Friday, July 27, 2018

The Upheavals of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South

North and South is full of upheaval. The main character, Margaret Hale, is the teenaged daughter of a vicar who decides he can’t be a vicar anymore and leaves the church. The family moves from a lovely, sleepy village in the south of England to a polluted industrial town in the north, where Mr. Hale starts working as a tutor, meaning that he and his family slide down in social rank. In the coming months, Margaret struggles to understand a new culture, suffers the deaths of people close to her, and meets John Thornton, a young industrialist who initially inspires distaste. By the time he stops being so distasteful, there are enough misunderstandings and intervening events to keep them apart for a while.

The novel’s upheavals also come from the cotton mills of England’s Industrial Revolution. Margaret is horrified to witness workers living in grinding poverty and dying from the cotton fluff they’ve inhaled. Hunger, rage, strikes, fluctuations in trade, wild speculations, and shifting, uncertain social positions are all a part of this northern town the Hales now live in.

Along with portraying some of these societal changes, the author, Elizabeth Gaskell, explores the personal changes as well. What does it mean to live well and be a good person within this brutal system? Mr. Thornton, for instance, seems to have two sides to him: the cold and calculating manufacturer, and the man who brings fruit to Margaret’s ill mother. By the end of the novel, he has taken some initial steps to forging a relationship with his workers that’s more cooperative and less antagonistic. The book isn’t sentimental about these changes – it’s not like they all become the best of friends and eliminate poverty and disease from the town. But the adjustments in perception and attitude are there, in part because of Margaret’s influence (some of his words later in the book echo hers from earlier on), and possibly because Thornton has been taking lessons from the gentle Mr. Hale. Also, because Thornton has the potential to change in these ways. He’s disposed to it, susceptible to these influences by virtue of his own character.

The nature of change, the influences that work on people’s character, aren’t always straightforward in this book. Margaret tries to do good and be dutiful, not always with success or consistency (which I like, because it’s more realistic than if she were a spotless angel free of all biases or lapses). At the start of the novel, both she and Thornton are, in their own ways, quite sure of themselves. Their presence in each other’s lives and the upheavals they go through work certain influences on them.

Thornton becomes more inclined to flexibility and compromise. He handles a devastating failure with great dignity (not that he’s free of turmoil, or frustration and dejection). He’s also utterly overcome with love, struck and possessed by love to an overwhelming extent. For much of the book, he has no hope that this love will give him happiness, only that by experiencing it he will become enriched.

Margaret has been a pillar to her family from the start. What primarily changes is her understanding of herself and her relation to others. Change for her doesn’t form a smooth path with clear epiphanies. She struggles. She sorts out her thoughts in solitude, something that isn’t easy for her to do, as she generally puts her family’s feelings before her own. The book shows her embracing hours of reflection and grief as a necessary way to order her thoughts and find peace (not necessarily happiness, just peace). Passivity and despondency become quiet resolve, with time, with effort. So much of that essential effort is unobserved by the world. Failure would mean an attempt to go back in time to previous conditions that are no longer recoverable. There is no going back. Those who try will stagnate; they might die.

Gaskell starkly portrays the psychological effects of change: hopelessness, loneliness, aimlessness, displacement, and fear, along with the possible delights of discovery and curiosity and receptivity to love. One of the reasons I enjoyed this novel is the way Gaskell lets each upheaval truly be an upheaval. It’s not that the characters are entirely helpless. But they are tossed around a lot. They form promising plans, only to find themselves suddenly short on time or opportunity to implement them. They may not know who to turn to for guidance (Margaret is often so alone in this respect). Sometimes they make momentous choices in a rush, under pressure; in a matter of seconds, they change the course of their lives, and may find plenty of time afterwards to regret and repent. Wisdom develops after the circumstances in which it was sorely needed, and there may be only a small chance of applying it in the future to similar situations.

I keep thinking about Margaret’s hours of solitude, when the soul is wrestling with life and with itself, and the outcome is uncertain. I like how the characters aren’t allowed to become complacent. Even the final lines, playful and loving as they are, point to a challenge Margaret and John will soon face: uncomprehending or disapproving relatives. The ‘happily ever after’ isn’t a promise of an untroubled life; it’s a life where they have a strong chance of facing the upheavals together, with mutual love and support.

I read this for the Classics Club Challenge.