Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

England during the reign of Queen Victoria was the world’s first and greatest industrial power and the center of a global empire that governed a quarter of the world’s population.

Yet you would hardly know this from reading most Victorian novels.  They’re typically set in London or in rural southern England, often the most backward parts.  Industry and empire are offstage.

One exception to this is Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), which I recently read as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.

Mrs. Gaskell did not just lament slums and poverty.  She took the trouble to try to understand newly-industrializing England—how the textile mills operated, the economics of the textile industry and the Issues at stake in the conflict between capital and labor.

Her viewpoint character is 20-year-old Margaret Hale, who is forced to relocate with her family from the sunny agricultural and aristocratic South of England to the grimy, slum-ridden town of Milton (Manchester) in Darkshire (Lancashire) in the North.

There she encounters John Thornton, a self-made industrialist who, at the age of 30, has risen from low-paid employment as a draper’s assistant to the owner of a manufacturing business that does business worldwide, and Nicholas Higgins, a worker in Thornton’s factory, who is driven by poverty and need to organize a strike.

Thornton is handsome, energetic and articulate.  He could easily be a character in an Ayn Rand novel.  He feels beholden to no one, asks nothing of anyone and refuses to accept dictation or advice from anyone, including the workers in his factory, whom he regards as antagonists.

Competition from American factories causes him to cut wages—but he does not feel he needs to justify this to his workers or anybody else.

Inspired by Nicholas Higgins, the workers go on strike.  Most of the major strikes in the 19th century UK and US were, like this one, in response to wage cuts, not demands for wage increases.

Thornton imports strikebreakers from Ireland, with a priest to keep them under control and guards to prevent them from communicating with the strikers.

The strikers probably would have lost anyway, but some of the workers disregard Higgins’ advice to remain nonviolent and stage a riot in front of Thornton’s house, which gives him an excuse to call in the police.

The textile mill owners hire the strikers back, if they pledge not to join a union.  Higgins refuses to do this.

He asks Margaret to help him move to the South and get a job as an agricultural labor.  But she tells him this is not realistic.  Bad as conditions in the factories are, the plight of agricultural workers is worse.  They do nothing but eat, sleep and work, she says; they are incapable of the comradeship of the workers in the North.

The same is true of the servant class in the South.  The Hales find it difficult to hire servants in Milton.  Factory girls would rather work 10 hours a day and have the rest of their time free than endure the life of a servant, which means being on duty 24/7 with maybe one Saturday afternoon off every couple of weeks.

In the South, some servants find this endurable because they regard themselves as members of their families.  But this is not the spirit of the go-getting North, where everyone is out for themselves.

So far, so realistic.

But Mrs. Gaskell then veers from her realism in order to bring about a happy ending.

After turning Nicholas Higgins away, John Thornton has second thoughts.  He visits Higgins, starts to understand his point of view and offers him a job.

He then gets to know his workers as individuals.  He finances a dining hall which the workers manage, but where food is cheap because he buys it in bulk.  The workers in turn come to appreciate his achievement as an entrepreneur who makes the enterprise possible.

I call this unrealistic based on Thornton’s and Higgins’ characters as previously shown.  But it is a fact that there were early 19th century factory owners in both the UK and USA who actually did try to pay high wages and create a humane environment in their company towns.

Robert Owen famously showed it was possible to pay high wages and provide good working conditions and still make a profit.  Factory owners in Lowell, Massachusetts, paid young single women good wages and provided chaperones and cultural amenities.  But these experiments broke down in the face of intensifying global competition.

Such arrangements would only be possible for a Thornton or a Robert Owen who owned his factories outright.  Individual philanthropy would be impossible if they had to report to a board of directors dedicated to maximizing shareholder value, and impossible if they were managers of a branch plant of a company headquartered elsewhere.

In the novel, Thornton runs into financial difficulties partly because of business conditions, partly because he lost customers due to low-quality work by his Irish strikebreakers.

He reaches a point where he has a choice between, on the one hand, liquidating his business and honorably paying off all his debts and, on the other, staking everything on a high-risk, high-gain speculative investment that could raise him to a new level.

He decides that the first choice is the only honorable thing to do, although, as it turns out, the speculative investment would have paid off.

All the while he and Margaret have been falling in love with each other, but hesitate to declare their feelings.

Margaret inherits a large sum of money (a way that problems are commonly solved in Victorian novels), declares her love and bails him out.  They engage to get married and presumably live happily and wealthily ever after.


Elizabeth Gaskell was the daughter of a Unitarian clergyman and the wife of another Unitarian clergyman.  For whatever reason, she writes about religion in more depth than in most Victorian novels I’ve read.

The reason Margaret’s family relocates to the North is that her father, the Rev. Richard Hale, decides he can no longer in good conscience subscribe to all the articles of faith of the Church of England.  He leaves the church and tries to make a living as a private tutor in Milton.

People in those days—especially liberal Anglicans, Protestants and Unitarians—were very serious about getting religious doctrine exactly right and about not affirming anything you did not absolutely believe.

Many sacrificed careers rather than swear to anything against their conscience.  Liberal Anglicans, Protestants and Unitarians today are much more relaxed about creeds.  They regard them as metaphors or historic relics, and say that what’s important is what’s in your heart.  

Nicholas Higgins, like many workers of that era, rejects organized religion altogether because the church seems indifferent to the suffering of workers—specifically, the death of his young daughter.

In one chapter, Higgins “the infidel,” Mr. Hale “the dissenter” and Margaret “the churchwoman” have a long conversation about religion, which ends with all three kneeling together in prayer—a very Unitarian conclusion!

Margaret is in many ways the ideal Christian woman.  From childhood, she assumes adult responsibilities because her father and mother do not.  She resembles Esther Summerson and Amy Dorrit in Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorrit, as well as many people in real life; I’m thinking of Patrisse Cullers’ older brother described in When They Call You a Terrorist, who from a young age was a surrogate father to the family.

But while Dickens’ ideal Christian women are just automatically good and can’t be anything else, Gaskell’s Margaret experiences considerable stress and doubt, which, however, she keeps to herself.

Some people say that good fictional characters are less interesting than bad characters, but that is because so many novelists lack insight into how hard it is to be a self-sacrificial Esther, Amy or Margaret Hale.

It may be that Elizabeth Gaskell, being a woman, has better understanding of such characters than the typical male novelist.

Gaskell is good at showing the mutual attraction between John Thornton and Margaret Hale despite their conflicting ideals, and also the grudging but growing respect between Margaret and Thornton’s formidable mother.

There are other subplots I haven’t mentioned.  North and South covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space.  It’s a neglected classic.  If you like the writing of Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope, you probably will like North and South.

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