Friday, August 12, 2011

"North and South," Chapters XI-XVI

Dear Mary Beth,

I completely agree with you that Margaret's biggest flaw is her snobbery. She's a fairly strong character, breaking the news of her father's decision to her mother, handling the travel and housing arrangements for the family's move to Milton, and preparing for Mr. Thornton's visit without complaining of the work. She's certainly stronger than her mother, who reminds me of Mrs. Tulliver. Mrs. Hale likes to bring up her heritage, and the Beresfords seem to have been a prestigious family, worthy of more than what Mr. Hale has provided her with. I don't know that Mrs. Hale actually regrets her choice in a husband, but she sure does like to complain a lot, whether at Helstone or Milton.

I think Margaret's snobbery is hypocritical. As you mentioned, she accuses Mr. Thornton of seeing other people who have not made themselves successful as his enemies, when Margaret sees even people who have made themselves successful (Mr. Thornton) as her "enemies." Being that she won't even give Mr. Thornton a chance, it's very odd to me that she is so eager to befriend the Higginses. The only explanation I can think of is that she sees her visits with them as charity, as the same kind of visits she would have been responsible for paying to the poor and sick of Helstone as the parson's daughter. How very out of place she is in the North!

Chapter 11 gives us the Hales discussing Mr. Thornton after he has left. Mr. Hale fills in the details of Mr. Thornton's background--that his father not only died when John was young, but that he killed himself after getting in debt well over his head. The fact that Mr. Thornton spent years living on nothing just so he could repay his father's debts long after they had been discharged seems to impress Margaret but does not humble her or change her opinion of Mr. Thornton. She describes him as having an "iron nature," which I think is very accurate. At this point, I can't help but compare Mr. Thornton to Tom Tulliver.

Shortly after Thornton's dinner visit, his mother and sister call upon the Hales, which does nothing to improve the relations between the two families. Mrs. Thornton has, of course, been biased against Margaret (unwittingly) by her son, and Mrs. Hale is not the kind of person who will have much in common with a Thornton. Fanny, however, comes off the worst of the four, weak and spoiled, clearly sheltered from the hardship of Mr. Thornton's past. The entire visit is fraught with cattiness and tension, something that still happens today, even though women no longer have to "scheme" for a husband. Why is that?

Margaret continues her friendship with the Higginses, and a conversation she has with Bessy in Chapter 13 really struck me. Bessy explains that when she first became ill, she longed for down time to rest and lie around, but now that she has it, she misses being busy. She also explains how some of the mill owners attempted to install a fan in the mills to help with the dust (too late for poor Bessy), but that the workers demanded more pay. It wasn't clear if Margaret interpreted things the same way as I did, but Bessy makes the workers in Milton sound awfully fickle, as though they don't know what they want or what's best for them and just do and say things without thinking.

Of course, Mrs. Hale is now ill, and we find out in Chapter 16 that she's dying. I can't say I didn't see that coming. Mrs. Hale's illness brings her to finally explain Frederick's circumstances to Margaret (and the reader!), which indicated to me that he will become more important soon.

Margaret and Mr. Hale go to the Thorntons' to return Mrs. Thornton's visit (it seems to me to be an endless cycle of being visited and returning visits). Upon seeing Mr. Thornton's very large house, Margaret can't for the life of her understand why he wouldn't want to live in the country instead of right next to his mill. How she idealizes the South! Later that evening, when Mr. Thornton comes to see Mr. Hale, he and Margaret have a continuation of their earlier argument.

I think Margaret's biggest misconception when it comes to Mr. Thornton is that she thinks that everything he does is in pursuit of money, when in fact she doesn't understand at all how things work in the North. She doesn't seem to understand that unlike the landowners in the South, who are fairly secure in their property and wealth, manufacturers and tradesmen can lose everything very quickly if things take a bad turn. Mr. Thornton is of course concerned with keeping his mill running and profitable, but Margaret cannot see that that is in the best interest of everyone involved. As for the South, I am reminded of Middlemarch, where Dorothea Burke wants the landowners to improve their tenants' dwellings, and of a scene between Mr. Burke and one of his tenants--it is not a pleasant scene, and Mr. Burke almost kicks the tenant out. The South is no better than the North, just different.

Like you, I like the Thorntons--well, Mr. Thornton anyway, and to an extent, his mother. I think that Margaret, at this point, is right in the middle of a major education, and things will get more and more interesting as the strike approaches. I'll be interested to read what you have to say as the storm gathers.


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