North and South

What if Margaret never married?

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Have you ever imagined a different ending to North and South—one where Margaret remains single the rest of her life? Would she find happiness and fulfillment without marrying John Thornton?

I occasionally run into North and South fans who wish the ending of Gaskell’s story wasn’t so traditional. Something in them cringes to watch the independently-minded Margaret Hale sign up for married life. And it bothers them that according to Victorian laws, Margaret would be turning over her entire fortune to John the instant they marry. These particular fans feel sad that Margaret would be giving up her independence.

I can understand their wish to see Margaret continue to be a strong model of womanhood. She acts like an equal to the men in her life, and shows no signs of depending on a husband to establish her identity. She follows her own individual convictions of what’s right or important. And it’s exciting to see a woman like that come into a large inheritance. Margaret’s wealth gave her more freedom to choose her own path.

So what was is it she wanted to do with all her money? Was she having a grand old time being rich in London? She wasn’t having a fantastic time spending her money on herself, or on making the social rounds. She is bored out of her mind living in a house full of people who only think of how to entertain themselves next. She certainly wasn’t interested in marrying just because that’s what you were supposed to do.

What did she want, after all? Did she want to be alone?

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The Margaret Hale in the last few chapters of the book is very melancholy. She spends a great deal of time trying to get over losing her relationship to John. She resolves to make the best of her life, despite her deep longing for “what could have been.”

Does Margaret want to have a family? Yes. Gaskell draws this desire out by showing how much Margaret loved it when Edith’s little boy fell asleep in her arms:

Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied her forever.

But she’s not going to marry just anyone to have a family. She has made a commitment with herself to “speak and act the truth for evermore.” She’s already in love with Thornton. There’s no way she will compromise herself by marrying someone she doesn’t love. This is why Margaret tells Edith she will never marry. Margaret firmly believes she has lost her one chance at happiness.

I’m not buying the idea that Margaret would have been happier on her own than with John in Milton. I’m not able to imagine her living her best life all alone in London with no one to really understand her. Not a single person in her social circle comprehends her.

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Margaret wanted to make a difference for others. She wanted to be involved in her community. She wanted to have a purpose beyond herself. She longs to love and help others. When she resolves to do as she pleases at Harley Street, she chooses to do charity work to fill her time and give her some purpose.

If she had lived her life alone, she would have continued to find ways to help people who needed help in London. This, she felt, was being true to herself. She would be satisfied in some sense, but I doubt she would ever be completely rid of the lingering sadness for the life she might have had.

I trust Margaret’s instincts for her own happiness. As a women wholly free to chose NOT to get married and to spend her wealth as she pleased, she chose to throw all her money into John Thornton’s hands. She offered him every pound she had in her account when she got the chance. She wasn’t interested in offering a token investment in his mill, she put her whole heart in her offer to help him revive the mill.

She trusted him with all her money, and wanted to join forces with him. And when he revealed his heart to her by calling out her name in earnest, she laid her head on his shoulders — she was tired of being alone. The relief and joy she and John both felt suddenly discovering that they would neither of them be condemned to a life alone is beautifully expressed in the holy silence described in those first few moments of physical contact:

…she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

It’s going to be a challenging life in Milton, but it’s the life she chooses, and she’s equipped for it. And she won’t have to spend the rest of her life kicking herself for turning down John Thornton!

The look of a woman who sees what she wants.

The look of a woman who sees what she wants.

The Fantastically Strong Women of North and South

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Who do you consider a strong woman in Elizabeth Gaskell’s story? I immediately think of Margaret Hale and Hannah Thornton for their amazing ability to endure whatever life throws at them. Edith, Fanny, and Aunt Shaw are models of the more fashionable and useless Victorian woman — living a coddled life of vanity where problems must be invented in order to have something to complain about.

Weaker women tend to complain a lot, they’re often unable to make decisions for themselves, they can’t cope with stress or tragedy, and they hardly bother to think of how situations or events affect others — they’re too consumed with their own concerns or wants. Weaker women let society and fashion mold them.

In contrast, strong women keep their complaints mostly to themselves, make decisions without consulting others, handle stress and tragedies without shutting down, and most importantly — they think of how their actions affect others. Strong women create their own path in life.

Margaret picks up the slack in housework

Margaret picks up the slack in housework

Of course, we all have our weak moments (or days or years), and I’m not saying that Margaret is always strong. On the contrary, she has her breakdowns — although they are kept very private. She’s human and she cries and complains at times. But she keeps moving forward, despite all that happens to her.

Margaret’s ability to remain strong throughout three long years of endless troubles impresses me. She’s a great model for feminine fortitude for her era. What proves she can carry herself through any situation? Here’s an incomplete list of situations she manages all on her own during the events of the novel:

  • Keeps a sense of self-worth while serving as a companion to her wealthier and prettier cousin

  • Accepts the task of dropping an emotional bomb on her mother, for her father’s sake

  • Shoulders the responsibility of moving a household when her parents can’t cope

  • Leaves a beloved childhood home for a darker, dirtier place without complaining

  • Tries to soften her mother’s complaints and keep a cheerful attitude to keep her father from slipping into depression

  • Argues with a respected businessman about his questionable moral attitudes toward laborers

  • Tries to single-handedly stop a riot

  • Rejects Mr. Right who happens to be dad’s best friend (talk about complicated relationships!)

  • Consoles the father of her dead friend — the only friend she had made in Milton

  • Consoles her father and brother when her mother dies

  • Tries to keep her exiled brother from getting caught and sentenced to death

  • Endures severe social censure for containing her brother’s secret

  • Loses the respect of Mr. Right (she thinks)

  • Steps up to tell Mrs. Boucher her husband is dead

  • Tries to keep her father from devastating depression while she mourns her mother’s death

  • Loses her father and is forced to move from Milton

That’s a quite a lot to muddle through before you turn twenty-one! And throughout it all, Margaret maintains a remarkably strong sense of her identity and worth. She does not let others define her. She makes some courageous decisions and she accepts responsibility for following through. She’s the backbone of the family.

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In so many ways, Hannah Thornton is like Margaret. She suffers her hardships silently, takes decisive action when things get really hard, and does what it takes to keep her family going. The fact that Hannah didn’t wait around for charity or accept the stigma society placed on her family for her husband’s suicide tells you tons about this woman. She laid the foundation for John’s success, which required her to take a determined path centered on her own values, not the ones society laid out for her.ff

These two are the obvious powerhouse women of North and South, but I see a few others who were able to endure hardship and made great efforts to protect or help others:

Bessy Higgins

For a dying teenager, Bessy keeps her complaints to a minimum (how many teenagers do that?!) and doesn’t make a lot of drama. Even during her last dying days, she’s worried about her father and distressed about how her father is treating Boucher. She isn’t focused on her own condition or terrorized by it. Her passionate desire to calm her father is stronger than her own self-concern. Her last words to Mary are for her to keep her father from drinking. Clearly, she had a strong love for others.

Mary Higgins

Bessy’s younger sister stays in the periphery of the story, but she is a silent strength in her own right. There’s no indication that Mary is a troublesome or selfish girl. She works to contribute to the family and tries to be helpful. After Boucher’s death, Mary takes care of his children. Mary is actually the main breadwinner of the family while Nicholas is out of work.

Maria Hale

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I had no intention of including Maria when I set out to write a piece about strong women. I’ve never been a fan of Maria; I have practice being very critical of her. When we first meet her in the book, she is small-minded, self-pitying, and a rather vocal complainer.

I tried to think if she had any strengths, and had an epiphany of sorts in realizing that she did. How did I miss it all these years? I had never really stopped to consider why—after years of making a habit of complaining—she suddenly keeps her serious illness a secret. She must have made this decision out of love for her husband, knowing it would be a terrible blow to him.

She didn’t want to distress her family with this trouble, so she kept her physical suffering to herself (and Dixon) as long as possible. I find her motive in doing this very noble. Whether or not her decision was wise or not, it demonstrated strong desire and self-control to protect others from emotional pain.

And so I have a new appreciation for Maria that I had not had before. She showed her strength in the end.

What strengths do you admire in the women of North and South?




The 7 scenes I wished were included in the BBC's "North and South"

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The 2004 film adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a masterpiece. I have only a few criticisms, one of them being that it was too short! There was time for more — an hour more in this world would have been wonderful.

As a lover of the book, I can’t help bemoaning the absence of a few of my favorite moments.

Here are some of the scenes that I wished this cast and crew could have filmed for me:

1 - Mrs. Hale running into her husband’s arms.

Although Aunt Shaw tells us that Richard and Maria Hale married for love, we never really see this affection played out. Mrs. Hale’s rather tentative and polite smile as she takes her husband’s hand in the adaptation isn’t terribly convincing. There’s a poignant moment in the book, though, where we catch a glimpse of the affectionate bond between them. It’s when Mr. Hale returns home after Margaret had been given the dirty work of telling her mother of her father’s decision to quit the clergy and move to Milton.

….he opened the room-door, and stood there uncertain whether to come in. His face was gray and pale; he had a timid, fearful look in his eyes; something almost pitiful to see in a man’s face; but that look of despondent uncertainty, of mental and bodily languor, touched his wife’s heart. She went to him, and threw herself on his breast, crying out: -

“Oh! Richard, Richard, you should have told me sooner!”

2 - Margaret sadly roaming the garden the night before she leaves her childhood home

The adaptation skips over so much of the beginning of the book, the viewer doesn’t truly get a full sense of how much strength it took for Margaret to come to Milton without crying for a week. I would have loved for the film to show Margaret busy packing crates of belongings while her mother languished in despair and her father busied himself in sorting his books — all this to give the viewer a sense that Margaret was the one who took over all the hard responsibility of moving.

But what would have been truly beautiful and poignant was if the film had showed Margaret walking through the property at twilight as she says her final goodbyes to the landscape she loves so well. Gaskell’s description of it in the book is very moving.

3 - Thornton carrying an unconscious Margaret up the stairs of his home

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Ok, so Gaskell doesn’t exactly describe how he feels as he carries Margaret up to his drawing-room, but can you imagine the powerful emotions pulsing through Thornton as he carries a lifeless Margaret up the stairs?! This has got to be one of the most dramatic scenes you could make from this film!

Seeing her injured and holding her body close to his is shattering all the remaining emotional barricades he has tried to form around his heart. As he climbs the stairs, powerful feelings must be compounding — and it all explodes into this:

He bore her into the dining-room, and laid her on the sofa there; laid her down softly, and looking on the pure white face, the sense of what she was to him came upon him so keenly that he spoke it out in his pain:

“Oh, my Margaret—my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to me! Dead — cold as you lie there, you are the only woman I ever loved! Oh, Margaret—Margaret!”

4 - Margaret pacing and crying in her room as she realizes she’s in love.

After Mrs. Thornton’s famous visit to give Margaret a tongue-lashing, Margaret runs upstairs to her room to sort out all the strong feelings rushing through her after the encounter. She realizes for the first time that Thornton thinks she’s in love with someone else—and she’s mightily distressed that he knows her to be a liar on top of it all! And so she finds herself crying as she gets ready to go out. Maybe in the film, she could whisper a few of her desperate thoughts to herself, to let the viewer know what turmoil is going on inside.

“I dare say, there’s many a woman makes as sad a mistake as I have done, and only finds it out too late. And how proudly and impertinently I spoke to him that day! But I did not know then. It has come upon me little by little, and I don’t know where it began….”

5 - Thornton being a comfort to Mr. Hale

The relationship between Mr. Hale and his would-be son-in-law is so beautifully portrayed in the book, I wanted to see more depth to this sweet bond shown in the film version. John is the only one Mr. Hale can really talk to during his great grief and these two men become very dear friends to each other. I would have loved to see just one brief scene in which Margaret sees her father clasp John’s hand as he is about to leave while Mr. Hale mentions how immeasurably better he feels after talking with him. Margaret’s awareness of how much her father loves and respects John, must be another binding reason for loving John.

“It was curious how the presence of Mr. Thornton had power over Mr. Hale to make him unlock the secret thoughts which he kept shut up even from Margaret…..Mr. Thornton said very little; but every sentence he uttered added to Mr. Hale’s reliance and regard for him. Was it that he paused in the expression of some remembered agony, Mr. Thornton’s two or three words would complete the sentence, and show how deeply its meaning was entered into….Man of action as he was, busy in the world’s great battle, there was a deeper religion binding him to God in his heart, in spite of his strong willfulness, through all his mistakes, than Mr. Hale had ever dreamed.”

6 - Thornton coming to dinner at Aunt Shaw’s house

This is the scene I long most to see on film! When Thornton comes to dinner in London, he and Margaret have not seen each other for over a year. The emotional tension is incredible as each of them strives to act as though this meeting again isn’t causing tremors of pent-up anguish within them. But alas, the internal agony slips into view for a brief moment from John. And Gaskell captures the moment so well, it’s just gut-wrenching. THIS is a moment Richard Armitage would have absolutely nailed. It would have been so brilliant to see this scene performed by the 2004 cast.

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“…Margaret was watching Mr. Thornton’s face. He never looked at her; so she might study him unobserved, and note the changes which even this short time had wrought in him. Only at some unexpected mot of Mr. Lennox’s, his face flashed out into the old look of intense enjoyment; the merry brightness returned to his eyes, the lips just parted to suggest the brilliant smile of former days; and for an instant, his glance instinctively sought hers, as if he wanted her sympathy. But when their eyes met, his whole countenance changed; he was grave and anxious once more; and he resolutely avoided even looking near her again during dinner.”

7 - The kiss in Aunt Shaw’s back drawing-room.

I cannot criticize the final scene of the adaptation. It’s romantic film history. The symbolism and the drama is perfect. Do I care that it’s a public display of affection and would never have happened? No, it’s too romantically perfect to condemn. And I never shall.

However, if all my dreams were fulfilled, I’d love to see an alternate ending that follows that London dinner scene — the book’s more intimate ending, where the wall of misunderstanding crumbles down in private, without Henry’s peering glare!

What I miss most is the playful teasing between these two serious souls that turns into that toe-tingling tender-passionate first kiss that we all have watched a hundred times from the film. I’m imagining that very same kiss as Gaskell’s “delicious silence” — but in that elegant, private sphere where no one interrupts them. Although I can imagine that without that train whistle to interrupt things, it might be very hard to stop indeed!

What favorite moments from the book do you wish were included in the film version?

Me on podcast + thoughts on Fanny Thornton

I got to guest on a podcast! Thanks to the Bonnets at Dawn podcasters, I was honored to speak about my North and South passion with Lauren Burke, who is the Team Bronte host. Bonnets at Dawn are active on Facebook and Twitter as well, and they’ve only recently discovered the magic of Gaskell’s story.

I loved chatting with Lauren, and nearly forgot our conversation was being recorded for a podcast! We talked about how I found North and South and what my favorite characters are, among other things.

I was truly surprised that Lauren was interested in talking about Fanny since I’ve never been that intrigued by her. Fanny Thornton always appeared to me as one of Gaskell’s most shallow characters. I see Gaskell using her as a comparison figure - to her hardworking brother, to the socially compassionate Margaret, and to her austere and tough-as-nails mother. Fanny is also, like Edith, a symbol of the self-consumed behavior of those in a position of wealth and leisure.

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I’ve followed conversations about Fanny on C19 years ago. The debate on Fanny seems to always come down to nature or nurture: is Fanny the way she is by nature or did her upbringing mold her into the person she is? Was she coddled too much in those early years? Or was she always going to turn out to be self-centered and rather weak-minded?

Here’s what her own mother thinks of her daughter:

“Mrs. Thornton…had an unconscious contempt for a weak character; and Fanny was weak in the very points which her mother and brother were strong….she felt instinctively that nothing could strengthen Fanny to endure hardships patiently, or face difficulties bravely; and though she winced as she made this acknowledgement to herself about her daughter, it only gave her a kind of pitying tenderness of manner towards her; much of the same description of demeanor with which mothers are wont to treat their weak and sickly children.”

I have to wonder if Gaskell uses Hannah Thornton’s assessment of Fanny as a true observation, or if the reader is meant to realize that Hannah has standards that most people will never meet.

Certainly, part of Hannah’s passionate love for her son is that he lives up to all her expectations. Fanny doesn’t. She’ll never be as good as John. Even Hannah feels uncomfortable knowing that she doesn’t love her equally, which is why she makes an effort to call Fanny endearing names — to make up for the lack of adoration she can’t help but pour on John.

So yes, I feel compassion for Fanny. She’s had to live under her brother’s shadow all her life. Her mother never loved her as much. Can she feel that? Does she resent it?

What I don’t really have much compassion about is how Fanny somehow learns to only care about herself. Was it the treatment of being protected and pampered as a child? Did she never see how hard her brother and mother worked and sacrificed to provide for her? Is she ever grateful?

Fanny is phenomenal as comic relief in the film! Joy Joyner was hilarious in the part.

Fanny is phenomenal as comic relief in the film! Joy Joyner was hilarious in the part.

What makes Fanny a character I can’t warm to is that I can’t find any clues in the book that she really loves anyone. From the mini-series, the way she turns on her brother at his lowest point is especially cruel— even digging in a comment about his chances of marriage to sink him lower.

And I understand that she’s suffered her whole life with her mum and brother dismissing her. Still, it’s hard for me to give her the benefit of the doubt when she fails to show any interest in what her brother and mother have done for her.

Maybe I’m being too harsh in judging her. After all, Fanny’s still just a teenager. It’s not at all uncommon for wealthier teenagers to be wrapped up in their own world — scarcely cognizant of all the things their parents do to make their lives easy. Maybe Fanny will mature some day, and become more engaged with the world in something purposeful. (There is a fan fiction story about Fanny’s life available by request at C19.)

As Lauren mentions in the podcast, she was more interested in studying Fanny as a nouveau riche character in the Industrial Era. Was Fanny more typical of this up-and-coming class?

Maybe Fanny is more fascinating than I thought! What are your thoughts on Fanny Thornton?

North and South by the Numbers

The BBC’s Hannah Thornton, writing those dinner invitations

The BBC’s Hannah Thornton, writing those dinner invitations

2 miles — the route from the Hales’ house to Marlborough Mills

5% — the raise the workers demand

5 shillings — the weekly amount the union pays each worker during the strike

5 hours — how long Higgins waits to speak to Thornton about getting work

6 — how many children Boucher has, all under 8 years old

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7 to 8 years — how long it’s been since Margaret has seen Fred

8 years — how much older Mr. Hale is than his wife

9 to 10 shillings — what Higgins might earn for a week’s worth of spading in the South

10 hours — the work day for the mill hands

10 years — the time Margaret spent living with Aunt Shaw and Edith before Edith married

14 months — how much younger Dolores (Fred’s wife) is compared to Margaret

15 shillings — Thornton’s first weekly wage as a draper’s assistant

16 years — how long ago George Thornton committed suicide

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18 years — Margaret’s age in the opening chapter

19 years — Bessy’s age when she dies

£30 a year — the rent the Hales could afford in Milton

44 — Nicholas Higgins’ age

55 — Mr. Hale’s age

60 — Mr. Bell says he’s “upwards of 60”

96 — the street address of the Harley Street house

£170 — the Hales’ yearly income, 70£ of which went to Fred

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220 square yards — one of the rooms at the Marlborough Mills factory

£250 a year — what Margaret pays Aunt Shaw for her keep in London as an heiress

700 men — the number of workers Higgins says will come to work as soon as they get their raise

£18,057 — the amount Margaret offers to Thornton

£42,000 — Margaret’s inheritance from Mr. Bell (£40,000 of it in property value)

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And what would Margaret’s offer to Thornton be worth today in dollars?

…. roughly $1,800,000. Nearly a cool 2 million!




The problem with Henry Lennox...

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Looking into the character and role of Henry Lennox in North and South can be fascinating and somewhat complex. Are we supposed to like him or not? Is he really in love with Margaret? What is it that makes him just not quite Margaret's type? And then, of course, there's book Henry and then there's film Henry.

Film Henry has a much more aggressive streak, which we see in the scene at The Great Exhibition. Noticing that there seems to be something going on between Margaret and Thornton, he takes a stab at Thornton to try to put him in his place: 

"Mr. Thornton ... all the way from Milton?"  [Snark translation: "You're from the Neanderthal northern regions, not a cultivated Londoner."] 

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"My brother is interested in dabbling in cotton."  [Snark translation: "You're a tradesman, who only speaks cotton terms, yes? We find your kind amusing and occasionally profitable."]

Thornton wins this verbal battle by throwing Henry's own words back into his face: "I'm not sure I'm the one to speak to. I'm not sure I'd know how to dabble." It's not only a killer comeback, this brilliant line from the adaptation can also be taken as a good summary of the contrast between these two men. Henry dabbles. Thornton does not. (More on this later.)

And how does Henry affect Margaret? What is her reaction to Henry's snide remarks? We can tell by her expression and her replies that Henry has won no points with her at all. It's pretty plain who she is standing up for here in this brief exchange. And it's not the barrister from London. 

Although this alpha male confrontation doesn't happen at all in the book, this scene from the BBC adaptation still provides an accurate glimpse as to why Margaret isn't interested in Henry as a possible husband -- he lacks depth, he can be arrogant, and he doesn't really know her. 

Now let's look at these disqualifying aspects one by one in the light of the character Elizabeth Gaskell created -- by what we know of Henry from the book:

Lack of depth

Dabblers lack depth. They're not totally committed or wholly involved. 

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We know with John Thornton, whether in love or in his lifework, -- he's all in. Whatever he does he does with a consuming commitment; when he falls in love, he is shaken to the core.

Henry, however savvy and worldly clever, just doesn't have the same substance through and through. He's mostly about doing whatever gets surface results: a good career, the right social circle, the esteem of others. Margaret isn't the only girl that would ever suit him, she's just the first one he's decided who could work really well (he thinks) in his sphere.

His casual, flippant manner is revealed in the very first chapter. Margaret is annoyed when he pokes fun at her description of Helstone, a place very dear to her heart. Henry often treats conversation as a social game of wit, no matter the subject matter. It's a habit of his that Margaret finds superficial and cold. 

Henry's reliance on empty, sarcastic conversation is shown more clearly when he visits Helstone. After he has proposed and been rejected, he finds some measure of recovery from his embarrassment in "a few minutes [of] light and careless talking" with Mr. Hale. 

Before a quarter of an was over he had fallen into a way of conversing with quiet sarcasm; speaking of life in London and life in the country, as if he were conscious of his second macking self, and afraid of his own satire. Mr. Hale was puzzled. His visitor was a different man to what he had seen him before...a lighter, cleverer, more worldly man, and, as such, dissonant to Mr. Hale.

Henry seems to have something of a dual nature -- a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde complex. When alone with Margaret, he can often be sympathetic and gentle. But, he can change in an instant and become more distant and snidely sophisticated. 

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Margaret is struck by his caustic side. It really bothers her when he acts this way. And here, especially after letting his guard down in telling her of his love, she is surprised at the shallowness of his behavior afterward:

...he, not many minutes after he had met with a rejection of what ought to have been the deepest, holiest proposal of his life, could speak as if briefs, success, and agreeable society, were the sole avowed objects of his desires. Oh dear! how she could have loved him if he had but been different, with a difference which she felt, on reflection, to be one that went low -- deep down.

Arrogance

Henry's arrogance plays a big part in the way he presents himself to Margaret. One of the reasons Henry seems to switch over to his urbane cynical self is to preserve his pride. He's always posturing to win social acclaim for his cleverness and cool intellectual judgement. And it appears he sees himself as superior to others. "Margaret saw glimpses in him of slight contempt for his brother and sister-in-law, and for their mode of life."

Although Henry is rather impressed by Thornton (in Gaskell's book), he still manages to feel superior over the tradesman who was forced to close his mill. Margaret senses his arrogance and calls him out on it in the following exchange:

 "You've no idea what an agreeable, sensible fellow this tenant of yours is....I can't conceive how he contrived to mis-manage his affairs."
"With his powers and opportunities you would have succeeded," said Margaret.
He did not quite relish the tone in which she spoke, although the words but expressed a thought which had passed through his own mind.

Ignorance of the real Margaret

Henry doesn't really know Margaret, although he's arrogant enough to assume he does. When he asks her how she spends her days in Helstone, he can't fathom what she could possibly do to fill the time without archery parties, social picnics, or lawn game gatherings. He assumes Margaret needs planned social activity as much as he does. He never seems to comprehend that she does not thrive on the luxury London routine that he enjoys. He even hopes to find that Margaret will have missed her London life when he visits her in Helstone. Not a chance. She loves the freedom of her life in the wide-open country.

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Henry also makes the mistake of ignoring or underestimating Margaret's strong moral core. His enthusiasm for witty intellect over moral substance actually makes Margaret angry. Even when he does acknowledge her Christian nature, he's rather annoyed with it. And he has the audacity to tell Edith that he wishes Margaret were a little more pagan! If he doesn't appreciate her foundational values and her corresponding behavior, he really should be looking for someone else.  

Can Henry really be in love with Margaret, considering that he doesn't really know her?  He seems to be in love with his perception of her or, perhaps with the promise of what she could be to him. Indeed, Henry's concept of marriage is clearly revealed in the following musing:

...the clever and ambitious man bent all his powers to gaining Margret. He loved her sweet beauty. He saw the latent sweep of her mind, which could easily (he thought) be led to embrace all the objects on which he had set his heart.

Henry's looking for a girl he can mold to his personal requirements. He's assuming his marriage will take on the traditional pattern, where the wife is subservient to her husband's wishes. The fact that Henry can believe that Margaret will be happy conforming to this model is the final proof that he doesn't really know her. Margaret shows no interest in following the customary path of making a comfortable life in the pursuit of wealth, ease, or social acclaim.  She wants to actively engage with the world outside her comfort sphere. She is looking for a life of purpose -- a way to help others. Henry's pursuit is to project himself onto the world, to find satisfaction in pleasing himself according to all of society's standards of success. 

Margaret and Henry want different things. They're following two different paths.

Margaret realizes this, and knows she will never marry him. Henry doesn't see this, and blindly believes he's slowly winning her over.

Now of course Henry isn't really a bad fellow. I give credit to Henry for being attracted to Margaret in the first place. There are times Henry is a good friend to Margaret, when he isn't being so concerned about his own self-image. But his focus on self and worldly gain and satisfaction is just so very -- typical. Henry is following the crowd in his life habits and desires. His quick wit and keen intelligence are not enough to commend him. He's far too focused on Henry and how Henry appears to the world. 

If we take a broad look at Henry Lennox's role in North and South, we can see how Gaskell uses him to bring out various facets of Margaret's character.  And, of course, Henry is a striking foil for John Thornton. The contrast between the two men shows us exactly what Margaret is attracted to and what repels her.

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And now -- at long last, we need to take into account the overriding reason why Henry will never do: the lawyer from London could never combine the passion and tenderness in one kiss that one lonely Milton master could -- and did.

 

Henry discovers the real reason Thornton is called "the master." 

Henry discovers the real reason Thornton is called "the master." 

The real problem with Henry?  He's just not John Thornton.

The powerful effect of human touch in North and South

My stories have occasionally been criticized for making too much of the physical dynamics between John Thornton and Margaret Hale. Perhaps they do, but I take my cues from Elizabeth Gaskell's own writing, which conveys a tremendous amount of physical emphasis when describing Margaret's effect on John Thornton.

From John's very first encounter with Margaret in that hotel sitting-room, Gaskell makes clear that Thornton is completely discombobulated. Margaret's presence does things to him. Physical things. Things that affect his ability to coordinate and control his own body. He finds it hard to formulate complete sentences, he cannot stop staring at her, and when he leaves "he [feels] more awkward and self-conscious in every limb than he [ever had] in all his life before."

And that's just the first meeting. We haven't even begun to talk about what effect actually touching Margaret will do to the poor man!

First Contact

So, when is their first physical contact with each other? Thornton knows -- the handshake at the dinner party. The occasion is significant enough for Thornton to take notice:

He shook hands with Margaret. He knew it was the first time their hands had met, though she was perfectly unconscious of the fact.

He must remember, as we do, how hurt he was when she did not shake his hand when he came for tea. Shaking her hand now must feel like a small victory. It's far more than a mere social formality to him. It's apparently something he's been longing to do -- touch her.

handshake.jpg

 

The mini-series makes this moment -- this first touch between future lovers -- sizzle with a sexual tension that makes a Victorian handshake more passionate than most modern kissing scenes. And this spark of longing portrayed in the film -- at least on Thornton's side -- is perfectly matched by Gaskell's prose. Thornton spends the rest of that evening acutely aware of where she is and who she is talking to. There's definitely a strong attraction going on, which Margaret is not aware of.  

That Frantic, Brief Embrace

Far beyond a social handshake, Gaskell multiplies the physical contact a hundredfold when she has Margaret throw her arms around Thornton in a body-to-body embrace -- a shockingly intimate gesture. Granted, Margaret does this out of pure terror for his life, in front of a frenzied crowd  -- hardly the sweet, loving gesture John may be dreaming of, but that doesn't in the least change the enormously powerful effect that one brief moment of intimacy has on Thornton.

He can't stop thinking about what she did, how she wrapped her arms around her neck, how her body was pressed next to his ... he's fairly consumed with the longing to feel her in his arms again! 

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Take note of all the impassioned physical reaction Thornton has immediately following that very tangible interaction with Margaret during the riot: 

"All the blood in his body seemed to rush inwards to his heart as he spoke, and he absolutely trembled."
"He went away as if weights were tied to every limb that bore him from her."
"Every pulse beat in him as he remembered how she had come down and places herself in foremost danger.... He went to his Irish people, with every nerve in his body thrilling at the thought of her ..."

I count four times in the twenty-four hour period after the riot where Gaskell specifically mentions his longing to feel that touch again:

Mr. Thornton remained in the dining-room, trying to think of the business he had to do at the police-office, and in reality thinking of Margaret. Everything seemed dim and vague beyond - behind - besides the touch of her arms round his neck -- the soft clinging which made the dark colour come and go in his cheek as he thought of it. (Penguin edition, page 186)
His heart beat thick at the thought of her coming. He could not forget the touch of her arms around his neck, impatiently felt as it had been at the time; but now the recollection of her clinging defence of him, seemed to thrill him through and through, -- to melt away every resolution, all power of self-control, as it were wax before a fire. (page 191)
Was he bewitched by those beautiful eyes, that soft, half-open, sighing mouth which lay so close upon his shoulder only yesterday? He could not even shake off the recollection that she had been there; that that her arms had been round him, once -- if never again. (page 205)
He went along the crowded streets mechanically, winding in and out among the people, but never seeing them, -- almost sick with longing for that one half-hour --that one brief space of time when she clung to him, and her heart beat against his -- to come once again. (page 210)

Where does all this explosive passion come from? In large part, from loneliness and years of keeping his emotions mostly hidden. His mother is his closest confident, yet we know she is not exactly the warm and fuzzy type to give out hugs and listen to all your troubles. If you really think about it, when was the last time this man was hugged? When has he last felt the warm affection of a heartfelt embrace? I'm guessing he hasn't felt human touch like that in years.

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But clearly it's not just human touch he's longing for. John Thornton's frenzied longing is not commonplace lust. It's truly a longing to love and be loved in return. And it's Margaret that has brought out his strong passion. He sees in her an inner strength, independence, intelligence, and deep devotion to others that matches his own. 

His feelings for her have been silently accumulating. Her frantic embrace of him is the touchstone that releases all his repressed passion. It's as if this moment of intimate human connection has lit a fire inside him. Now he sees -- his body has felt for a brief, sensuous moment of time -- what could be. And he wants that close relationship with Margaret desperately.

Gaskell draws a very sensual image by having Margaret cling to Thornton. How many other romantic heroes get a taste of physical intimacy before they ever even declare their feelings? 

It's a touch that Thornton never forgets the thrill of. It reverberates through his whole being. It's hardly any wonder, then, that at the end of the book the first thing he does after they become a couple is to take her arms and place them around his neck -- just as he remembered she had done. Just as he had ached for so long for her to willingly do again.

 

Quitters are winners in North and South

Did you ever notice how the leading male characters in North and South all quit or lose their jobs? Mr. Hale, Nicholas Higgins, and John Thornton. Even more striking is the realization that they all do so based on principle. 

The entire plot of the story gets its initial push from Mr. Hale's decision to leave his life vocation. This is a tremendously serious and weighty decision in an era when your profession constituted your identity and your social status. I know many condemn Margaret's father for the way he handled his family in relation to this life-altering choice, but the choice itself is one of courage and personal integrity. Because he could not in truth uphold all the doctrines of the Church, Mr. Hale could not in good conscience continue to play the part of a leader of the Church. He was unwilling to fake it just to keep hold of his living.

Mr. Bell admires him for his hard decision and tells him so just hours before Hale passes away: 

[God] gave you strength to do what your conscience told you was right; and I don't see that we need any higher or holier strength than that; or wisdom either. I know I have not that much; and yet men set me down in their fool's books as a wise man; an independent character; strong-minded, and all that cant. The veriest idiot who obeys his own simple law of right, if it be but in wiping his shoes on a door-mat, is wiser and stronger than I. But what gulls men are!

Henry, who represents the mediocre mindset of traditional society, doesn't see why Mr. Hale couldn't have just swallowed his doubts and kept his position. He's rather perplexed that anyone should inconvenience themselves and lose their money and status over a minor moral issue. He apparently sees nothing wrong with playing the game of appearances.

...there was no call upon Mr. Hale to do what he did, relinquish the living, and throw himself and his family on the tender mercies of private teaching in a manufacturing town; the bishop had offered him another living, it is true, but if he had come to certain doubts, he could have remained where he was, and so had no occasion to resign.

If income was any barrier to acting on principle, Nicholas Higgins would have the strongest reason to avoid leaving his livelihood. With two daughters to care for, and one of them gravely ill, it's more than inconvenient for him to quit his job. As one of the Union leaders, he helps organize the strike. Here he's not only giving up his own job, he's actively involved in pressing other mill workers to quit their work! And his reasons are noble, if his methods are less than savory. He is moved to act in defiance of the perceived injustice and indifference of the masters to the struggling lower class. 

Higgins holds to his principles, even after taking on Boucher's children. He refuses to go back to work at any mill that refuses to allow the workers to contribute to the Union. Clearly, Higgins has the mettle to take a stand for what he believes is vital, despite the personal cost.

John Thornton's case is a bit different. He doesn't quit his work, but he does make a moral decision that precludes him from the chance of recovering his business. He refuses to join the speculation that could save his mill. He will not risk the money that rightfully belongs to his creditors and the workers. It's a heartrending decision that only a nobler man could make. His own mother is inclined to take the risk to avoid failure:

'I know now that no man will suffer by me. That was my anxiety.'
'But how do you stand? Shall you -- will it be a failure?' her steady voice trembling in an unwonted manner.
'Not a failure. I must give up business, but I pay all men. I might redeem myself -- I am sorely tempted--'
'How/ Oh, John! keep up your name -- try all risks for that. How redeem it?'
'By a speculation offered to me, full of risk; but, if successful, placing me high above water mark, so that no one need ever know the strait I am in. Still, if it fails.... As I stand now, my creditors' money is safe...it is my creditors' money that I should risk.'
'But if it succeeded, they need never know. Is it so desperate a speculation? I am sure it is not, or you would never have though of it. If it succeeded--'
'I should be a rich man, and my peace of conscience would be gone!'

Note that John's concept of failure is quite different form his mother's. Hannah, more like Henry, appears concerned with the outward appearances, whereas John considers it a failure to act against his moral judgement. He knew it that if he risked saving his position, it would always rankle him to know what he had gambled. He would lose a portion of his self-esteem and honesty. And so he felt he had no choice but to close the mill.

For Thornton and for Higgins (and to a lesser degree for Mr. Hale), the decision to quit involved not only an evaluation of the consequences for oneself, but for the responsibility of one's obligations to the community of people you are involved with.

In each of these cases, it's crucial to the ongoing plot that these three characters make dramatic decisions to quit their jobs. But more importantly, Gaskell is clearly emphasizing that the courage and moral integrity of these men is a cut above the common breed. It takes guts to quit your work in any era, but more so in an age when your role in society -- your very identity as a man -- is dependent on the working position in which you are engaged in. Stripped of their outward vocation, all three of these men must define themselves on a higher order. And they do. These men are moved and strengthened by their inner convictions of what is right, and their duty to others. They cannot act contrary to what their conscience dictates. Their sense of identity rests on something far more important and substantial than a job. Their true vocation is to think and act according to their individual convictions of honesty and justice. There are men because of how they form themselves according to their highest ideals, not because they perform certain ascribed functions for compensation.

Is it any wonder that these three men are friends with one another? There's a wonderful sense of warm camaraderie in the scenes where any two of these men meet in friendship and care. 

Photos from the BBC mini-series North & South (2004)

Photos from the BBC mini-series North & South (2004)

I love the way Gaskell forces these men to step out of the traditional evaluations of manhood based on social position and economic structures. She always compels the reader to look under the surface for the real individual - not defined by vocation, wealth, or social status. As always, Gaskell is pointing out our highest calling -- each of us -- as human beings attempting to live up to our best selves for our own and humanity's good. 

These quitters are winners in my book.

 

Why did Thornton visit Helstone?

"Were you ever at Helstone?" Mr. Bell asks Thornton in Gaskell's book, North and South.

"I have seen it. It was a great change to leave it and come to Milton."  

John admits that he's been there, but he doesn't explain why and it doesn't occur to Mr. Bell to ask. If Bell had been a bit more alert, Thornton's answer should have piqued his curiosity --because you don't just swing by Helstone! It's not on the way to anywhere. It's not on the railroad schedule. To get to Helstone you would need to take the train to Southampton, and then take a cab of some distance. 

Clearly, John has made a deliberate effort to visit the remote hamlet where Margaret grew up. If nothing else, it's a romantic gesture that shows how much he still thinks of her. He even picks a few flowers to save as a treasured symbol. [He pressed those flowers and kept them with him. How romantic is that?! There's a fantastic post about this here.]

--I've always asked myself what he is thinking when he plucks that one remaining rose from the hedgerow, and I can't quite define it. I wonder what Richard Armitage would say?

--I've always asked myself what he is thinking when he plucks that one remaining rose from the hedgerow, and I can't quite define it. I wonder what Richard Armitage would say?

Before we talk about John Thornton's reasons for visiting Helstone, let me point out that the book and the BBC mini-series place John's journey to Helstone at different points in the story.

In the book, John goes off on a business trip to Le Havre about the same time Mr. Hale goes to Oxford. And it's on John's way back home to Milton when he apparently makes a point of stopping to see Helstone. It's been about nine months since he declared his love, and he's still struggling with the pain and loss of Margaret's rejection. He meets Mr. Bell on the same train to Milton and discovers that Mr. Hale has died. 

At least in the original storyline John expects to see and interact with Margaret again after secretly visiting Helstone, even though he expects that they will continue to have a distanced relationship. In the film adaptation, John runs off to Helstone for no apparent reason -- certainly he has no commercial affairs to conduct, because he has just closed his mill. Margaret has been gone from Milton for months already. When John is on that train home from sunny Helstone, he expects he may never see her again. That's pretty powerful. 

The BBC adaptation gives us a lovely visual of John walking through the sun-drenched open greenery of Helstone. It's such an astounding contrast to see the Master of Marlborough Mills, dressed in his usual sober work clothes, surrounded by the lushness of nature -- with not a brick or sooty wall in sight.

Helstone walk

And here he is, tromping around the grounds of Helstone in southern England, without a word to his mum of where he has gone! I wonder how long he was away. Did he stay overnight in Helstone at all? That really would have troubled Hannah! Or was it just a long day trip? It would be at least 3-4 hours to get there from Milton, as far as I could figure, given Victorian train speeds. (In the book, he stays at the local inn.)

So why did he go there and what did he gain? Did it give him some closure, or did it only intensify the pain of his loss?

I believe he is gaining some closure by taking this pilgrimage. He doesn't intend to ever be 'cured' of his love for her. He absolutely knows that this is the great love of his life. He only longs to understand it better -- to understand her as completely as he can. That's why he goes to see where she grew up, to understand how her environment might have shaped who she is and what she must have experienced in giving up Helstone to come to Milton. 

It's this quote from Gaskell that illuminates the depth of his connection to Margaret:

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.

(And note Gaskell's punctuation - the exclamation point after 'struggling' really socks you in the gut.)

What do you think of that quote? He's bound and determined to get through this, although he knows it's going to be a tremendous struggle, he expects he will nevertheless be enriched by this experience. He can never see his love for her as a negative thing, even though he's not able to have that love returned.

Here's another quote to elucidate his feelings on that score:

Yes! whatever happened to him, external to his relation to her, he could never have spoken of that time, when he could have seen her every day - when he had her within his grasp, as it were - as a time of suffering. It had been a royal time of luxury to him, with all its stings and contumelies....

So his walk in Helstone was to understand more of this great love. For though he could do nothing to lessen it or forget it, he could try to understand what it was -- who Margaret was -- and why she had affected him so.

I think it speaks of great maturity to seek this understanding. He's not wallowing in despair or self-pity. He's trying to move on by understanding what has happened to him.

How wonderful that all his steadfast devotion to what Margaret means to him is rewarded at the end of the story! His love is certainly profound. No garden variety type! Maybe that's what the one precious wild rose symbolized -- that unique beauty and glorious character that was Margaret.

 

[If you remember some of these words, you may have encountered these exact remarks before! This post is largely taken from my own comments on this topic from the C19 discussion board.]

 

Margaret Hale's been crying

Margaret Hale cries. A lot. Well, not in the BBC mini-series so much, but she cries an awful lot in Gaskell's book. Did you realize that? I knew there was much more lacrimal action going on in the book than the film ever portrays, but even I was surprised by my research on the subject.

She cries 31 times. Yes, I read the whole book and counted. Stay tuned, because a little later I'll be analyzing why and when Margaret Hale sheds tears throughout her trials in North and South. Complete with graphs and all.

And now you know how serious my North and South affliction is. But I'll assume that if you're reading this, you must have somewhat of a thing for North and South, too. 

What difference does it make whether Margaret cries or not? Let me tell you why I bothered to count her crying moments in the first place.

From the wide variety of comments, reviews, and summaries regarding North and South I've read over the years, I've regularly come across a strain of viewers/readers that tend to envision Margaret as the embodiment of more modern heroic ideals of feminine confidence and independence. This version of Margaret is always able to handle whatever comes her way, seldom or never breaks down, needs little or no aid from others, carves her own path in life, and seems always ready to give a piece of her mind to those who don't see the world as she does. 

And this view of an ever-strong and capable Margaret Hale is given a boost by the BBC's portrayal of Margaret, where we seldom see her at her most vulnerable moments. The 2004 mini-series conveniently avoids showing an unconscious Margaret being carried into the Thorntons' house. The adaptation also omits Margaret's collapse into unconsciousness following the intense questioning of the police inspector. We see Margaret cry once throughout the entire film version -- at her mother's death. Clearly, Margaret is made of pretty stern stuff. She seldom appears to lose control.

How did Margaret get from here ....

How did Margaret get from here ....

.... to here? The 2004 BBC adaptation will let you guess.

.... to here? The 2004 BBC adaptation will let you guess.

The 1975 adaptation doesn't skip over this very vulnerable moment.    

The 1975 adaptation doesn't skip over this very vulnerable moment.    

Why does this matter? Because the modern adaptation's choice to leave out moments when Margaret could appear weak, vulnerable, or over-emotional is a choice to present a more idealistic vision of female fortitude for twenty-first century viewers. And I'm ok with that for the most part; I really don't like the soppier version of Margaret presented in the 1975 adaptation. But I do think it's important to take a closer look at how Gaskell portrays Margaret so that we can get a more complete and realistic picture of the emotional turbulence going on in this nineteen year-old Victorian. (Margaret is only 19 during the height of the story's drama. See my timeline here.) 

The essential question we should ask is whether Margaret can be considered a model of strength despite the fact that she cries at times. Is crying a sign of weakness? Is it an embarrassing symbol of feminine sensitivity? Of incapacity or immaturity? 

Crying can become excessive and indicate shrinking fear, self-pity, or over-sensitivity that is not admirable. But if crying is something of an emotional release valve for those going through deep trials, then crying is wholly human; it indicates that we actually have a heart--which is a good thing. I'd be more wary of someone who doesn't cry in moments of extreme emotional anguish, grief, or despairing exhaustion. 

At the very least, we know that with all the crying going on, Margaret Hale indeed does have a heart -- even if she keeps it very well hidden from brooding cotton mill masters.

In my curiosity to see how many times Margaret cried, I marked each instance down and jotted a little note. Of course, categorizing and counting cries is hardly an objective task. What counts as a cry in my analysis? I counted not only clearly described sobbing and wet cheeks, but also when tears welled up and one instance in particular when she was "choking and swallowing" to fight back tears.

Why she cried was also my subjective judgement. I endeavored to interpret the reason she cried from the immediate procuring cause and any underlying cause that I perceived lurked behind the tears. We all cry for compounded reasons, but I tried to classify the predominant factor. For example, when Thornton comes to offer his condolences after her mother's death, he speaks so tenderly that he evokes tears from her. Is this a cry because of her mother's death or because his gentleness reminds her of her lost chances (she thinks) with him? I marked this cry as one caused by grief since it so closely followed the loss of her mother.

Now let's take a look at my categorization for why Margaret Hale shed tears throughout her three year trial in North and South

Reasons for Crying

The most shocking revelation from the above graph is that despite all the other reasons for crying: being ripped away from a beloved home, dealing with multiple deaths and unending family trials -- it's her strong feelings concerning John Thornton that's the number one reason she loses control of her emotions in the novel. She cries after Mrs. Thornton comes to chew her out, she cries when she confesses to her father that she rejected Thornton, and she cries when she explains to Mr. Bell what Mr. Thornton must think of her. 

When she Cries

And now for a very general overview of when Margaret cries throughout the story. There's not much surprise here. Margaret's problems started with that fatal day when Henry proposed and her father told her they were moving -- her trials only accumulated and intensified from there. After the proposal, just about every thing in her life is falling apart. 

Before and After Proposal Cries

Thornton's declaration of love is a reverberating climax, and it also conveniently marks the halfway point of the novel. It's not really a surprise that Margaret gets twice as tearful in the second half of this story because that's precisely when her troubles begin to compound and things get complicated. You can look at this graph also as a division of the BBC mini-series. Episodes 1 and 2 constitute the first half and episodes 3 and 4 follow the climactic midpoint: Thornton's proposal. And seriously, wouldn't you cry too if you declined Richard Armitage/John Thornton's offer of eternal devotion?!

So, back to my essential question -- can Margaret still be considered a admirable bastion of strength, even with all her moments of weeping and tear-filled eyes? You bet she can! Her emotional strength is impressive considering her age and the situations she is forced to deal with. How well would you hold up if you had to juggle fulfilling your mother's dying wish, preventing your father from slipping into depression, making maneuvers to keep your brother from dying a traitor's death while at the same time inadvertently screwing up your relationship with the man of your dreams? Oh, and your best friend dies about the same time as your mother. Good times, right?

I have to wonder how she even found the courage to get out of bed some mornings! I really admire her strength through the slew of non-stop trials she endures. She certainly demonstrates strength according to my view of the ideal, which includes the following aspects:

  • Ability to keep moving/acting even when some days you are just surviving instead of moving forward. The ability to keep going when everything seems to be falling apart.
  • Not succumbing to despair, bitterness.
  • Determination of individual purpose -- you define what you're living for.
  • Ability to put personal pleasure and ease aside in the endeavor to follow your ideals.
  • Rising to the occasion when others are incapable of leading.
  • Persisting in endeavoring to do what is right.

I can't help but think of other classic heroines who portrayed this kind of strength: Jane Eyre, Elinor Dashwood (Sense & Sensibility), Anne Elliot (Persuasion), and Molly Gibson (Wives & Daughters)

Do strong women cry? They certainly do.