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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?