Me on podcast + thoughts on Fanny Thornton

I got to guest on a podcast! Thanks to the Bonnets at Dawn podcasters, I was honored to speak about my North and South passion with Lauren Burke, who is the Team Bronte host. Bonnets at Dawn are active on Facebook and Twitter as well, and they’ve only recently discovered the magic of Gaskell’s story.

I loved chatting with Lauren, and nearly forgot our conversation was being recorded for a podcast! We talked about how I found North and South and what my favorite characters are, among other things.

I was truly surprised that Lauren was interested in talking about Fanny since I’ve never been that intrigued by her. Fanny Thornton always appeared to me as one of Gaskell’s most shallow characters. I see Gaskell using her as a comparison figure - to her hardworking brother, to the socially compassionate Margaret, and to her austere and tough-as-nails mother. Fanny is also, like Edith, a symbol of the self-consumed behavior of those in a position of wealth and leisure.


I’ve followed conversations about Fanny on C19 years ago. The debate on Fanny seems to always come down to nature or nurture: is Fanny the way she is by nature or did her upbringing mold her into the person she is? Was she coddled too much in those early years? Or was she always going to turn out to be self-centered and rather weak-minded?

Here’s what her own mother thinks of her daughter:

“Mrs. Thornton…had an unconscious contempt for a weak character; and Fanny was weak in the very points which her mother and brother were strong….she felt instinctively that nothing could strengthen Fanny to endure hardships patiently, or face difficulties bravely; and though she winced as she made this acknowledgement to herself about her daughter, it only gave her a kind of pitying tenderness of manner towards her; much of the same description of demeanor with which mothers are wont to treat their weak and sickly children.”

I have to wonder if Gaskell uses Hannah Thornton’s assessment of Fanny as a true observation, or if the reader is meant to realize that Hannah has standards that most people will never meet.

Certainly, part of Hannah’s passionate love for her son is that he lives up to all her expectations. Fanny doesn’t. She’ll never be as good as John. Even Hannah feels uncomfortable knowing that she doesn’t love her equally, which is why she makes an effort to call Fanny endearing names — to make up for the lack of adoration she can’t help but pour on John.

So yes, I feel compassion for Fanny. She’s had to live under her brother’s shadow all her life. Her mother never loved her as much. Can she feel that? Does she resent it?

What I don’t really have much compassion about is how Fanny somehow learns to only care about herself. Was it the treatment of being protected and pampered as a child? Did she never see how hard her brother and mother worked and sacrificed to provide for her? Is she ever grateful?

Fanny is phenomenal as comic relief in the film! Joy Joyner was hilarious in the part.

Fanny is phenomenal as comic relief in the film! Joy Joyner was hilarious in the part.

What makes Fanny a character I can’t warm to is that I can’t find any clues in the book that she really loves anyone. From the mini-series, the way she turns on her brother at his lowest point is especially cruel— even digging in a comment about his chances of marriage to sink him lower.

And I understand that she’s suffered her whole life with her mum and brother dismissing her. Still, it’s hard for me to give her the benefit of the doubt when she fails to show any interest in what her brother and mother have done for her.

Maybe I’m being too harsh in judging her. After all, Fanny’s still just a teenager. It’s not at all uncommon for wealthier teenagers to be wrapped up in their own world — scarcely cognizant of all the things their parents do to make their lives easy. Maybe Fanny will mature some day, and become more engaged with the world in something purposeful. (There is a fan fiction story about Fanny’s life available by request at C19.)

As Lauren mentions in the podcast, she was more interested in studying Fanny as a nouveau riche character in the Industrial Era. Was Fanny more typical of this up-and-coming class?

Maybe Fanny is more fascinating than I thought! What are your thoughts on Fanny Thornton?

North and South by the Numbers

The BBC’s Hannah Thornton, writing those dinner invitations

The BBC’s Hannah Thornton, writing those dinner invitations

2 miles — the route from the Hales’ house to Marlborough Mills

5% — the raise the workers demand

5 shillings — the weekly amount the union pays each worker during the strike

5 hours — how long Higgins waits to speak to Thornton about getting work

6 — how many children Boucher has, all under 8 years old


7 to 8 years — how long it’s been since Margaret has seen Fred

8 years — how much older Mr. Hale is than his wife

9 to 10 shillings — what Higgins might earn for a week’s worth of spading in the South

10 hours — the work day for the mill hands

10 years — the time Margaret spent living with Aunt Shaw and Edith before Edith married

14 months — how much younger Dolores (Fred’s wife) is compared to Margaret

15 shillings — Thornton’s first weekly wage as a draper’s assistant

16 years — how long ago George Thornton committed suicide

Dead Bessy.jpg

18 years — Margaret’s age in the opening chapter

19 years — Bessy’s age when she dies

£30 a year — the rent the Hales could afford in Milton

44 — Nicholas Higgins’ age

55 — Mr. Hale’s age

60 — Mr. Bell says he’s “upwards of 60”

96 — the street address of the Harley Street house

£170 — the Hales’ yearly income, 70£ of which went to Fred

large mill room.jpg

220 square yards — one of the rooms at the Marlborough Mills factory

£250 a year — what Margaret pays Aunt Shaw for her keep in London as an heiress

700 men — the number of workers Higgins says will come to work as soon as they get their raise

£18,057 — the amount Margaret offers to Thornton

£42,000 — Margaret’s inheritance from Mr. Bell (£40,000 of it in property value)

clasped hands.jpg

And what would Margaret’s offer to Thornton be worth today in dollars?

…. roughly $1,800,000. Nearly a cool 2 million!

In Defense of Gentleness

Circumstances have led me to look for full-time work after nearly twenty years of being a stay-at-home mother. At a recent job interview, they asked a very typical question: what are your best qualities?  

The answer came tumbling out of me: "I'm gentle." Where did that word come from? I knew as soon as I'd said it, that it was the wrong thing to say. I thought immediately of a few close synonyms: 'kind' or 'friendly'. But no, I said gentle. Gentle? Who even uses this word anymore? When is the last time you heard someone list "gentleness" as one of their strengths? How often is gentleness listed as a virtue to strive for? It's actually perceived as a weakness in some competitive, prove-yourself circles.

Dandelion Allison Photo.jpg

When the word 'gentleness' is mentioned, how many of us think of children, infants, or pets?Smaller, weaker beings need someone to be gentle with them, to care for them. Women -- themselves considered to be weaker creatures in comparison to men-- have long been the caretakers of children and infants. Thus it seems natural to attribute gentleness as a feminine attribute; we are the gentler sex. But does gentleness necessarily equate with weakness?

Far from it, gentleness requires great strength. Gentleness, true gentleness -- not forced politeness -- is love. Gentleness is evoked from caring about or considering the condition of another. It has a foundation in unselfish love. This is its strength. For it takes no intelligence or self-command at all to follow our selfish, base impulses. Gentleness, however, demands a mastery over self. It puts aside self-absorption to care about others. The determination to be gentle in this world isn't easy. It takes practice.

I could go on speaking of the nature and value of gentleness without mentioning a word about North and South. But I find that whatever topic I find vital to life, I ususally find woven into the fabric of Elizabeth Gaskell's story. And indeed, gentleness is a foundational factor in Gaskell's treatment of John Thornton. Gaskell uses the word "tender" to describe an essential component of John Thornton's character. She explains in a letter to a friend that in writing her novel she wanted to "keep his character consistent with itself, and large and strong and tender, and yet a master."

Hannah softens at the bedside of the dying Mrs. Hale

Hannah softens at the bedside of the dying Mrs. Hale

In Thornton, the gentleness is all the more beautiful because its so carefully guarded. But it comes pouring out when he can't help himself: in bringing fruit to Mrs. Hale, in speaking soft words of condolence to Margaret, in ensuring that his financial stress does not explode into harshness with his employees. 

Mrs. Thornton looks down upon any signs and signals of weakness. "She had an unconscious contempt for a weak character." The softer virtues verge on weakness in her mind, so she attempts to keep her tender emotions sealed up behind a steely exterior. It's especially touching, then, when her "icy crust" melts enough to reveal the tenderness inside.

John Thornton follows his mother's practice in attempting to hide his gentleness.

He had tenderness in his heart -- 'a soft place,' as Nicholas Higgins called it; but he had some pride in concealing it; he kept it very sacred and safe, and was jealous of every circumstance that tried to gain admission.
The BBC's John Thornton has a tender moment with Boucher's son.

The BBC's John Thornton has a tender moment with Boucher's son.

Truly, it's the gentleness in Thornton, in Margaret, in Mr. Hale, and in Higgins that  make me admire them so fervently. I admire gentleness in characters. They cannot rise to greatness in my estimation without it. This is why Colonel Brandon , Gabriel Oak (Far from the Madding Crowd), and Roger Hamley (Wives and Daughters) are my some of my favorite literary heroes. There's so much gentleness in these men. It's their greatest power.

So why hide our gentleness? Why be ashamed of it? We should be enthusiastically committed to gentleness in our everyday lives. Make gentleness an attribute that great men and women attain and exhibit. 

With all the harsh, violent emotions swirling in the world today, I champion gentleness as a greater strength. It takes self-discipline and humility to meet every circumstance with a resolution to firm kindness. Being gentle means being constantly aware that your individual actions have the power to affect all those you come into contact with.

Let's not hide gentleness, but get better at practicing it. Especially when it's difficult to do so. And we should be gentle with ourselves as well while we're at it.

About that job I applied for? I didn't get it. But I'll never change my determination to be a force for gentleness in the world.

Here's my gentleness battle cry, from the words of a hymn I've always dearly loved:

Speak gently, it is better far To rule by love than fear;
Speak gently, let no harsh word mar The good we may do here.
Speak gently to the erring ones, They must have toiled in vain;
Perchance unkindness made them so; O win them back again.
Speak gently, 'tis a little thing, Dropped in the heart's deep well;
The good, the joy that it may bring, Eternity shall tell.
(poem by David Bates)

John Thornton's Wedding


As a hopeless romantic, I can't help grinning with satisfaction when a good love story ends with a wedding! It is rather ironic, then, that my favorite romantic story, North and South, contains no such traditional conclusion. Although Gaskell meticulously describes all the heart-pounding moments that lead up to John and Margaret's discovery of their mutual feelings, she leaves us to imagine for ourselves all the complications that will be involved in arranging the marriage between the London heiress and the former master of Marlborough Mills. Is there anyone who hasn't imagined something of the scenes to follow that abrupt ending? 

What happens next and where they marry will differ depending upon whether the last scene in your mind includes a little delictable kissing on a northbound train or some time of "delicious silence" in Aunt Shaw's back drawing room. No matter which ending you choose, there are still some rather sticky matters the lovebirds will have to handle:

  • Telling Aunt Shaw and Edith
  • Telling Mrs. Thornton and Fanny
  • Deciding where to marry
  • Deciding when to wed
From the BBC adaptation, Fanny gets married. This church is St John at Hampstead (north London).

From the BBC adaptation, Fanny gets married. This church is St John at Hampstead (north London).

I can't think of a fan fiction story that doesn't have them marry fairly quickly. And that seems entirely natural since both these individuals are passionate and decisive. Neither of them will care about whether or not the wedding is elaborate.

According to the span of events in the book (see my N&S timeline here), by the time these two lonely souls come to an understanding, two whole years have passed since John first proposed to Margaret! After such a lengthy and angst-ridden separation on both their parts, I cannot fathom them waiting any longer than a month to arrange a wedding. They could wait three weeks for the banns to be read at Margaret's parish or John could purchase a special license to let them marry even earlier. I'm certain John would prefer the latter!

Where to marry wouldn't be a very difficult decision if the engaged couple were to follow custom. It would be traditional for the bride to be married in the parish the bride resided in. So to follow the book's ending, John would most likely return home Milton and then come back a few weeks later to marry in the London church where Margaret has long attended. This is indeed what takes place in the best sequel to the book I've ever found, Pack Clouds Away. (This wonderful fan fiction can only be found at

Most fan fiction weddings, however, happen in Milton. And this is where things get a little more tricky. Margaret is no longer member of a parish there, and we know that John is not Church of England. So do they marry in John's church? [Gaskell is purposely vague about what church the Thorntons might attend, although she does throw in that Mrs. Thornton studies a Presbyterian Bible commentary, Matthew Henry's Commentaries.] Since both John and Margaret are devout Christians, a civil ceremony would feel incomplete. 

MOIRE SILK WEDDING GOWN, 1855-1860. (from

MOIRE SILK WEDDING GOWN, 1855-1860. (from

There are many versions of John and Margaret's wedding in Milton. The Mistress of Marlborough Mills and True North (both at C19) have Milton weddings. Elaine Owen's Common Ground and Nancy Klein's How Far the World Will Bend also have Milton weddings, although the circumstances behind each are entirely different!

I enjoyed creating an entirely different wedding scene in A Heart for Milton by having them marry in Helstone. I wanted Margaret to marry in her childhood home, where her father had been vicar for so many years. And of course I couldn't resist the romantic country setting. I'm not sure there are any other variations that have the wedding take place in Helstone.

Although I haven't read it yet, I'm told Nicole Clarkston's No Such Thing as Luck has neither a London, Milton nor a Helstone wedding! You'll have to read it to find out all about this unique wedding scene.

Tell me your thoughts on John and Margaret's wedding, and share you favorite fan fiction weddings!

Was John Thornton a "Mama's Boy"?

The BBC's Hannah Thornton comforts her son.

The BBC's Hannah Thornton comforts her son.

This month, I'm taking a closer look at one of the most fascinating mother-son relationships in romantic literature. 

My immediate response to the occasional accusation that John Thornton is a mama's boy is a vehement "no," but then again there is a very strong bond between John and his mother. The trials they suffered and conquered together forged a deep trust and admiration between them. There's something profound about a relationship between two people who have endured deep waters together. If a strong bond between mother and son makes a man a "mama's boy" then perhaps he is one.

So what exactly is a mama's boy? According to Merriam-Webster, a mama's boy is "a usually polite or timid boy or man who is extremely or excessively close to and solicitous of his mother."  Well, that doesn't sound too condemning, does it? Although I hardly think the term "timid" applies to Thornton's general nature, nor do I think he's excessively solicitous of his mother. 

I'm guessing that part of the reason one would call Thornton a mama's boy is the fact that he and his mother still live in the same home. From a modern American point of view, a man of Thornton's age shouldn't be living with his mother. But there's a very great distinction to made in the fact that Thornton isn't living in the old family homestead, still tethered to his mother's apron strings. His mother is living in the home that he worked hard to provide for his family. She's living with him, not the other way around. And it would be perfectly normal for Thornton to take care of his widowed mother in this way at that time. 

But what about all the negative connotations that go with the term 'mama's boy'? It's meant to be derogative, isn't it? Oh yes, and the derogative meaning of the term comes to light when Merriam-Webster goes on to explain the meaning of the phrase for English language learners:  

a boy or man who is seen as weak because he is controlled or protected too much by his mother.

Ouch! That strikes at a man's masculinity and sense of independence. And the Oxford Dictionary isn't much nicer in their definition of  'mummy's boy:'

 a boy or man who is excessively influenced by or attached to his mother.

I revolt against these more demeaning definitions.  Is a mama's boy defined by how he acts or how his mother acts? Or is it a combination of both? I concede that on Hannah's part, she is excessively attached to and vehemently protective of her son. John is her heart's pride and joy. The world revolves around him in her view. But the center of John's universe has become his work, not his mother.

Although "excessively influenced" by his mother might have defined him in his teenage years, I don't see Thornton influenced by his mother's opinions as a man. In fact, there are several instances in the book where we see that Thornton makes his own decisions, despite his mother's strong opinions. She thinks John is wasting his time studying the classics with Mr. Hale. And when Mr. Bell asks if Mrs. Thornton helps with the workers dining hall, Thornton replies: 

Not a bit .... She disapproves of the whole plan, and now we never mention it to each other.

Clearly, John moves forward with whatever he thinks is important without his mother's approval.

Don't go.jpg

As for controlling her son, there's only one instance in the story where Hannah stops him from doing what he intends to -- when she asks him not to go to see Margaret the night of the riot.

And he doesn't. It's the only time we see him abide by her demands.

don't go 2.jpg

However much Hannah would like to be in control of her son's social agenda, it's John who controls his mother. He must demand that his mother and sister go call on Mrs. Hale and Margaret, even though Hannah and Fanny put up quite a bit of resistance. And is there any doubt that it was John who requested the Hales be invited to the Thornton dinner party? Months later, he asks his mother to go offer womanly counsel to Margaret.

Hannah's attempts to influence her son against falling for Margaret, taking up the classics, and working more sympathetically with his workers all fall flat. If anything, I see John shaping and molding his mother throughout the book. He refuses to let her unbending ways keep his thought from expanding into new realms, and prods her into at least outwardly following his sense of kindness to the Hales. 

I like to think that Hannah mellows, her heart softens, and her defensive barriers lower little by little as she watches her son's happiness and contentment grow as a husband and father. And when those grandchildren come on the scene, Hannah can indulge all her fervent watchfulness, protective solicitude, and bursting pride upon the new little creatures of her son's lineage. 

What do you think of Hannah's influence on her grown son?

John Thornton's treatment of women

Where would John Thornton fit in today's #MeToo movement? As head of Milton's largest cotton mill, Mr. Thornton is in a position of authority and power over 700 workers, including women and children. But there's nothing in Gaskell's North and South to suggest he has ever abused his power in pursuing women or girls in his employ. 

And Gaskell doesn't shy away from telling about men who prey on girls. In Mary Barton, the son of a mill owner does indeed take advantage of his wealth and position to pursue a working class girl. He has no intention of marrying her, although "having" her would ruin her in the eyes of strict Victorian culture. And then, of course, there's the predatory young man of the gentry class who pursues and ruins a working class seamstress in Ruth.

We can discern what kind of a man Thornton is in this regard largely by what he doesn't do in comparison to these other despicable Gaskell men, but also by how he treats all the women we see him interact with in North and South.

Mrs. Thornton and Fanny

The BBC's John Thornton at home with his family.

The BBC's John Thornton at home with his family.

Is there any other classic romantic hero who is surrounded by females at home? Thornton has had the strong guidance and support of his mother through the harsh years of poverty and social exclusion following his father's suicide. For years, Thornton had only his mother and his sister for his companions through the defining trials of his young life. Through the incredible fortitude and determination of his mother and the frailer, self-absorbed nature of his sister Fanny, John knows firsthand both the amazing capabilities and more traditional failings of womanhood.

Remember the old adage that assures that you can judge how a man will treat his wife by how he treats his mother? Although not necessarily true, there's much to be said by carefully observing how a man treats his mother. In Thornton's case, he makes it quite clear that he admires and respects the foundational moral guidance his mother gave him. He knows it was pivotal to the entire direction of his life:

I had such a mother as few are blest with; a woman of strong power, and firm resolve...My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings, our of which three people had to be kept. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.

He speaks to his mother as an equal, and admires her for her strong character. He has less patience with Fanny's pettiness and self-coddling and has to command her to go visit Mrs. Hale and Margaret, acting like a father figure when necessary. But he also shows a father-like tenderness of heart in spoiling her -- allowing her to have a rather lavish wedding when she marries, despite the mill's unstable financial condition.

Mrs. Hale

Mrs. Hale receives some of the best fruit money can buy in Milton.

Mrs. Hale receives some of the best fruit money can buy in Milton.

Mr. Thornton is deeply jarred to discover the seriousness of Mrs. Hale's condition from Dr. Donaldson. He hand-selects the finest fruit he can find to help ease her suffering. Despite being rejected the day before, he can't help wanting to offer a token of kindness and sympathy to his tutor's wife.






There's a little-known story related in the book about how John and his mother acted benevolently toward a young woman whose father (a friend of the late George Thornton) had fallen into financial difficulty. Martha, who works as a servant for both the Thorntons and the Hales, tells Margaret that she and her sister "would have been 'lost' but for Mrs. Thornton; who sought them out, and thought for them, and cared for them." 

I had the fever, and was but delicate; and Mrs. Thornton, and Mr. Thornton too, they never rested till they had nursed me up in their own house, and sent me to the sea and all. (Chapter 41)


One of the truly remarkable things about Thornton's treatment of Margaret, is his respectful interest in her as a moral thinker. Although it's clear he's attracted to her physically from the very first, his interest in her mind is evident in the way he eagerly listens to her. As a leader of Milton industry, he could have easily been dismissive of what a young woman has to say about the management of his workers and the social imperatives of his position. But he wants to know what she is thinking and we find him asking her for her opinion at various points in the book.

We know his intentions toward the vicar's daughter are honorable. He wants to make her his wife, but she won't have him. At least not at first...

Looking for Margaret's opinion.

Looking for Margaret's opinion.

John Thornton appears to be set apart from the traditional male model of the time period. He shows no sign of using women for personal pleasure (see my article Was Thornton a Virgin?) or for social or material advancement. He's not looking at women as tools for his use at all. 

The Lennox brothers, by contrast, reveal elements of the traditional mindset. Henry Lennox assumes he can mold Margaret into supporting his interests. Edith's husband is eager for his wife to always look her best for his own possessive vanity and self-satisfaction. Women are a subordinate accompaniment for men, a side acquisition of sorts that men can train to suit themselves.

Thornton thinks more deeply about individual human value. In his discourse with Margaret concerning the usage of the term "gentleman" he explains that "a man is to me a higher and completer being than a gentleman" and implies that the highest indicator of a man's character and worth is not found in a comparison to others, but in the proof of his own endurance, strength and faith.

And gathering all the evidence of Thornton's dealings with the women around him, I believe he'd evaluate women the same way: that their value is not based upon their relation to others -- husbands, fathers, etc. --- but upon their own merits. Women are individuals, not props or playthings.

He'd make a great modern man. 

My Favorite Romantic Literary Heroes

These are the men who made me feel their pain when the course of love did not run smoothly. Both in the book and on film, these are the guys who suffered long and silently before finally winning their one true love. I adore a tortured hero, one whose devotion endures through much tribulation. So these few are my absolute favorite book-to-screen Valentines.

Who is your favorite literary Valentine?

John Thornton

Margaret may not have looked back, but we couldn't stop staring at this forlorn face. (Richard Armitage as the BBC's John Thornton in  North and South )

Margaret may not have looked back, but we couldn't stop staring at this forlorn face. (Richard Armitage as the BBC's John Thornton in North and South)

Of course. Who else could possibly top John Thornton? No one reveals the agonized longing to be loved like Thornton -- both in prose and in smoldering looks. Thornton will always be my King of Hearts.


Master of the Smoldering Stare

Dad-approved Spouse Material

 Kisser Extraordinaire

Edward Rochester

As tempestuous, rugged, and sublime as nature itself. (Toby Stephens as the BBC's Edward Rochester in  Jane Eyre )

As tempestuous, rugged, and sublime as nature itself. (Toby Stephens as the BBC's Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre)

He's moody and a bit unpredictable, but once he's smitten by Jane, his passion and devotion are unwavering. Caught in an impossible situation, he makes a desperate attempt to secure his happiness. I love Rochester's good side: the man who was tricked into marrying a woman that swiftly slid into insanity but still took care of her; the man who took care of a bastard child not his own. His yearning to align his life with the good and pure Jane is heartrending. Whenever he calls out "Jane!" my heart does a little flip.


Top Jokester

Skeleton in the Closet Winner

Most Likely to be Burned by Life (and fire!) Award 


Col. Brandon

A gentle kindness pervades this man's every word and act. (Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon in Sony Pictures'  Sense and Sensibility )

A gentle kindness pervades this man's every word and act. (Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon in Sony Pictures' Sense and Sensibility)

I adore Col. Brandon's quiet selflessness. Patient, meek, but all the while a strong and reliable force for good -- I can't help thinking what a fool Marianne is for overlooking this gleaming gem of a man. 


Sweetest Man in the Shire

Reliable to the Core

Will Buy You a Piano Even if You Snub Him Award

Gabriel Oak

Holding in his pain one last moment. (Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak in  Far from the Madding Crowd)

Holding in his pain one last moment. (Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd)

Gabriel Oak is the anti-Alpha male, which is why I really, really love him. Here is a man who patiently puts others' concerns largely over his own and is as steady and constant in his affection, purpose, and duty as any hero of more ostentatious fame or nobility. He's not rich, but has a character of gold.


Nature Boy (Excellent with sheep)

Won't Lie to You Award

Still Loves You Even if You Marry an Idiot Award