Margaret Hale, The Heroine of "North and South"
One of the strongest female characters in English literature is Margaret Hale, the heroine of North and South, written by Elizabeth Gaskell. She may not have the wit of an Elizabeth Bennet, nor the impulsiveness of a Catherine Earnshaw, but Margaret Hale does embody the true spirit of a heroine
What is a true heroine?
Dictionary.com defines a heroine as: “a woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for her brave deeds and noble qualities.” To be heroic is to be brave, intrepid, magnanimous, enterprising, illustrious for valor. A well-written heroine will have faults to correct and hurdles to jump. No one wants to read a book about a perfect angel (take Elsie Dinsmore, for example). Margaret Hale is close to perfect as far as “always doing the right thing” goes, but she has many, many trials that beset her throughout this book.
We are introduced to Margaret Hale in the bustling, worldy city of London in the mid-1800s. She is living with her aunt and cousin among their amusing friends and important social life. Margaret is able to dress in the latest fashions and mingle among popular people. This might be amusing to someone with shallow character, but Margaret finds her life rather dull. Her greatest importance is found in assisting her slightly frivolous cousin Edith to have the most comfortable life attainable.
Edith gets married to a handsome, charming man of good standing and sets off to live overseas for a while. Margaret, who has spent much of her childhood living with her aunt, willingly returns to her parents’ home in the countryside. Helstone village is Margaret’s ideal of a perfect location, and she slips right into what she considers an ideal life. Alas, life is ever-restless and soon Margaret’s life is disrupted when Edith’s new brother-in-law pays a visit. To the bystander’s eye, Henry Lennox seems agreeable, suitable, and all things appropriate. Margaret has always called him friend, but there is something about him that prevents her from feeling anything deeper than friendship for him. Henry Lennox, on the other hand, desires a closer relationship, and soon makes his intentions known. Margaret can do nothing but refuse and Henry leaves, feathers ruffled, pride dismantled.
At this point, we might conjecture: another happy romance story, with humorous misunderstandings and lover’s quarrels, set in Austen-Dickens-TrollopeLand with dancing parties and bridge games galore. But no, this is not a frothy happy-go-lucky story. North and South can be considered an almost gloomy book. For just as soon as Margaret refuses her first marriage proposal, her life comes crashing down.
Margaret’s father is a clergyman to his small country community. He is loved by all, and he does much good among the people. But over time he has developed individual religious opinions that differ from the Church of England. Gaskell is a bit vague on how Reverend Hale disagrees with the Church, but he appears to be some form of Dissenter or Nonconformist. At any rate, Reverend Hale resigns from his clerical post on a matter of conscience and feels compelled to move out of the area.
Margaret and her mother are distraught over the fact that their father and husband could be outside the church, and they are worried about their impending removal to a town far from everything they’ve ever know. They do not understand why all this happens to them, but they pick themselves up and devotedly leave their home to be with Rev. Hale in the industrial town of Milton. This is point one of Margaret’s heroism. She leaves all that she loves, outside her family, to do her duty to her father. He leads in what he believes his conscience directs him to, and she follows.
The Hale family and their long-time servant Dixon arrive in Milton, a dirty, ashy, gloomy industrial town to the north of England. Imagine grey dusty air settling around unsettled, bustling streets. Noise from the busy mills melds together into an ever-present din. Factory-workers, dirty and greasy, clog the streets. This is quite a contrast to the Hale’s former home, where the days were filled with peace and quiet steady work. Point two of Margaret’s heroism: she is in shock of an unfamiliar place, and yet she immediately sets to work finding a place to live. She puts a brave face in front of her trembling family and bears them up with her steadiness. Steadiness always.
Rev. Hale gets work as a tutor. One of his pupils turns out to be John Thornton, master of one of the town’s mills. From the very first time they meet, John and Margaret misunderstand each other. They come from completely different backgrounds and each brings the worst out in the other. Very much like the North and South of America, the North and South of England are vastly different regions with different dialects and different forms of etiquette. Margaret dislikes Mr. Thornton for his rough tradesman-ship and his seeming lack of compassion. John is annoyed by Miss Hale’s apparent pride. The two were made for each other.
Starting life anew in Milton comes hard to Margaret. She knows no one and is unfamiliar with the ways of the townspeople. But she soon befriends some of the mill workers and sympathizes with their complaints against the harsh mill masters. This was a perturbed age of class-changing and growing capitalism. Climbing the ladder of a successful career was difficult. The mill hands worked under poor conditions and often had poor health. The masters of the mills were sometimes cruel and lacked mercy. There was a division between them, an insurmountable barrier of misunderstanding.
Margaret becomes good friends with Bessy Higgins, a former mill worker, now an invalid. She worked in a textile mill when she was younger and breathed in the cotton. Her lungs have become diseased, and Bessy predicts her own impending death. Margaret visits Bessy often, reading to her from Bessy’s favorite book, the Bible. Margaret learns a lot from her friendship with Bessy. She is immersed in the life of the workers, a life that is neglected by others of Margaret’s social standing. She becomes friends with Bessy’s father, Nicholas Higgins, who is involved in a workers’ union. All this is new to Margaret, and she is sympathetic to the workers. Point three, Margaret is brave enough to exit her comfort zone and befriend someone who is worse off than she is.
Meanwhile, Margaret faces suffering in her own home. Mrs. Hale becomes ill very soon after moving to Milton. She hides her suffering for a while, but eventually Margaret learns of it. Rev. Hale is rather clueless, probably by choice, for a while, but in the end he also learns of his wife’s illness. Mrs. Hale is confined to the house, her life slowly fading away. Point four, Margaret provides emotional support for both her parents in their time of need. She does not seek her own wellbeing, but puts her family first. With Mrs. Hale helpless, Margaret is called to take on many household duties from laundry to servant-hunting to social calls.
The town of Milton becomes restless. The workers are dissatisfied with their low wages and go on strike. Mr. Thornton needs workers, and imports some hands from Ireland. The local workers become inflamed at this news and gather in a mob at Thornton’s house. As it happens, Margaret is paying a call on the Thorntons just at the time the angry workers flood the streets. Mr. Thornton’s sister faints from fright, and their mother carries her out of the room. John and Margaret are left in the room, waiting for the military to arrive to dispel the mob. Margaret urges John to go down to talk to the men, to talk to them as men not to treat them as beasts. She watches John from the window, and she notices some in the mob making ready to use violence against John. Point five, Margaret impulsively rushes outside to prevent violence being done. In her efforts at protecting John Thornton, she is struck by a stone and passes out. She exposes herself for the sake of protecting others from violence.
As a result of Margaret’s bold actions on the day of the strike, John Thornton gains the courage to propose to her. As like many other literary heroines, Margaret Hale gets her fair share of marriage proposals. She refuses him and misunderstandings continue. Point six, Margaret has the bravery to refuse a marriage proposal to a man she does not love.
Margaret’s mother sinks lower and lower. She bewails that her last wish is to see her son Frederick, who has been an exile for years. He was involved in a mutiny and cannot return to England for fear of hanging. Margaret writes to him asking him to return to see his dying mother.
News comes to Margaret that Bessy Higgins has died at last. Point seven, Margaret not only bears the burdens of her own home, but also bears the sorrows of the Higgins family in their loss. She brings Nicholas Higgins to her own home where he is able to discuss his worries with the sympathizing ear of Rev. Hale.
Frederick Hale sneaks back into the country secretly. He is just in time to see his mother, for she dies very soon after he arrives. Point eight, yet again Margaret forgets her own sorrow and sets out to be a comfort to her brother and father. Alas, her time with Frederick is short for he must flee the country to save his life. Margaret helps him to escape, and is left alone with her grieving father.
A crisis of the soul occurs to Margaret at this point. In helping her brother to escape, she is seen alone at dusk with Frederick, a young unknown man. She also tells a lie to protect her brother from the law. Point nine, although she is accused of indiscreet behavior, Margaret does not expose her brother to protect herself. In telling the lie, Margaret becomes sorely contrite, to a point that many today would consider ridiculous. She suffers from knowledge of her own faithlessness and from Mr. Thornton’s knowledge of her falsehood.
A few months later, Rev. Hale leaves on a visit to his old friend, Mr. Bell, who lives in Oxford. Rev. Hale has been declining ever since his wife’s illness and death. He dies at Mr. Bell’s house, and Mr. Bell returns in his place to tell Margaret of the news. Margaret receives the last brutal stroke that she can possibly have. She is broken, and whisked off to London to live with her aunt once again.
If the story ended here, we would all feel like Margaret: lost, alone, hopeless. She has lost everything: her home, her mother, her father, her brother, her best friend, Mr. Thornton’s respect. But fortunately, Gaskell leaves us with a satisfactory, if brief, happy ending, and we leave Margaret beginning a life of hope. I won’t go into details, but I will say that Margaret does indeed receive yet another marriage proposal.
Margaret Hale is an inspirational character of bravery, determination, and selflessness. She loses everything that she loves, yet she clings to her duty, to her faith in God, to hope. There are moments when she is filled with doubt and faithlessness, but Margaret perseveres to the very end. Elizabeth Gaskell has created a solid, strong character in Margaret Hale. Although Gaskell has also built a solid plot, she reveals an amazing insight into the depth of the sorrow of the soul. The pain and solitude are very tangible and understandable. Gaskell kills off many of the characters, and yet still retains an attitude of hope. Margaret is redeemed out of the pit of death and made new.
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