Wednesday, August 10, 2011

North and South, Chapters V-X

Dear Amber,

I also have the “North and South” miniseries in my Netflix queue. I’m not quite done with the book yet – it’s my bedtime book, and it always seems to take me a little longer to get through a book that way. However, I’m well-prepared to talk about the next few chapters.

We left off when Mr. Hale has told Margaret about his decision to leave the church, and we pick up with Margaret bracing herself to tell her mother of their impending move. I have to say, I’m not particularly fond of Margaret, but I do admire the way she doesn’t procrastinate when she’s got something disagreeable to do. I’d torment myself for a while, imagining worst-case scenarios and mourning over the impending move, but Margaret gets her job over with as soon as possible, telling her mother the bad news almost as soon as her father leaves the house.

Again, this chapter emphasizes Mr. Hale’s cowardice. In your last letter, you said that Mr. Hale reminded you of Mr. Bennett from “Pride and Prejudice,” but I don’t think Mr. Bennett is cowardly. Lazy and self-indulgent, yes, but I can’t see him avoiding Mrs. Bennett for a whole day and making Elizabeth tell her something disagreeable. I’m reminded of Lizzy’s refusal of Mr. Collins and Mr. Bennett’s defense of her decision. In the same situation, Mr. Hale would have hemmed and hawed and told her that maybe she was being too hasty, and it would make her poor mother happy if she would just accept Mr. Collins’ offer.

Two chapters later, we’ve moved North, and Margaret gets her first glimpse of Milton, gray and smoky with its factories and rows of identical houses, as I imagine it. I can’t help thinking of some of the winter drives I made to Youngstown when we were still in school – those leaden skies and abandoned mills. Though it wasn’t all that long ago that Youngstown and Warren would’ve been our equivalent to Milton, with booming industry and crowded suburbs.

Margaret and the reader also meet Mr. Thornton for the first time in this chapter. Margaret doesn’t make the best first impression on Mr. Thornton, and frankly, this is where she really started to irritate me, too. As I mentioned before, in the first few chapters, Margaret comes across as too perfect. In this chapter we see her major flaw – she’s a huge snob. Though her father’s decision to leave the church has left her in far more reduced circumstances than she’s used to, she considers herself superior to Mr. Thornton, a self-made man, a wealthy man … but a tradesman! Now, I’ve been in Margaret’s situation, when you’re tired and not in the mood for company but have to be polite to someone who’s dropped by, but Margaret later reveals that Mr. Thornton’s impression that she looked down on him was entirely accurate.

The female Hales have a hard time settling down in Milton. Mrs. Hale finds that the “bad air” of Helstone is vastly preferable to the smoky air of Milton. And Margaret is put off by the attitude of over-familiarity that the factory workers of Milton seemed to have. However, this freedom of speech and familiarity is what introduces her to Nicholas and Bessy Higgins. Nicholas Higgins comments on her pretty face, and she’s struck by his own careworn face and later, by his clearly ill daughter Bessy. Interestingly, Margaret is friendlier to the Higginses than she is to Mr. Thornton — perhaps it’s because the Higginses “know their place” and recognize the class differences between them, while Mr. Thornton has, in Margaret’s eyes, set himself as an equal to the Hales, or perhaps, due to his wealth, above them.

The difference in Margaret’s attitude to these new people she has met in Milton is emphasized in the next chapters, as Mr. Thornton is invited to tea. While Gaskell writes that Margaret’s interest in the Higginses makes Milton more tolerable to her, she still disdains the company of Mr. Thornton. And it’s this attitude that causes Mr. Thornton’s rather intimidating mother to dislike Margaret before even meeting her.

I have to say, I like the Thorntons. Mr. Thornton is like a working man’s Mr. Darcy, but Mrs. Thornton is by no means a Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She takes a fierce pride in her son, though she might not show it through huge outpourings of affection. The Thorntons are who they are and don’t pretend to be otherwise.

During Mr. Thornton’s visit, he and Margaret get into a brief verbal dispute—taken far more seriously by Margaret—about the differences between the North and the South. As you mentioned in your letter, Northerners, represented here by Mr. Thornton, value hard work and the success that accompanies it. Margaret’s defense of the South seems to be that the poor people of the South are better off than those working for a living in Mr. Thornton’s mills. When she accuses him of making enemies of those who cannot achieve success, he gently corrects her by saying that those who are unsuccessful are not his enemies, but their own, and that if they are unhappy or impoverished, it’s because they were too self-indulgent at a previous point in their lives.

I don’t think either Margaret or Mr. Thornton have it quite right here. There are all too many examples of people who are born poor, live poor and die poor, despite any and all efforts to break the cycle. Salon had a great article this week about how our society, in recent years, has begun to criminalize poverty. 

And Margaret is over-romanticizing the poor people of the South. In “Our Mutual Friend,” we read about the watermen of London whose job was fishing usable things from the river, including bodies. And we’ve both learned about the conditions in which the children of London – chimney sweeps and urchins – lived. Surely these people were as miserable, if not more so, than the workers in Milton.

I’ve gotten super longwinded this time, so I’ll quit here. What are your thoughts on the Thorntons, and Margaret and Mr. Thornton’s argument, which we return to throughout the book?

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth

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