At the turn of the nineteenth century, England entered a phase thereafter known as the “Victorian Era.” Following this new era was a tide of change, especially with the rise of industrialization and the class of mill and factory workers. These changes also constituted a beginning of the redefinition of women’s roles in society and rights. However, with the establishment of new standards, women once more felt the need to challenge their genders’ stereotypes. One way a female writer in the Victorian era could dispute these conventional images was through her writing, which is how Elizabeth Gaskell had a mind to behave.
Elizabeth Gaskell sought to capture life – the lives of Victorian women of all classes and social standings, including those who worked in the laboring class. According to Snodgrass, Gaskell also wanted to reproduce the “duality of women as individuals and as wives and mothers.” One of her longer pieces of fiction, the novel North and South, is a Condition of England or industrial novel, writings which attempt to expose social conditions heralded by the industrialization and urbanization of Britain, as well as proposing resolutions (Barratt). In fact, according to Wiehe, because Gaskell detailed “faithfully…the relation between women and marriage, the struggle for self-achievement, and the intermixture of women’s careers and public history,” her works have been closely examined, and she has been raised to the place of a major Victorian novelist. Elizabeth Gaskell was also a feminist activist, as she wrote proposals for the Establishment for Invalid Gentlewomen, helped relief work during famines, and supported emigration of women to North America (Snodgrass). In her literary works, the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her own feminist activity, and the beliefs that women are rational and responsible are very clear in the character of North and South’s Margaret Hale.
Margaret Hale is clearly the heroine of North and South, and through her heroine, Elizabeth Gaskell challenges the predetermined stereotypical woman. At her Helstone home, Mr. Henry Lennox proposes to Margaret. However, she immediately refuses him, feeling that “In another moment the strong pride that was in her came to conquer her sudden agitation…Of course she could answer, and answer the right thing; and it was poor and despicable of her to shrink from hearing any speech, as if she had not power to put an end to it with her high maidenly dignity,” (Gaskell 472). With this insight into her character, Margaret reveals that the only correct answer to this marriage proposal is rejecting it. This displays a change from marrying for security to marrying for love and interest. Readers also become aware of Margaret’s self-respect and “maidenly dignity” – another change from her meeker and milder female counterparts. According to Grasso, Margaret’s rejection is surprising for two reasons. The first is that a young woman is rejecting a man of good standing, and secondly, “she does so without parental consent or involvement and this notion is anything but Victorian.” In fact, once the Hales move to Milton and have fallen socially and economically, wherein Margaret “has to take over much of the financial decision making from her father” to ensure their survival, she receives another marriage proposal from Mr. John Thornton, a successful mill owner (Barratt). However, she rejects him as well, again at a young age and without the knowledge of her parents. Although a typical Victorian woman would have accepted either proposal, whether or not they actually loved the man who had proposed, Gaskell’s decision to have Margaret break these social conventions displays how she herself was viewing the change in women of the Victorian Era, and how she envisioned their change in personality and demeanor changing. According to Wiehe, Maragaret’s rejections “show[s] marriage from a woman’s viewpoint and not simply as an escape, a bid for social status, or a profitable contract.” In Margaret’s exchanges with Mr. Thornton, she is not afraid to argue with him, match his arguments point for point, or speak her mind. In a discussion of the ways of life in the North compared to the South, Margaret tells Mr. Thornton that, “‘[He is] mistaken,’ said Margaret, roused by the aspersion on her beloved South to a fond vehemence of defence, that brought the colour into her cheeks and the angry tears into her eyes,” (Gaskell 1424). Gaskell does not remove Margaret’s femininity in order to make her equal to a man; instead, she paints Margaret’s emotions as strong feelings that she is unashamed to argue for. Grasso comments that “Gaskell departs from traditional gender roles by showing Margaret as woman who is able to hold intelligent conversation about that matter of industry and the national economy, not restricted to conversations about trends in fashion or who is available for marriage.” Not only does Gaskell show that women have minds, but minds capable of understanding deeper and worldly subjects. Margaret is also not afraid to speak her mind, creating a more vocal non-conventional woman. However, Northern culture versus Southern culture is not the only topic on which Margaret and Mr. Thornton debate. Because Mr. Thornton is a mill owner, and Bessy, Margaret’s friend poisoned by the cotton fluff of a mill, Margaret and Thornton dispute the treatment of the laborers. In a twist of fate towards the novel’s close, Mr. Thornton’s mill falls upon financial ruin because of his efforts to improve the workers’ conditions, upon Margaret’s suggestions. Margaret’s parents both pass away, and she becomes the benefactor of Mr. Bell – actually becoming Thornton’s landlord. Barrat claims that “Gaskell’s plot demonstrates that men need women, and that women can have and should have responsible financial power to invest in a better society.” Again, Gaskell is redefining women’s role in society. Instead of being subordinate to men, men and women are equals, and women have every right to work hard to actually become superior to their male counterparts financially and economically. In Margaret’s case, Barratt states that “Women have a readier sympathy to face the suffering and plight of the workers and their families, and for then, this is part if the remaking of society.” An important characteristic Gaskell writes in Margaret’s character is that Margaret does not have to become more masculine to be considered a man’s equal. Margaret’s strength of character comes from her conviction for the stability of people of less economic and financial. The traditional derogatory stereotype of a woman’s softness being her downfall is firmly rebuked with Margaret’s usage of her emotions to fuel her causes. Barratt concludes by saying that Margaret “is developed as a complex heroine, expanding traditional gender roles.”
Although Margaret is North and South heroine, Gaskell creates other female characters that break the typical female standard. Mrs. Hale is described as having “‘Married for love, [so] what can dearest Maria have to wish for in this world?’” (Gaskell 240) Initially, Mrs. Hale does not conform to the Victorian female ideal because she married a poor parish preacher for love – making her own choice to marry beneath her social standing, although many claimed that with her beauty, she could have easily married a richer man of a higher class. Mrs. Hale’s unconventional strength as woman is also demonstrated when she supports her husband’s decisions, her son’s exile after overthrowing a tyrannical navy captain, and enduring through he terminal illness, even concealing it from Margaret and her husband to the best of her ability. In fact, Margaret does her mother proud after Dr. Donaldson tells her of her illness, as he comments, “‘That’s what I call a fine girl…Who would have thought that little hand could have given such a squeeze? … What a queen she is! With her head thrown back at first, to force me into speaking the truth” (Gaskell 2260). Another strong female character is Mrs. Thornton, the mother of John Thornton. After her husband speculated wildly and committed suicide to avoid the shame, Mrs. Thornton moves John and his sister Fanny. She saves the money that they make, and is eventually able support John and allow him to elevate himself to the place of a mill owner. She also took on the uncommon role of working on the mill floor and supervising the workers. John proudly states that throughout their hard life, his mother “‘is not given to complaints.” (1655). Although Mrs. Thornton can come across as harsh, her sturdiness and resilience is the only reason why her family was able to survive after her husband bequeathed crippling debt. Mr. Thornton’s high regard and respect for his mother also stands as a testament to her character, as they have a special relationship and understanding, in which “The very daringness with which mother and son spoke out unpalatable truths, the one to the other, showed a reliance on the firm centre of each other’s souls,” (Gaskell 1663). Just as Margaret does Mrs. Hale proud, Mrs. Thornton’s durable personality is a contract to the typical weak woman prone to fainting that is often depicted. Grasso comments that “both women have been strengthened by the hardships in their lives, benefiting from adversity rather than being shielded from it as middle-class Victorian domestic hierarchy would have tended to do.” Nevertheless, Gaskell introduces flat female characters of the typical domestic variety – Margaret’s cousin, Edith and John’s sister, Fanny. However, Gaskell does not applaud them in anyway, instead they are portrayed as “dependent and concerned with frivolous matters…but not having much purpose in life.” Edith is mainly concerned with her preparations of her marriage with Captain Lennox, and Fanny ultimately simply marries a wealthier, older man to secure her position in life. Through these supporting characters, Elizabeth Gaskell highlights the traits of the changes in the more worldly and equal women, as well as condones to stereotypical weak women of the Victorian era.
Through her heroine Margaret Hale, as well as the supporting characters of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Thornton, Elizabeth Gaskell is able to write a generation of new women – women who are equal, if not superior, to their male counterparts, who are re unafraid to speak their minds, and endure strongly in their trying situations, instead of simply painting a pretty picture of the stereotypical Victorian woman. However, Gaskell also does incorporate the epitome of the superficial, domestic housewife to keep balance. Nevertheless, she depicts them as weaker characters with not much purpose. Through North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell was able to create strong female characters to model the strength and resilience women do posses and should be able to express, giving hope both to herself and to her readers. Gaskell’s works also give hope to her readers that women’s place in society has improved much, and that through our own writings, we can envision and create a better, stronger, and more equal world.
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