Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

North And South

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North And South Summary

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English writer Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s novel North and South first appeared in serialized form, consisting of twenty installments in 1854 and 1855 published in the periodical Household Words, which was edited by perhaps the ultimate practitioner of serialized fiction, Charles Dickens. North and South takes place in the fictional northern England town Milton, likely based on Manchester where Gaskell lived. Milton is an industrial town in which main character Margaret Hale and her parents settle after leaving their home in the south. In Milton, Margaret experiences the harsh reality of the Industrial Revolution, including strikes and conflicts between workers and owners. The title of the book refers to the divide that existed between the rural life of southern England where the landed gentry lived and the workers toiled in agriculture, and the industrialized north with its factory owners and downtrodden mill workers.

Margaret Hale is nineteen years old as the story opens. She returns to her southern English village Helstone from London after the marriage of Edith, her cousin, and Captain Lennox. Margaret had spent the previous ten years living with Edith and her well to do mother, Aunt Shaw, to learn the social graces. The captain’s brother Henry, a barrister, asked Margaret to marry him, but she turned him down. Meanwhile, Margaret’s father, the local pastor of the Church of England, becomes a dissenter as a result of his intellectual honesty and decides to leave Helstone. His friend, Mr. Bell, suggests that he move to Milton, an industrial town in Darkshire where owners and workers in the textile industry are in conflict, and the first organized labor strikes are taking place.

Margaret is moved by the poverty she observes in Milton and sympathizes with the poverty stricken people. The family’s economic situation is not as solvent as it was when they lived in the south. Mr. Hale finds work as a tutor; among his students is the rich textile manufacturer John Thornton. Margaret is immediately in conflict with John. She sees him as insensitive, while he views her as arrogant. He is also, however, attracted to her, finding her beautiful and self-confident. She finds herself having mixed feelings towards him when she thinks of how he was able to rise above poverty. As eighteen months pass, Margaret begins to gain an admiration for Milton and its people who are hard working. She is particularly impressed with Nicholas Higgins, a union leader, and befriends his daughter Bessy. Bessy suffers from byssinosis caused by her exposure to cotton dust, and the affliction eventually takes her life. A workers’ strike looms, and Margaret’s mother’s health is deteriorating.

The workers and masters are not able to come to an agreement, and the threat of violence hangs over John and his factory, especially when he enlists Irish workers for the mill. Margaret wants John to attempt to calm the mob, but this just makes them even more volatile. Margaret steps in and is struck by a rock. The military eventually intervenes, and the mob breaks up. John carries the unconscious Margaret inside and professes his love. Later when he proposes to her, Margaret refuses, in part because she felt he took her actions against the mob as a declaration that she had feelings for him rather than as a pure showing of support for the workers. John’s mother does not warm to Margaret’s southern personality and is offended by her rejection of her son’s proposal.

When Margaret’s mother is near death, her brother Frederick, whom the family has not seen in a long time due to his being wanted by the navy for mutiny, visits in secret. John mistakes Frederick for a lover when he sees him with Margaret. When Leonards, a man from Helstone, recognizes Frederick, a fight ensues resulting in Frederick pushing him, which leads to Leonards’ death. Although Margaret saw the incident, she lies about having been there when questioned by a magistrate. John is aware of the lie, but remains quiet about it to save her from a charge of perjury. This act changes Margaret’s feelings towards John, and she realizes that he is of good character.

Nicholas follows a suggestion from Margaret and obtains a job with John. John and Nicholas begin to understand each other. Mr. Hale dies while visiting an old friend in Oxford. Margaret returns to London, moving back with Aunt Shaw. She visits Helstone, where upon the death of Mr. Bell, her father’s old friend, Margaret receives a substantial inheritance. Due to changing economic and market situations, John must cut back his production and could face bankruptcy. He meets with Margaret to take care of some matters, at which point she offers him a business deal that will help him. He realizes that she no longer harbors bad feelings towards him. Once again he proposes to her, and this time she accepts.