I'm having a lot of fun watching an Austen & Brönte group discover the depths of Gaskell's book for the first time. There's a great discussion of the first ten chapters of North and South on the Bonnets at Dawn podcast (Apple audio here; SoundCloud playlist here). I'm always intrigued to see what the opinions are about who is to blame for the sad state of the Hales' marriage.
The opening chapters of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South give us plenty to consider regarding the choices involved in selecting a life partner. The reasons for marrying -- whether it is love, security, money, status -- inevitably affect who is chosen as a spouse. We get a glimpse of three different situations: Edith's marriage, Aunt Shaw's, and the marriage of Margaret's parents.
It's the Hale marriage, however, that Gaskell lets us get a deeper look at when Margaret returns to Helstone. The reader hopes that Margaret is taking mental notes of all the errors her parents have made. In case she hasn't consciously recognized these deadly mistakes for what they've done, I've composed a handy list for anyone wanting to avoid desperate anguish and loneliness in marriage. This rather snarky guide will help you (and Margaret) know what NOT to do:
- Complain. There's always something your spouse should have done to improve your situation. Let them know you're not satisfied with their chosen work position and your current locale.
- Discourage your spouse from sharing their deepest interests with you. Best to wrinkle your nose when they want to include you in their joy and send them off to their study instead.
- Keep secrets. Hide vital information that will affect your spouse's life to yourself as long as possible. Don't let them know you're quitting your job and moving the family across the country until a few weeks beforehand. And if you discover you have a terminal disease, pass it off as just a distressing malaise.
- Have a close friend who constantly harps on your spouse. These close confidants can reliably remind you how much you deserved so much better.
As the Bonnets at Dawn podcasters would say, I'm firmly Team Mr. Hale. Although I recognize the faults in both these characters, I find myself less compassionate for Maria Hale's unhappiness because she is the one who had social and material wealth ambitions that made her dissatisfied. She knowingly married "beneath" her lifestyle as Sir John's ward, so it seems unjust for her to complain later in her marriage about the simpler life of a vicar's wife.
I'm always trying to discover what the bigger picture is that Gaskell may be trying to paint; in regard to Maria's discontent, I believe Gaskell is challenging her class-consumed Victorian readers to consider what values are truly important. Was it a calamity that Maria couldn’t have a fancier life although she lived in a picturesque hamlet with a gentle-hearted man for a husband? Was status and stuff worth fretting her life away?
It's rather sad to see Maria unhappy in the middle of that lovely setting. She had a good situation, just not grand. She could have been happy, but she wanted what she didn’t have instead.
In contrast to the discontent expressed in Maria's marriage, Georgette Heyer describes a very similar marriage in Arabella in which a country vicar's wife is satisfied with her lot:
The living ... was respectable, being worth some three hundred pounds a year....The Vicar, himself the son of a landed gentleman, had married the beautiful Miss Theale, who might have been expected to have done better for herself than to have thrown her cap over the windmill for a mere younger son, however handsome he might be. Indeed, it had been commonly said at the time that she had married to disoblige her family, and might, if she had chosen, have caught a baronet on her hook. Instead she had fallen in love with Henry Tallant at first sight. Since his birth was genteel, and her parents had other daughter to dispose of, she had been permitted to have her way; and apart from wishing sometimes that the living were worth more...she had never given anyone reason to suppose that she regretted her choice. To be sure, she would have liked to have installed into the Parsonage one of the new water-closets, and a Patent Kitchen Range...but she was a sensible woman, and even when the open fire in the kitchen smoked, and the weather made a visit to the existing water-closet particularly disagreeable, she realized that she was a great deal happier with her [husband] than ever she could have been with that almost forgotten baronet.
Perhaps the saddest thing Gaskell reveals about the Hale marriage, is the simple description of how they slowly disengaged with one another.
Mrs. Hale had never cared much for books, and had discouraged her husband, very early in their married life, in his desire of reading aloud to her, while she worked.
...as Mr. Hale grew to take an increasing interest in his school and his parishioners, he found that the interruptions which arose out of these duties were regarded as hardships by his wife, not to be accepted as the natural conditions of his profession, but to be regretted and struggled against by her as they severally arose. So he withdrew, while the children were yet young, into his library, to spend his evenings (if he were at home), in reading the speculative and metaphysical books which were his delight.
My sympathy goes to Mr. Hale for wanting to share his passion with his wife, and being snubbed. Maybe it was his fault for choosing someone who was never really into books?
As for Dixon, I think the damage she caused the Hales' marriage can hardly be overestimated. Imagine the distress of having someone living in your home who continually badmouths you to your spouse! It would be like housing the enemy. Dixon would have been a better friend to Maria had she encouraged her to be happy instead of reminding her of what she “deserved” because of the happenstance of her birth.
Of course all this doesn't justify Mr. Hale's negligence in letting his wife know of his decision to leave his position. But I can see how he avoided this conversation like the plague. Mr. Hale is extremely averse to upsetting anyone, so he avoids communicating with his wife--knowing how unhappy she will be:
"Margaret, I am a poor coward after all. I cannot bear to give pain. I know so well your mother's married life has not been all she hoped -- all she had a right to expect -- and this will be such a blow to her, I have never had the heart, the power to tell her.
...the idea of her distress turns me sick with dread."
Was it Mr. Hale's responsibility to move up the career ladder in getting a larger parish if he was perfectly happy in Helstone? Would Maria have been happier in a small town? At what level of wealth would she have been satisfied? These are hard questions to answer.
As in real life, marriage is a complex arrangement, and it takes dedication to keep both partners relatively happy. I like to imagine that Margaret does indeed learn something from her parents mistakes, and is perfectly aware of what will and won't make her happy when she condescends to leave the luxury of London to marry a Milton manufacturer!