Sally Minogue looks at North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is well recognised as a radical novel about social and economic divisions. But might it also cast light on British imperialism? Sally Minogue looks at a rich and many-sided novel.

In my last blog I wrote about Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and there are some resonances between that work and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, signalled by the opposition and apposition in the two titles. Dickens and Gaskell announce that they are writing about polarities, diametrical opposites, and that is unusual in nineteenth-century fiction. There the novel more often deals either with the singular (e.g. Gaskell’s Mary Barton or Dickens’ David Copperfield, both eponymous novels that telegraph their concentration on the life of an individual) or with the weightily complex ‘whole world’, in novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch or the Palliser novels of Anthony Trollope. Dickens and Gaskell are apparently doing something interestingly other, taking two separate worlds and setting them against each other to see what might emerge.

While Dickens draws on mighty matters of social and political revolution, crossing continents to do so, Gaskell keeps close to home in order to look at a divide that is current still, that between the North and South of England. Her intimate knowledge of the city she called home, Manchester, informs North and South (and also Mary Barton), including its working-class life, which often brings a further dimension of vitality in content and language, an element even of the exotic. North and South may start in the soft South, but it is when it moves to the North that it becomes imaginatively alive.

Nonetheless, the first few chapters paint a seductive picture of the South, though even here contrasts abound. Our heroine-to-be Margaret Hale has lived for the last nine years with her Aunt Shaw and cousin Edith, and in the first chapter Gaskell evokes the comfortable, moneyed, urban world of the Shaws. It’s quickly established that Margaret is the subordinate in this household, close friend to her ‘dear cousin’, but a friend who serves. Gaskell gives us an acute sense of this when Margaret models the Indian shawls which Mrs Shaw is passing on to her daughter as a marriage gift. Edith being asleep, Margaret must ‘stand as a sort of lay figure on which to display them’:

She touched the shawls gently as they hung around her, and took a pleasure in their soft feel and brilliant colours, and rather liked to be dressed in such splendour … (9)

The ‘gorgeous shawls’ are a shorthand for the enveloping comfort and wealth of the life she has inhabited from the age of nine, when she was transplanted ‘all untamed from the forest’, to ‘grander circumstances’. (8) Margaret’s mother’s sister – Aunt Shaw – married an older man for social and financial security, and subsequently bemoans not marrying for love whilst amply enjoying the bounty left by her late husband. This has been shared with the poor relation Margaret, whose mother conversely married for love and suffered the economic consequences. But now that cousin Edith is to marry, Margaret’s uses have come to an end, and she is catapulted back into her former humble life.

If we are expecting a rural idyll to set against the London world, then Gaskell briskly disabuses us. Margaret, having as a child pined for parents and home when first sent to London, finds the world she left nine years ago itself changed. For while ‘her outdoors life was perfect … her indoors life had its drawbacks’. (16) Her mother is in delicate health, and frustrated by her husband’s lack of preferment in the Church. Margaret’s brother Frederick is exiled in Rio amid mysterious circumstances. Mr Henry Lennox comes to disturb her peace of mind with a proposal of marriage. And finally – the narrative nub of the novel – her father dissents from the articles of the Church to which he would have to swear afresh if he took the new living offered to him, choosing instead to leave his ministry. The precise nature of his doubt is not articulated but he aligns himself with the 17th century dissenters who put personal religious conscience before the unifying demands of the Church. This precipitates the move to the North, and determines the whole narrative arc of the novel.

Before we are thrust, along with our central characters, into the smoky North, it is worth lingering a while on this short first stage of the novel. Gaskell does not make a simple thing of the South, as she might have been tempted to do as a clear point of comparison. Instead she offers us two versions of the South, two kinds of imaginings, both of which are then rejected. The drawing-room world of the Shaws, while superficially appealing, is altogether too enervating for the Margaret Hale who is gradually emerging even in these early chapters. Her decided refusal of Lennox is also a refusal of that world. The rural delights of Helstone (in the New Forest) seem initially to offer a simpler, perhaps a truer, version of the South. But that has already been put in doubt by Margaret and Henry Lennox’s rather vexed discussion of it. In London, Henry suggests playfully that it is a ‘village in a tale’, at which Margaret takes umbrage, only to offer instead that it is ‘a village in a poem’ (11). When Henry arrives bang in the middle of that poem, the scene is set for romance: ‘velvety cramoisy roses’ (25), pears plucked from the tree and arranged on a plate of beetroot leaf, and the ‘crimson and amber foliage’ (26) of the deep forest beyond. Yet instead of the completion of the romantic dream, he comes up hard against Margaret’s refusal. Indeed she herself comes up hard against it, and looks back at his proposal somewhat wistfully when she is plunged into her father’s ferment, and briefly longs for the London/Shaw world where nothing ‘called for much decision’.

But if Margaret had accepted Henry – no novel. And besides, he can be kept in mind as a possible future plot line. Gaskell is astute enough to know that challenge makes for a more interesting narrative, and as it turns out, decision is something Margaret is rather good at. In the move to the South, she becomes the adult of the household, her mother declining into frailty, her father exhausted by the consequences of his own conscience. Her growth into her own strength of being is the more convincing because she often quails at what is before her. ‘But the future must be met, however stern and iron it be.’ (55) Thus, after a brief lull and taking of rest at the seaside town of Heston, Margaret and her father make the journey to Milton – the ‘North’ of the novel – where, as she says playfully, ‘“I am overpowered by the discovery of my own genius for management.”’ (57) But the obstacles are real, and the whole family must contend with their much-changed situation:

They were settled in Milton, and must endure smoke and fogs for a season; indeed all other life seemed shut out from them by as thick a fog of circumstance. …

At night when Margaret realised this, she felt inclined to sit down in a stupor of despair. The heavy smoky air hung about her bedroom, which occupied the long narrow projection at the back of the house. The window, placed at the side of the oblong, looked to the blank wall of a similar projection, not above ten feet distant. It loomed through the fog like a great barrier to hope. (62)

We are almost in the world of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier – a work in fact heavily influenced by nineteenth-century depictions of urban industrialised living conditions. As if to underline their changed life, a letter has come from Edith, full of the delights of married life in Corfu: ‘Edith’s life seemed like the deep vault of blue sky above her, free – utterly free from fleck or cloud’. (62) This leads Margaret to reflect in turn on how, if she had accepted Lennox’s marriage proposal, things might have been different. The omniscient narrative is here able to give much insight into Margaret’s inner thoughts, so that we see her working through these difficult ideas and eventually finding herself clearer and happier: ‘As she realised what might have been, she grew to be thankful for what was.’ (63) If there is a measure of rationalisation in Margaret’s logic here – that too is realistic.

Meanwhile we begin to have glimpses of the vigour of Milton life. While Mrs Hale and Margaret are confined to the domestic space, Mr Hale is out and about:

After a quiet life in a country parsonage for more than twenty years, there was something dazzling to Mr Hale in the energy which conquered immense difficulties with ease; the power of the machinery of Milton, the power of the men of Milton, impressed him with a sense of grandeur … (65)

Nor is this effect entirely gendered. Margaret too must make her way in the public street, in her quest for a servant, and while she baulks at its rough and tumble, her encounters convey warmth and that same energy that her father is dazzled by. The girls, notably, treat her ‘with their rough, but not unfriendly, freedom’ and ‘comment on her dress, even touch her shawl or gown to ascertain the exact material’. These are after all millworkers – producers of textiles – and theirs is almost a professional interest:

There was such a simple reliance on her womanly sympathy with their love of dress, and on her kindliness, that she gladly replied … and half-smiled back at their remarks. She did not mind meeting any number of girls, loud spoken and boisterous though they might be. (67)

The mention of the mill girls touching Margaret’s shawl is clearly intended to remind us of the London drawing-room tableau where she was merely the lay model for Edith’s rich Indian shawls – ‘quite silent and passive’. (9) But here Margaret is on the living street, there is real to-and-fro between herself and another class of women, and the shawl and other garments become a shared point of contact between them.

Black Lives Matter has made those of us who read literature freshly aware of the colonial subtexts in novels such as North and South. There have of course for many years been post-colonialist and politicised readings of literature, but for me the recent discussions around public statues and our colonial legacy have revivified those concerns, and made me acutely aware of the centrality of literature in this debate. Gaskell’s North and South is published right in the middle of the nineteenth century, and thus in the midst of the Victorian pursuit of imperial power. If Gaskell has any overt political intent, it is to do with the effects of industrialisation at the individual level, with some awareness too of the politics of class. After all, Friedrich Engels moved in the same Manchester circles as she did. It would have been altogether more radical for Gaskell to be aware of the politics of Empire. But her little shawl scene at the novel’s start tells us that she knew the value of shawls made in India, their ‘spicy Eastern smell’ conjuring up the lure of what was still the unexamined exoticism of the Orient; and she was aware of the differences manifested in the shawls by their places of manufacture (‘“What kind are they? Delhi? With the lovely little borders?”’). Indian textiles were one of the major trading staples of the East India Company, and in the eighteenth century made up part of the trade goods on many slaving voyages. [>textiles] As Gaskell’s brief reference shows, Indian-made shawls were still highly prized for their superior quality in the mid-nineteenth century. But as British (and American) textile production flourished with the development of industrialised methods, the Indian textile industry and their share of the market declined mid-century. In a double thrust of the economic rapier, Britain began importing Indian raw materials for use in their textile mills, producing finished textiles and clothing, which they then exported at inflated prices back to India. And all this while first the East India Company and then the British Government were turning the screws of power in India. [Eventually Ghandi in the 1920s, as part of his Indian nationalist movement, led a boycott of imported textiles to regenerate the home textile industry. ]

We may seem to have come a long way from Gaskell’s novel. The exploitation of Indian manufacture, slavery, Orientalism – none of these are mentioned in her pages. But the novel is set at the very heart of the complex movements of trade and power relations described abbreviatedly above. Edith’s travels to Corfu with her husband, Captain Lennox, are depicted as an extended holiday, ‘all out-of-doors, pleasure-seeking and glad.’ (62) But the good captain is there as part of an armed force to ensure the British Protectorate that ruled the Greek island from 1815 to 1864. Prior to that it was occupied by the French. Prior to that it was ruled by joint Russian and Ottoman powers. And prior to that it was part of the Republic of Venice. There’s a whole other story of imperialism there.

My point is that behind these sidelong references made by Gaskell are whole histories of economic power relations. In the light of current rethinking of the nature of Empire, it is not just possible but necessary to delve into them. They are after all on a par with the economic, social, gender and power relations which are Gaskell’s overt subject in the novel. As readers, we will foreground those, rightly, as she does. But as readers we are also part of our own cultural movements and context. Following the shawl motif may be just one of several ways in which we might see beyond the surface of the text into its deeper sub-text.

To do that we may temporarily sideline many other significant things. As I close, it’s worth remembering that Gaskell’s working title was Margaret Hale, and it was Dickens who proffered, and preferred, North and South. So in fact, against my own opening remarks, Gaskell saw this as a singular work focusing on one character, rather than a novel of oppositions. But North and South is a novel rich in its material, and it can bear many readings – even those that seem tangential.


I have mentioned in a previous blog on Hard Times that Dickens insisted on North and South’s appearing in Household Words – which he edited – in the latter part of 1854, immediately after the serialisation there of his own fictionalised representation of Manchester (Coketown) in Hard Times. He also insisted that Gaskell squeeze her novel into 20 weekly instalments. The twin pressures of restricted length and having to follow the great master’s depiction of Northern industrialised society with her own meant that Gaskell was dissatisfied with the serialised form, and added two chapters in the final published novel. Dickens for his part was sniffy about it (‘wearisome to the last degree’). I think we can now discern that jealousy played a part in that judgement.

Image: Detail of intricately embroidered Indian shawl housed in the Telfair Academy Museum in Savannah, Georgia. Credit: Steve Taylor ARPS / Alamy Stock Photo