Hannah Thornton

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 affects 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 affects 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.

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?




Marrying for love in North & South

Elizabeth Gaskell begins her novel with one wedding and ends it with the imminent prospect of another. In the opening pages, eighteen year-old Margaret Hale is caught up in the flurry of preparations for Edith's forthcoming wedding. And by the end of chapter two, Gaskell has depicted the general outcome of two marriages (the Shaws and the Hales). Clearly, Gaskell has something to say on the subject of choosing a life match. And well she should, since her heroine has arrived at the threshold of the marriage mart and will need to navigate her way through two unexpected proposals and the possibility of spinsterhood.

Should one marry for money or love? This appears to be the rather stark choice presented to every Victorian girl. Gaskell gives us a glimpse into the result of both choices by comparing two sisters. 

Margaret's Aunt Shaw married for money. She chose to marry a man she didn't love who was much older. She has every material comfort and no financial woes.  Aunt Shaw romanticizes the concept of marrying for love and insists that Edith marry for love. Regularly complaining of the age disparity in her marriage of convenience, Anna Shaw imagines that her sister must be happy:

'Married for love, what can dearest Maria have to wish for in this world?' Mrs. Hale, if she spoke truth, might have answered with a ready-made list, ' a silver-gray glacé silk, a white chip bonnet, oh! dozens of things...."
the BBC's Maria and Richard Hale

the BBC's Maria and Richard Hale

Mrs. Hale married for love, but has found it difficult to be happy with the modest income and somewhat isolated life of a country parson's wife. She complains that her husband hasn't risen to a more profitable and socially satisfying position. 

Gaskell doesn't present a clear winner out of either of these two marriages. Is there any hope that her protagonist, Margaret Hale, will find some kind of happily-ever-after? How should she choose a life partner?

The answer may lie in looking a little closer at what "marrying for love" may mean in different cases.

Mr Hale and his wife may have been in love, but they don't seem well suited to each other on an intellectual level. Gaskell points out that early on in their marriage, Mr Hale wanted to spend time reading aloud to his wife but that she was annoyed with it. Thus, he began to retreat to his study and read alone. 

So, in finding a good match, it's best to match both hearts and minds. It's important to find someone who engages your mind and enjoys similar pursuits or you may find your marital bond weakening instead of strengthening.

Henry Lennox gets a "no" from Margaret.

Henry Lennox gets a "no" from Margaret.

Margaret's rejection of Henry Lennox tells us much about what she expects, consciously or unconsciously, from marriage. When Henry asks if he may still hope that she may someday accept him as a lover, she is "silent for a minute or two, trying to discover the truth as it was in her own heart." Ultimately, she couldn't say "yes" when her heart said "no." She clearly intends to marry for love. Henry is a good catch for her, according to the prevalent assumptions of what a girl should aim for, yet she wasn't at all tempted to accept. 

Marriage isn't even on Margaret's mind at the time Henry proposes. She doesn't seem to be worried about who or when she'll marry at all. She's just happy to return to her home in Helstone. Securing a comfortable position as someone's wife isn't on her current agenda.

Someone else in this story also doesn't appear to be thinking about finding a spouse: John Thornton. He hasn't been making any plans or showing any interest in the ladies that his mother says are pursuing him. 

What are John's expectations of marriage? There's no indication that he had planned on marrying at all. He has been too occupied with his work. 

What was the model of marriage his parents left for him? We can only surmise that Hannah Thornton may have loved her husband, however much pain his suicide caused her. She wears black, the color of mourning, years after first becoming a widow. She has kept with pride the Dutch damask napkins with her husband's initials, given as a wedding present, through all the years of hardship. She never speaks unkindly of him or seems to blame him with bitterness.

If it's possible, then, that Thornton recalls his parents' marriage as one based on real affection, then it's certain that Fanny was too young to remember anything of her mother's marriage at all. Fanny doesn't appear to have any other aim than to marry well according to social status and wealth. She, like Aunt Shaw, chooses to marry a rich, older man.

It's fascinating to watch how Margaret and John  discover that they have found someone that they want to marry -- someone who engages their heart and their mind -- when marriage had been the furthest thing from their minds! 

John Thornton also gets a "no."

John Thornton also gets a "no."

It's a rocky road to love. Margaret is compelled to say "no" to the second offer of love she receives because she isn't aware that she is falling in love with the Milton master yet. Too much confusion. 

And by the end of the novel, when Margaret tells Edith she will never marry, the reader knows it's because she will not compromise on marriage. She will marry for love, or not at all. And she believes that the door to marital bliss has been closed forever for her.

And that mistake is all cleared up in the last two pages....