North and South is a deeply political novel disguised as a romance. What does Gaskell’s novel have to say about class, gender and feminism in the mid C19th?
The Victorian era saw a progressive shift in male supremacy and female dependency. Subject areas such as law, professions and personal affairs were the focus of change and for 19th Century women in particular.
Elizabeth Gaskell (b.1810-d.1865) was a controversial, female writer in the Victorian era; she was notorious for highlighting subject areas such as gender, class and feminism in her literary works. Gaskell’s literary stature is high in the 21st Century however, in the early 20th Century she was not as highly thought of. In the 1950’s Gaskell was awarded notoriety by Marxist critics based on how she depicted the working classes and poverty in her book North and South (1855)1. Gaskell had a liberal mindset influenced by her living in industrialised Manchester and having piers and acquaintances that had science backgrounds and knowledge, in fact, Charles Darwin was her cousin. However, not everyone was impressed with Gaskell’s work, Lord David Cecil characterised her as ‘unintellectual’ and ‘all a women is expected to be’, dismissing her powerful use of the latter topics and themes. 2
North and South3 was considered a typical romance novel however; it was much more than this, Gaskell deliberately disguised her message about social and industrial issues as a romance novel, as a writer, this takes considerable skill. Gaskell sets the novel in a socially acceptable way to make it more readable for the Victorian audience, for example, the character Mr Thorton is depicted as a flawed, tragic character whereas if he were a character in a romance novel he would have been a total villain. In North and South4 issues such as gender, class and feminism are gently incorporated alongside issues of industrial expansion in the South of England. The main character in this novel Margaret Hale has lots of charisma and considers issues that Victorian women often do not. Margaret does behave in a typical female Victorian manner enjoying fashion and needle work, she was a regular visitor of the poor and unwell, she offered counsel to those she called with and tried to educate them too. These areas of ‘Social work’ that 19th Century women carried out were collectively defined as philanthropy. However, she is a sensible decision maker that takes control of her own affairs and the affairs of many others and she has personal ambition, the latter would suggest a more masculine side to her character. Furthermore, Margaret displays masculine traits throughout the novel such as bravery and a balanced logical personality that heals rifts between North and South and Master and worker. The key issues in this novel are that of the role of women in Victorian society. Middle class Victorian women in particular pushed legislation forward regarding rights for women of all classes, for example, The 1870 Education Act was established after women fought for it, this allowed women to vote and to serve on school boards. In an era where men totally controlled their wives, daughters and sisters, any progression in the political arena was remarkable. Gaskell is sensitive to depicting issues of poverty while still making it convincing and accurate; sentiment plays a part in real life therefore Gaskell is not being ‘pretty’ when using this theme.
To explore the issues of gender, class and feminism the writer will discuss the text in detail; this will demonstrate how these issues are intertwined within the novel.
Early on in the novel Margaret is faced with the burden of telling her mother that they are moving home and that Mr Hale is denouncing himself in the role of local vicar. These scenes suggest a strong trusting relationship between Margaret and her father. The role of the decision maker and…