living in Mexico and South America. Frederick marries a Spanish girl and make the southern coast of Spain his permanent home.
Other countries or regions are mentioned incidentally in North and South:
Henry examines a copy of Dante’s Paradiso …“in the proper old Italian binding of white vellum and gold.”
Mrs. Hale keeps her letters from Frederick in the japan cabinet.
There are China roses covering the Helstone parsonage.
Mr. Bell asks Mr. Hale if perhaps Thornton and Margaret have “what the French call a tendresse for each other.”
And when the Hales arrive in Milton, Mr Hale rethinks his choice. “I wish I had gone into some country place in Wales." (Ah, but then they would never have met John Thornton!)
That Gaskell’s story should have so many references to the world beyond is no surprise, knowing how well the author liked to travel. Elizabeth loved getting away from Manchester and went several times to the Continent, often without her busy spouse. She traveled to Germany, Wales, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Italy, and Scotland. She also attended the Great Exhibition of 1851—that great showcase of innovations and art, where all the world was brought to London. Of course she did!
Placing John Thornton at the Great Exhibition in the film adaptation was a stroke of genius by BBC screenwriter Sandy Welch. In this cleverly constructed scene, we see Thornton as not merely as a Milton businessman, but as a master of a global industry—a man of great power in the ever-accelerating world of manufacturing.
It is England’s internationally renown industrial prowess, of course, that is central to the story. The cotton industry of Lancashire in which John Thornton is involved is at the very summit of the industrial revolution in mid-century England. And the business of making cotton cloth in England is unequivocally an international affair. Cotton is grown and imported from foreign lands, and the resulting cloth made at the mill is sold both in England and abroad. Mrs. Thornton boasts of her son’s position in the world: Go where you will—I don’t say in England only, but in Europe—the name of John Thornton of Milton is known and respected amongst all men of business.
We find details of some of the issues of international trade and finance that affect his business in Gaskell’s book. Thornton speaks of the American competition in the yarn market that forces him to lower prices, making him unable to give the workers the raise they demand. And in the end, it is an American exchange house that begins the tumble of the financial markets across the ocean, and which ultimately forces Thornton to close his mill.
In the closing chapters of the story, as the lovers finally break through the misapprehensions keeping them apart, Gaskell is still weaving strong tones of far-reaching industrial power amidst emotionally intense romantic scenes:
Thornton leaves a very great impression upon Mr Colthurst, the Member of Parliament that comes to dine at Harley Street.
Margaret’s act of offering a loan to Thornton is an invitation to renew his business as well as a proclamation of her deep love and trust.
Far from concluding with a happy provincial ending, North and South leaves the reader with the strong feeling that together Margaret and Thornton will make a great impact in Milton that may just reverberate around the world.