What if Margaret never married?

Mourning Margaret.jpg

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?


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.


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.

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....