Henry Lennox

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.

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....