The Fantastically Strong Women of North and South

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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 affect 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 affect others. Strong women create their own path in life.

Margaret picks up the slack in housework

Margaret picks up the slack in housework

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.

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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.ff

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:

Bessy Higgins

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.

Mary Higgins

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.

Maria Hale

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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?




The 7 scenes I wished were included in the BBC's "North and South"

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The 2004 film adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a masterpiece. I have only a few criticisms, one of them being that it was too short! There was time for more — an hour more in this world would have been wonderful.

As a lover of the book, I can’t help bemoaning the absence of a few of my favorite moments.

Here are some of the scenes that I wished this cast and crew could have filmed for me:

1 - Mrs. Hale running into her husband’s arms.

Although Aunt Shaw tells us that Richard and Maria Hale married for love, we never really see this affection played out. Mrs. Hale’s rather tentative and polite smile as she takes her husband’s hand in the adaptation isn’t terribly convincing. There’s a poignant moment in the book, though, where we catch a glimpse of the affectionate bond between them. It’s when Mr. Hale returns home after Margaret had been given the dirty work of telling her mother of her father’s decision to quit the clergy and move to Milton.

….he opened the room-door, and stood there uncertain whether to come in. His face was gray and pale; he had a timid, fearful look in his eyes; something almost pitiful to see in a man’s face; but that look of despondent uncertainty, of mental and bodily languor, touched his wife’s heart. She went to him, and threw herself on his breast, crying out: -

“Oh! Richard, Richard, you should have told me sooner!”

2 - Margaret sadly roaming the garden the night before she leaves her childhood home

The adaptation skips over so much of the beginning of the book, the viewer doesn’t truly get a full sense of how much strength it took for Margaret to come to Milton without crying for a week. I would have loved for the film to show Margaret busy packing crates of belongings while her mother languished in despair and her father busied himself in sorting his books — all this to give the viewer a sense that Margaret was the one who took over all the hard responsibility of moving.

But what would have been truly beautiful and poignant was if the film had showed Margaret walking through the property at twilight as she says her final goodbyes to the landscape she loves so well. Gaskell’s description of it in the book is very moving.

3 - Thornton carrying an unconscious Margaret up the stairs of his home

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Ok, so Gaskell doesn’t exactly describe how he feels as he carries Margaret up to his drawing-room, but can you imagine the powerful emotions pulsing through Thornton as he carries a lifeless Margaret up the stairs?! This has got to be one of the most dramatic scenes you could make from this film!

Seeing her injured and holding her body close to his is shattering all the remaining emotional barricades he has tried to form around his heart. As he climbs the stairs, powerful feelings must be compounding — and it all explodes into this:

He bore her into the dining-room, and laid her on the sofa there; laid her down softly, and looking on the pure white face, the sense of what she was to him came upon him so keenly that he spoke it out in his pain:

“Oh, my Margaret—my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to me! Dead — cold as you lie there, you are the only woman I ever loved! Oh, Margaret—Margaret!”

4 - Margaret pacing and crying in her room as she realizes she’s in love.

After Mrs. Thornton’s famous visit to give Margaret a tongue-lashing, Margaret runs upstairs to her room to sort out all the strong feelings rushing through her after the encounter. She realizes for the first time that Thornton thinks she’s in love with someone else—and she’s mightily distressed that he knows her to be a liar on top of it all! And so she finds herself crying as she gets ready to go out. Maybe in the film, she could whisper a few of her desperate thoughts to herself, to let the viewer know what turmoil is going on inside.

“I dare say, there’s many a woman makes as sad a mistake as I have done, and only finds it out too late. And how proudly and impertinently I spoke to him that day! But I did not know then. It has come upon me little by little, and I don’t know where it began….”

5 - Thornton being a comfort to Mr. Hale

The relationship between Mr. Hale and his would-be son-in-law is so beautifully portrayed in the book, I wanted to see more depth to this sweet bond shown in the film version. John is the only one Mr. Hale can really talk to during his great grief and these two men become very dear friends to each other. I would have loved to see just one brief scene in which Margaret sees her father clasp John’s hand as he is about to leave while Mr. Hale mentions how immeasurably better he feels after talking with him. Margaret’s awareness of how much her father loves and respects John, must be another binding reason for loving John.

“It was curious how the presence of Mr. Thornton had power over Mr. Hale to make him unlock the secret thoughts which he kept shut up even from Margaret…..Mr. Thornton said very little; but every sentence he uttered added to Mr. Hale’s reliance and regard for him. Was it that he paused in the expression of some remembered agony, Mr. Thornton’s two or three words would complete the sentence, and show how deeply its meaning was entered into….Man of action as he was, busy in the world’s great battle, there was a deeper religion binding him to God in his heart, in spite of his strong willfulness, through all his mistakes, than Mr. Hale had ever dreamed.”

6 - Thornton coming to dinner at Aunt Shaw’s house

This is the scene I long most to see on film! When Thornton comes to dinner in London, he and Margaret have not seen each other for over a year. The emotional tension is incredible as each of them strives to act as though this meeting again isn’t causing tremors of pent-up anguish within them. But alas, the internal agony slips into view for a brief moment from John. And Gaskell captures the moment so well, it’s just gut-wrenching. THIS is a moment Richard Armitage would have absolutely nailed. It would have been so brilliant to see this scene performed by the 2004 cast.

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“…Margaret was watching Mr. Thornton’s face. He never looked at her; so she might study him unobserved, and note the changes which even this short time had wrought in him. Only at some unexpected mot of Mr. Lennox’s, his face flashed out into the old look of intense enjoyment; the merry brightness returned to his eyes, the lips just parted to suggest the brilliant smile of former days; and for an instant, his glance instinctively sought hers, as if he wanted her sympathy. But when their eyes met, his whole countenance changed; he was grave and anxious once more; and he resolutely avoided even looking near her again during dinner.”

7 - The kiss in Aunt Shaw’s back drawing-room.

I cannot criticize the final scene of the adaptation. It’s romantic film history. The symbolism and the drama is perfect. Do I care that it’s a public display of affection and would never have happened? No, it’s too romantically perfect to condemn. And I never shall.

However, if all my dreams were fulfilled, I’d love to see an alternate ending that follows that London dinner scene — the book’s more intimate ending, where the wall of misunderstanding crumbles down in private, without Henry’s peering glare!

What I miss most is the playful teasing between these two serious souls that turns into that toe-tingling tender-passionate first kiss that we all have watched a hundred times from the film. I’m imagining that very same kiss as Gaskell’s “delicious silence” — but in that elegant, private sphere where no one interrupts them. Although I can imagine that without that train whistle to interrupt things, it might be very hard to stop indeed!

What favorite moments from the book do you wish were included in the film version?