Nature and the Industrial Revolution in "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell
Gandhi Visiting Lancashire Cotton Mill
The North of England and the Loss of Nature
North and South,written in 1855, is a classic of Victorian literature and the Industrial Revolution. It deals with themes of alienation, as the rank-and-file workers became educated (often self-educated), and unionised to protect themselves and their families from working and living conditions that left people injured, diseased, maimed, starving, and dead at an appallingly young age.
It is a novel with two main storylines - the first is of the protagonist, Margaret, moving with her family from an idyllic Southern England country home to the industrial town of Milton in Manchester in the North West of England, and how her terror turns to acceptance and even love for the busy working city and its poverty-stricken inhabitants, some of whom become radicalised through the frustration of inequality and the threat to life this inequality brings. The second storyline is of a blossoming love between Margaret and the mill owner's son, and although this latter storyline is the one that is often the focus of media adaptations of the novel, it seems more 'tacked-on' than any real part of the book - a sop, perhaps, to contemporary middle-class readers who were in a position to ameliorate the suffering of the poor, but who might have othewise not been inclined to read a novel that was critical of the darker side of the rise of capitalism.
Margaret’s first encounter with Milton marks a clear distinction between the clean comfort of nature that she associates with ‘The South’, and the sinister unnaturalness of ‘The North’. Her first impression of Milton is from a distance of ‘several miles,’ and Margaret and her father see ‘a deep lead-coloured cloud’ over the town. Margaret’s feelings, and the cloud, impress a gothic foreboding about her new home, and initiate a recoil away from whatever may be there (North and South, p.59).
This gothic impression of only half-understood dread, and the attendant connotations of death and the unknown, is given a further shifting quality as we experience Margaret’s approach to Milton through her senses. First, ‘the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke,’ but then another shift occurs and the sense-impressions become negative experiences, not noting the presence of smoke, but an absence of the familiar and natural, ‘a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage’. The town Margaret is travelling towards becomes to Margaret an unnatural entity, and the impression is deepened as the buildings of the town come into view, ‘long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.’ The absence of the natural, the unnatural regularity of the houses, and the passive style used to describe the passage of Margaret and her father into the town: ‘they were whirled,’ suggests their helplessness, ‘long, straight, hopeless streets,’ suggests that not only are they helpless but that the journey is interminable, monotonous, and inescapable (North and South, p.59). The ‘standard’ to Margaret is nature, coming as she does from a village home in Helstone surrounded by countryside, but in Milton she finds herself in a sinister place of otherness.
Milton, the Industrial Revolution and Culture Shock in North and South
This first part of North and South is concerned with describing Margaret’s idyllic young life, so that her first impression of Milton stands in stark contrast and fulfils some of the stereotypes of Manchester in the Victorian imagination as a ‘”Cottonopolis”… a “shock-city” of the Industrial Revolution, an awful metonym for the terrifying transformations of the age of steam,’ (Engels’s Working Class, Hunt Introduction, p.7). But Gaskell lived and worked in Manchester among its people, and knew that the absence of nature the North was not simply a projection of Southern middle-class fears, but a real manifestation of the Industrial Revolution, which although it had not by any means completely covered the Northern landscape with factories and slums, had made the countryside and nature largely inaccessible to a large part of the population trapped in cities by long working hours, little leisure time, and little money to spare on travel.
Bessy the Factory Girl and a Longing for Nature
This is demonstrated in North and South by Bessy the dying factory girl who has spent her life in the mills and streets of Milton, who asks Margaret to tell her about Helstone, and who, after Margaret’s description of ‘wide commons, high up as if above the very tops of the trees,’ reflects, ‘I felt smothered down below. When I have gone for an out, I’ve always wanted to get high up and see far away...I get smothered enough in Milton…on these commons I reckon there is but little noise?’ (North and South, p. 100-1). Even for Bessy, who has never experienced nature except on a brief ‘out,’ and who has ‘never seen the sea’ (North and South, p. 100), the connotations of it in her imagination are of a relief from the claustrophobic city, and the ability to ‘see far away’ – an ability that is lost in the city. She longs for an escape to the quiet commons, away from the noise of the mill that made her ‘dazed’ (North and South, p.101).
Nature and Childhood in North and South
Nature in the lives of the Hales and the Higginses, who are representatives of the wider populations of Northern urban areas, exists in this manner of brief idealised moments largely within or coloured by the imagination of the characters. As Mrs Hale’s health deteriorates, Thornton the mill owner’s son brings her fruit, and among the expressions of surprise and gratitude that the Hales profess to one another is a moment where Mr Hale tastes the fruit – a portable slice of nature that prompts a return for him to childhood, ‘I have not tasted such fruit…since I was a boy…I remember eating sloes and crabs with relish. Do you remember the matted-up currant bushes, Margaret, at the corner of the west-wall in the garden at home?’ (North and South p.216). Nature and the natural, in this unnatural mill-town prompt fantasy and nostalgia; a small respite for the characters from their troubles.
The Death of Mrs Hale and the Contrast of October Mornings in the North and the South
In a similar vein, the chapter immediately following the death of Mrs Hale opens with a paragraph of recollection and nostalgia that is centred around the contrast between an October morning in the country, ‘with soft, silvery mists, clearing off before the sunbeams that bring out all the gorgeous beauty of colouring,’ and an October morning in Milton, ‘whose silver mists were heavy fog, and where the sun could only show long dusky streets when he did break through and shine,’ (North and South, p.251). As with much of the novel, the description is rooted in Margaret’s point of view and caught up with her perceptions, which gives us insight into the contrast of October mornings. The idyllic country one is coloured by the recently bereaved Margaret’s nostalgia for her first home in the countryside, and is wholly natural and ‘gorgeous’. Like her father with his first taste of the fruit, her thoughts of nature are bound up with the past, and childhood. The description of the Milton October morning is very different; the ‘heavy fog’ suggests the factory pollution, but also simply a weight, which of course Margaret must be feeling in her mourning from personal grief as well as from environmental oppressions. The sunlight in Milton is almost blocked out by the fog, and when it does break through, there is an indication that it is hardly worth it, since there is nothing more than the ‘long dusky streets’ to throw light upon. Again, a character’s thoughts of nature – Margaret’s memory of a country morning - come at a time when she is burdened with troubled thoughts.
Each of the characters above has good reason, intuitively, to seek refuge in nature. In this classic novel of the Industrial Revolution, North and South, the sheer amount of disease and death that haunts the households of Milton is drawn from Gaskell’s own experience of the poor of that city, and although the death-toll is extraordinarily high, its veracity is attested to by the statistics available from that era.
Manchester City Centre In the Present
City or Country as the Idyll in Gaskell’s North and South
Margaret, returning to Helstone with Mr Bell, finds that it is no longer the place of her childhood, and Bessy, in her final days, asks Margaret to read from the Revelation of St John the Divine, of a city, and although it is a perfect and gemstone encrusted one, it is a city nonetheless, ‘Read about the New Heavens, and the New Earth,’ Bessy tells Margaret, a reference to Rev. 21:1, in which chapter the word ‘city’ appears at least nine times (North and South, pp.201, n.445; ref King James Bible, Rev. 21). And when Bessy’s father, Higgins, talks after his daughter’s death of relocating himself down South to the country, Margaret is firm and unwavering in her determination to talk him out of such a move:
You would not bear the dulness of the life; you don’t know what it is; it would eat you away like rust. Those that have lived there all their lives, are used to soaking in the stagnant waters. They labour on, from day to day, in the great solitude of steaming fields […] You could not stir them up into any companionship, which you get in a town as plentiful as the air you breathe. (North and South, p.306)
The oppressive crush of city life has turned, through Margaret’s journey in North and South into vibrancy; it pushes out the ‘nature’ of the countryside, but brings with it a different ‘nature’ – a human one, as vast amounts of people live and work together in tiny built-up spaces and learn that the new industrial life is also a brand new form of nature: as natural, as Margaret says above, ‘as the air you breathe’.
Page references are to the following works and editions:
Gaskell, E. North and South (London: Oxford World Classics, 2008).
Engels, F. The Condition of the Working Class in England (London: Penguin Classics, 2009).