Sunday, August 28, 2011

North and South, chapters XVII-XIX

Dear Amber,

It’s funny you should mention Margaret’s differing treatment of the Thorntons and the Higginses, because it’s something I was thinking about too. I think you’ve hit on it—she does see her visits to the Higginses as charity, doing her “Christian duty” by spending time with poor, sick Bessy and her family. At least, that’s how it starts, but Margaret actually grows to care about Bessy and Nicholas and seems  to develop a real friendship with them.

I find it interesting that Gaskell has really made Margaret what I’ve been thinking of as a “transitional character.” Margaret is in a position to visit people in all walks of life without damage to her reputation. Mrs. Thornton likely would not be making calls on the Higgins family — it’s not her place. And Margaret’s cousin Edith would have been horrified at the prospect of visiting a poor factory worker’s home. But Margaret can take tea at the Thorntons’, read the Bible with Bessy Higgins, and attend fine society dinners as she did in London before Edith’s marriage, and as she does later on in the novel. Margaret is truly the “middle class” here.

By the way, I believe you’re right about the constant cycle of calls. With little else for refined and moderately wealthy women to do, visiting and being visited would give the women something to do and prepare for and talk about. Once again, I’m glad I’m a woman of the 21st century. I’m basically a homebody and would hate having to go out visiting all the time!

You mentioned the fickle nature of the Milton factory workers, which makes for a good transition into these next few chapters which deal with the strike. I reread the passage you talked about, with the workers wanting more wages to work in a factory with a fan—but I don’t think the workers are fickle. The reason they oppose the fans is because they’re used to inhaling fluff all day and it fills their stomachs so they’re not as hungry. Those who worked in factories with fans were going home hungry and wanted higher wages as compensation.

As we move into chapter 17, Margaret notices that there are a lot more people out and about and there’s a nervous energy in the air. When she reaches the Higginses, she is told that there is a strike in the works. Margaret, innocent of such things, asks what a strike is, and notes, in her prejudicial way, that such a thing was unlikely to happen in her idealized South (“I think they have too much sense.”). Nicholas is contemptuous of this and says that in the North, when the workers aren’t being treated fairly, they stand up for themselves. He explains that the masters seem to be getting quite prosperous, while the workers are still making the same wage they’d been earning for the past two years. And so the Milton workers are planning to strike to get the masters to share the wealth a bit more.

It seems fair enough, but ironically, ignorant Margaret hits the nail on the head as she suggests that maybe the masters have a good reason for not giving out higher wages and that maybe “the state of trade may be such as not to enable them” to give the workers higher wages.

In fact, in the very next chapter, as Mr. Thornton is discussing the state of affairs with his family, he notes that because of the abundance of American yarn in the market, the British mill owners have to sell at a lower rate — things aren’t as prosperous as the Milton workers seem to think. Mr. Thornton also announces his intention to hire cheap, Irish labor should his workers go through with the strike.

Now, this is why I often find myself feeling out of place in the highly pro-union Mahoning Valley. I tend to see both sides of the issue, much like Margaret in this instance. And it seems to me that when it comes to union contract negotiation, there’s a tendency to ignore the valid points the other side might be making—yes, it would be a hardship to have to start paying more for health insurance when you haven’t paid for it before, but at the same time, if the company doesn’t have the money to continue to pay for it, what are you going to do? You see the same back and forth in politics these days as well—the recent struggle over the budget—and it seems that both sides are too willing to cut off their noses to spite their face rather than give an inch to the person on the other side of the table.

But I’ll get off my soapbox now, and get back to our story. In the midst of the strike preparations, we’re also given accounts of several different sickbeds—Mrs. Hale, who’s much more tolerable in her dying state, I have to say, is far sicker than anyone had realized, and her end is approaching quickly. And I’m somewhat smugly satisfied that the true nature of Mrs. Hale’s condition is kept secret from her husband. Though Margaret says it’s for his own health and peace of mind, it brings to mind his own instance of keeping important information from his spouse.

Meanwhile, Bessy Higgins’ condition is worsening, and when Margaret spends another afternoon with her, she meets the Higginses’ neighbor, John Boucher, who is in a state of panic and despair regarding the upcoming strike — if he is without work due to the strike, his young children will starve to death. However, if he does not go along with the union, he will be shunned and his children will likely starve to death anyway. This is what’s really at stake here, and Nicholas acknowledges Boucher’s difficult position, but he says he’s thought about it from every angle, and the only thing he can do is trust in the union, have faith in the union and hope that Boucher will do the same.

As the visit ends, Margaret is very moved by the scene she has witnessed, and leaves money with Bessy for Boucher and his children, though Bessy assures her that they would not have let the Bouchers starve in any case. “If neighbours doesn’t see after neighbours, I dunno who will,” she tells Margaret.

And now, I’ve gotten long-winded again, so I’ll leave off here. As we’ve seen, both sides have a lot to lose should it come to a strike. I’ll let you take us through the drama that follows!

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth

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