Sometimes it’s strange when I sit and consider how much my life has changed since I found N&S. At the time, I had just been introduced to YouTube and was soaking up fan vids. The rest of the story has been told, by me, many times so I won’t go through that again. N&S brought many new things to my life. I’ve met some amazing people.. who I think will stay in my life for years to come. It also revealed something to me that I absolutely had NO clue I would actually be good at. If fact if you had told me such a thing in the fall of 2006, I would have laughed!
What was this “skill”? Beta reading for some very talented writers. For those of you that might not know what it means to be a “beta” reader, it is a person who comes along side a writer, giving advise on their current writing endeavor. Now many “beta” readers, will help with grammar and spelling. If you’ve read my blog for long, you will know that is not my thing. My “guidance” came in the form of plot and character development. I have been blessed to work with some amazingly talented writers and some pretty amazing stories!
It is one of these stories that is actually the main topic of this post. To bring to you a wonderful N&S fan fiction called “How Far the World Will Bend (HFWWB)” by Nancy Klein. HFWWB is a wonder repackaging of the N&S story, giving it a little Sci-Fi flare.
HFWWB setting begin’s in 1920′s London. Meg Armstrong (Margaret) is intrigued by a story that her grandmother tells of a tragic death years ago during a cotton mill riot. Mysteriously Meg is pulled through time to Victorian Milton in the 1850′s, where she is thrust to assume the identity of Margaret Hale. Stepping into her body, her home.. her life.
Meg determines to stay long enough to save the handsome, enigmatic mill owner, John Thornton, from his fate. Complications arise as Meg finds herself falling in love with the man she is meant to save. Yet how does he feel about her? Will she be able to save this amazing man from his fate? Will she be able to return to her own time even if she is successful?
This story is fun, exciting… and amazingly romantic. I hope all of you will give it a try. It is available in ebook form on Amazon. You can get your copy here! If you read it.. tell us what you think!
Imagine, you are on an outing with friends. A hike through the mountains. All participants on this hike admire the grand mountains all around, the clear blue sky, the smell of the fresh clean air, the sway in the trees even the occasional small woodland animal that scampers by.
Along this hike, you and your party come across an indent in a rock wall that makes up the base of the nearby mountain. Some in your party, barely even notice the indent and keep walking. Some notice it and might even stop to observe a bit more, but in the end not seeing much of interest, they continue on their way as well. Some stop, and even investigate. Finding the indent is actually a cave with a few interesting color changes in the rock. They take time to examine but don’t go any deeper and eventually rejoin the group who’ve continued on the path.
You, however, see the color changes and sense the possibility of so much more. Bravely you take your investigation deep inside the cave, and you discover beautiful waterfalls and crystal formations. The deeper you go, the more you discover. Eventually, when the cave gives way to daylight on the other side, you discover that you’ve arrived at the destination of the hike. Some of your hiking mates, are lingering discussing again the beauty you all discovered early on. Some of your hiking mates have moved on to yet another hike. You wish to share about all the wonderful things that you discovered but your friends don’t seem to understand what you are saying. You leave, knowing the abundance that you found gave you a much deeper respect for the beauty of the mountain. You also know that you will return often to see what else the cave can reveal.
So.. why do I tell this little story? Well partly for a change, partly because I was inspired by actual events and then finally because I was inspired recently by a review that someone gave of North & South on a popular site. Let me share a portion of this review with you and see if you can then piece together the full inspiration of this post.
“I valued the picture of an early industrial town in England, with conflicts between workers and owners, and a very class-divided society [...] But the romantic plot was painfully stilted. And in general the book was very slow-moving. Character depth was slight, character development barely noticeable. …”
So my question, (which I’ve been told by a few of you, is a trademark of my posts) is coming early. How is it that some come to North & South and leave being touched by a truly amazing story? A story that dives into the heart of the two main characters and on a few occasions, some of the secondary. Why then do some, like the review above, walk away with statements such as, ‘painfully stilted’, ‘very slow moving’, ‘character depth was slight’ and ‘character development barely noticeable’?
This also goes along with the multiple comments spread across the internet about the ending being ‘sharp’, ‘abrupt’, ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘incomplete’. (Alright Courtney, breath dear breath!) Why do so many hang on so tightly to the knowledge that Gaskell was rushed in finishing her book? This is fact, yet it’s also equal fact that when given the opportunity to change the ending and expand it, she passed, displaying satisfaction in the end product.
Apparently there is a good percentage of people out there that struggle with these two characters. Seeing the characters as being shallow or development absent, would give explanation as to why the ending would seem so abrupt. They feel that there were too many unresolved issues. If they truly struggle seeing the beautiful ‘crystals of change’ that happen as the story progresses, no wonder they struggle with what would seem to be a sudden shift in the ending.
How sad that they missed the slow progression of change that leads to that beautiful climax? It is this change that is the “deep” that so many “miss”!
Though kind at heart, Thornton had very rough edges. The cruelty of his childhood, forced him to focus, not on his tenderness, but on the task of restoring his family name and fortune through hard work and determination. His mother, who was hardened herself by the harshness of her husband death, was little encouragement in restoring this element of his nature. She encouraged his strength and integrity which are clear assets to his character, yet it’s not until the appearance of Margaret that this area of his life is drawn forward and put into use. Thornton’s changes, I think are often missed because they aren’t necessarily changes, as much as they are a ‘reawakening’. The tender, soft and kind elements of Thornton’s characters are brought to the surface and though it’s a painful process, he doesn’t lose hold of them but uses it to better himself and the life of his workers. It is also through the trial of losing his mill that we really see the full measure of this man.
Then there is Margaret, who I think is probably the most misunderstood of the two characters. So many modern readers grab onto the girl with “spunk” (as we say in the states) found at the beginning of the book. The girl who proudly stands firm in front of the ogre. They mischaracterize her as a rebel, or an early woman’s rights worker. Yet do they ever take into account that Thornton is the only person she dares to challenge? Why is that? (that is a topic of yet another discussion) Though it shows the independent nature of her character, an element that will prove of use in her future life as a Masters wife, what many tend to miss is that Gaskell uses this also to reveal Margaret’s immaturity, idealism and prejudice. All of the elements that Gaskell patiently works out of her heroine.
I believe that some readers (though not all) ‘choose’ to ignore these elements to put Margaret on a pedestal that doesn’t suit her. They miss the swift change that comes over her after her refusal and most pointedly after she sees the hurt that she has inflicted on Thornton. They completely miss the soft yet distinct moment when she finally admits to herself that she loves him and her deep grief over what she so carelessly threw away. How this admission changes Margaret’s whole perspective on Milton and it’s people. Even the 2004 adaptation reveals these changes in Margaret, which is directly pointed out in one particular scene with her father (see picture below). Margaret’s change is not just from her love and loss of Thornton, but also by the tragic losses that she has to face alone. All of these elements form the truly beautiful character that we are given at the end of the book.
A diamond comes from carbon, formed through intense pressure. The bible speaks often on how it is “fire that tests and purifies gold”. Both of these characters are a testimony to such things. Both of them experience intense trials and come out the other side shining like gold. Are they perfect? No of course not, but there is change if you care to look.
The ending, that so many label as rushed, is the final evidence of the transformation that has come over both of these characters in the second half of the story. Is it abrupt? Hardly! Instead its an ending built on a consistent progression of these two characters, evolving and moving closer together.
My challenge: Take the time to notice the indent in the rock wall and then be brave enough to venture in and discover the beauties to be found just below the surface.
So here is that time. What is your reaction to the review I shared above? Why do you think so many are “Missing the Deep?” Why do so many feel that the conclusion of the story is rushed and somehow lacking? Maybe you are such a person that feels the ending is rushed. That more needed to be resolved. Care to share your thoughts? I would love to hear them, as it would help me understand all of this better!
I’ve left room for plenty of discussion.. so don’t be shy! Share your thoughts!
Thanks to Carla, I was made aware that Northern Rail of the UK, has dedicated one of their rail cars to Elizabeth Gaskell. Though I know trains were not uncommon in her novels, the idea of a ‘North’ bound train will always make me think of North & South.
Clipped from the News page of the Northern’s website.. here is the information given on this honor to one of my all time favorite authors. You can see the article on Northern’s website.. here.
One of the most influential writers of the Nineteenth Century was honoured on Friday, when Northern Rail unveiled the Elizabeth Gaskell train.
The event, organised in conjunction with Mid-Cheshire Community Rail Partnership, took place at Manchester Piccadilly and saw Northern’s Managing Director, Alex Hynes and George Osborne MP unveil the train’s nameplate and give speeches to pay tribute to the Cheshire-based author.
The train is a 156 Northern unit and will travel the network around Greater Manchester and Cheshire, the inspiration for much of Ms Gaskell’s work, such as “Cranford”.
Alex Hynes comments: “We name some of our trains after ‘Great Northerners’ and Elizabeth Gaskell certainly fits that description. Her work has left a legacy on this part of the world and we are delighted to be able to honour her in this way.”
George Osborne said “I was delighted to be invited to name one of Northern Rail’s diesel trains “Elizabeth Gaskell”, particularly as the train will travel on the mid-Cheshire line through Knutsford, which is the basis for her novel Cranford. A large crowd gathered at Piccadilly station, including members of the Gaskell Society, members of the Mid-Cheshire Rail Users Association and representatives from the Heritage Centre to watch the unveiling of the plaque.”
Sally Buttifant, Mid Cheshire Community Rail Partnership, said: “We are really pleased that there is now a Northern Rail train named after Elizabeth Gaskell. We hope that people will journey along the Mid Cheshire line, the line that she wrote about, and follow in her footsteps exploring Knutsford, the town she called Cranford.”
Ann O’Brien of the Gaskell Society added: “We are delighted Elizabeth Gaskell is being recognised by the outside world. It is a remarkable coincidence that the Elizabeth Gaskell train is being named just a matter of months before her house in Plymouth Grove, Manchester, is being reopened after its £1.8million renovation. People will now be able to take Elizabeth Gaskell’s train to visit Elizabeth Gaskell’s house.”
How awesome is that? I now have one more thing on my “to do list” if I ever get the chance to visit England. “Ride Elizabeth Gaskell’s train”.
What do you all of you think? I know this is not really a discussion post.. but I thought you would all enjoy it all the same. If you find more info or pictures, let me know in the comments area. I will be sure to locate the pictures and include them.
Also be sure to stop by and check out “Elizabeth Gaskell and her Manchester home” on Facebook, I borrowed all these picture from their images folder.
(Have you fallen over in your seat? Yes it’s finally a post here on WoM, written by me in fact. I have a whole line of others waiting on deck, I just need the time to expand my thoughts on them. Thanks for hanging with me!) So let’s get to “the Perfect Image of Margaret..”
It doesn’t matter if you watched the movie before you read the book. It doesn’t matter if you love Daniella Denby-Ashe’s (DDA) portrayal of Margaret or hate it. Personally, I confess, that I didn’t ‘love’ DDA when my interest in this story was in its infancy. If I am really to be honest, I must also confess that I struggled with Margaret as a character. However, as my interest turned to passion, my appreciation for both Margaret and DDA’s portrayal also grew. As my understanding of Margaret’s character expanded and deepened, I also noticed the effort that DDA made to bring those elements into her portrayal.
That being said, this post is not to review or debate DDA’s or even Rosalind Shanks performance for that matter. This post grew from a recent ‘re-read’ of various sections of the book. You can’t read the book without immediately coming to understand that neither actress, who has had the opportunity to portray Margaret, fits the physical image of Margaret. So what or who does?
To answer that question, we need to go to the expert, the one who had the perfect image in her mind. The one person who made the effort to describe her to us in pretty strong detail. So let’s take a look, what does Gaskell tell us about the image of Margaret.
“…tall stately girl of eighteen…“Chapter 1 “Haste to the Wedding”
Maybe it’s because of these two portrayals or maybe it’s our modern sensibilities that get in the way but all TOO often, we all tend to forget that Margaret is merely a child when the story begins. She is only 18 and full of idealistic ideas.
“who was so far from regularly beautiful; not beautiful at all, was occasionally said. Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that would only open just’ enough to let out a ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and ‘an’t please you, sir.’ But the wide mouth was one soft curve of rich red lips; and the skin, if not white and fair, was of an ivory smoothness and delicacy.“Chapter 2 “Roses & Thorns”
This passage really shows how the word “beautiful” was defined in Victorian times. It also shows how much this definition has changed with time. The same goes for Thornton.. his own definition of himself and our quickness to believe that Thornton was not handsome.. was defined by much different standard than we use today.
“Margaret could not help her looks; but the short curled upper lip, the round, massive up-turned chin, the manner of carrying her head, her movements, full of a soft feminine defiance, always gave strangers the impression of haughtiness.” [...] “She sat facing him and facing the light; her full beauty met his eye; her round white flexile throat rising out of the full, yet lithe figure; her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variations from the one lovely haughty curve; her eyes, with their soft gloom, meeting his with quiet maiden freedom. Chapter 5 ‘New Scenes and Faces”
Webster defines ‘haughty’ in this manner: blatantly and disdainfully proud: having or showing the insulting attitude of people who think that they are better, smarter, or more important than other people. I think many readers/viewers forget this element of Margaret’s character. Mainly because this element is largely left out of the adaptation, with DDA’s performance. It’s not that DDA couldn’t have portrayed this well, I’ve seen her do it in other productions, however, I do know, as we will discuss hopefully in the near future, that it was the goal of the 2004 production team to soften Margaret and yet portray her in a manner that modern viewers would be sympathetic to her immediately. I will get back to this in a moment, but let’s go on.
“…large soft eyes that looked forth steadily at one object, as if from out their light beamed some gentle influence of repose; the curving line of the red lips, just parted in the interest of listening to what her companion said–the head a little bent forwards, as to make a long sweeping line from the summit, where the light caught on the glossy raven hair, to the smooth ivory tip of the shoulder; the round white arms, and taper hands, laid lightly across each other…” Chapter 20 “Men and Gentleman”
Though Daniella is technically taller than I am, it’s hard to describe her as tall and stately. Rosalind, may have been taller than DDA, but stately? And she clearly was not a girl of eighteen. Then there is the hair.. brown was the choice color in both productions and not the raven color described. I could go on, but I think you all know where I’m going.
This brings me to the heart of the post… which is a challenge of sorts. These two actresses, were not honest representations of Margaret as Gaskell described her. Which got me to thinking, is there another actress out there that fits the physical image of Margaret better? It took a bit of thinking but one did come to mind. Yet before I go into my thoughts on the matter, I am going to post the question for discussion early. “Is there someone out there that you feel would fit the ‘image’ of Margaret?” She can be from the small screen or large; well-known or little known; past or present. Let’s have fun with this.
When the idea for this topic came to me, I did some thinking on this question myself. Of the actresses (yes I still call them actresses) that I know, who would fit this image? Naturally my mind moved over the actresses that have crossed my path and made a favorable impression. One in particular seemed to keep coming back to mind.
Michelle Dockery, of Downton Abbey. Though technically right now she is too old, a younger Michelle (pictured at left and below) I thought might truly have been an option. Michelle is certainly tall & stately. She has dark hair, an ivory complexion and by Victorian standards, a rather wide mouth. Another powerful element is, as proved with her role as Mary Crawley, Michelle could very easily pull off Margaret’s haughty disposition. (though Mary could easily take Margaret in the haughty department. lol). Stubborn independence with a soft tenderness!
Okay so I’ll admit it, though it’s completely abnormal for me, Mary Crawley is a favorite character on Downton Abbey. I didn’t much like her at first, but my affection for her grew as I saw that the cold exterior was armor that protected a soft underside. One man saw beneath this harder shell and loved what he saw. He drew this element out onto the surface. Does this sound familiar? No Margaret was no ice queen to all, but Gaskell clearly tells us that strangers were easily mislead by her outer shell.
I also realize that many of you who watch Downton Abbey, might not like the idea of Mary Crawley as our Margaret. I agree that these two women are very different, I am truly not proposing that Mary Crawley is Margaret. Yet, at the same time, there are similarities that tell me that Michelle would have done a bang up job with Margaret’s role.
I’ve chosen to mention one, my top pick, an actress that I feel fits the description fully. Yet there are others that I think fit in some areas while maybe not in others. I will refrain from mentioning them, so that all of you have more options to pick them and share.
So do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Let’s talk about it. I welcome all comments.
The small collage of pictures above contain just a few shots of actresses who have been mentioned to me, either personally or in forum discussions. Whether they fit will be up to you to bring them into the discussion.
Is there an actress coming to mind? Are there several? Share! I will look up pictures and add them to your comment (we’re going to give it a try anyway). Maybe no one actress fits the bill completely, so share the ‘pieces parts’. This actress has her raven hair and her youthful looks of being 18. In fact, let’s broaden the discussion even more. Maybe an actress comes to mind not because of physical attributes, but more demeanor or style of acting. Throw some options out there and let’s have some fun piecing our perfect “image of Margaret” together.
Maybe there is no actress coming to mind, that’s okay too. Share your thoughts on ones that others have mentioned.
This is a fun, light-hearted discussion… let’s have some fun with it! I hope you will comment… I’m looking forward to hearing from all of you!
!!!**hey everyone, I will be happy to find a good photo of your “ideas” and add them to your comment, which is possible using my photo storage account. BUT, if like Courtney, you have a picture you would like to add, just put the link in your comment and I will do my best to convert it and add it back to your post.
Unless you’re new to WoM or have been ignoring the comments on Lori’s posts, you probably know that I LOVE North and South – the book – and that I have a love/hate relationship with the 2004 movie adaptation. And, for some reason, Lori thought I might want to share with all of you why I like it so much, and she thought you might want to read my answer. She was right on the first point, but the jury’s still out on the second…
It was a simple enough question: Why do you love this book? But as I thought about it, it didn’t seem to have a simple answer.
I thought about all of the things that we’ve talked about here on WoM – the characters, the storylines, the relationships, the social impact – I thought about scenes that I love and how they made me feel – I thought about lots of things, but I still didn’t have an answer.
I thought about it in the context of other books that I love. Some of my favorites – ones I’ve read multiple times – The Martian Chronicles, The Hunger Games trilogy, The Light of Western Stars – How did North and South make it into this weird little shortlist? What do they all have in common?
They have people overcoming great adversity, having life-altering adventures, creating beautiful relationships in the midst of personal drama – they’re amazing stories! But really, I think I like them because I see pieces of myself in them.
No, thankfully I have never had to explore or colonize Mars, fight an oppressive regime, kill my peers in a futuristic gladiator arena, defy my social class, escape from Mexican vaqueros, or deal with great personal loss. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t relate to those books…
In North and South, I see myself in the characters’ struggle to be emotionally open and to allow themselves to get close to those around them – in their lack of vulnerability that results in feeling misunderstood and undervalued. Maybe those seem like strange things to draw from this story. I don’t know, maybe they are. But they speak to me.
Most of my early life I felt like no one really understood me. I know that most adolescents feel that way and that some of them are just making it up in their dramatic little heads. Well, I wasn’t making it up. People really didn’t know me because I wouldn’t let them. They were left to assume that the person they saw was the entirety of the person I was. Unfortunately, that person was often irritable, alone, had a biting wit, and could be mean. Because in reality, I was insecure, immature, and plagued by a conscience that wouldn’t let me forget my failures. So, sometimes I said horrible things and always I refused to be vulnerable and mostly people were content not to look further. I can’t say that I blame them.
But it wasn’t true. I wasn’t really that person – or I wasn’t ONLY that person, I should say. And I had a lot more to offer than people were able – or sometimes willing – to see. I had inside of me another version of myself that wanted to develop. But for a long time, I wouldn’t let it. Instead of being honest, I chose to hide behind an unforgiving wit and a cold façade. So, I was moody and felt misunderstood because of my own choices – because I equated emotional vulnerability with weakness. Only those closest to me could catch a glimpse, from time to time, of the person I wished I had the courage to be.
How bad was I? I’ll tell you a very unflattering story:
When I was a kid (around age 9 or 10, I think) a nice, cute boy at church had a crush on me. One day, he gave a silk rose to his friend and had the friend deliver it to me. I was so embarrassed by this expression of emotion and I was so afraid of what my family would think, I went into the bathroom and angrily tore the rose apart. I threw open the bathroom door, found the messenger, slammed the pieces of the rose back into his hand, and said, “Give it back to him!” Then, I went into the bathroom and cried.
That poor kid didn’t deserve that treatment. And I felt awful for doing that to him. (I also felt awful for gouging a hole in his arm with my fingernail on the playground on another day, but I digress…) I felt awful and he was a nice kid. So why did I do it? Why was I so horrible to him?
In short, I was embarrassed by his attention and his affection. I wasn’t ready to receive it. So I fought back with the only emotion I could safely display: anger. (This story bears a vague resemblance to the proposal/rejection scene in North and South, doesn’t it? Don’t remember? Watch the movie version here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_FcSm1wUu0 )
As an adult, I look back and regret my hideous behavior. And I realize I can relate both to Margaret’s angry rejection of Thornton and to her subsequent shame.
As a mother, I imagine how that kid’s mom felt about this bratty monster of a girl who kept hurting her little boy. And I realize I can relate to Hannah’s hatred for the girl who kept hurting her little boy.
So, in the novel when Margaret has trouble expressing her innermost feelings because she’s afraid of people’s judgment or afraid of admitting her own emotion, I can relate. When the stoic John Thornton feels emotionally unknowable and underappreciated, I can relate. When Hannah hides her grief – her emotions – behind her stern façade and sharp tongue, I can relate. When Higgins pushes too hard for the union and regrets hurting Boucher, I can relate. Pieces of them are pieces of me.
Stopping there, the story would be tragic. Thankfully, these characters overcome. Margaret finds someone who grants her permission to express herself. Thornton finds someone who sees his true value and the deep well of emotion under that stoic expression. Hannah finds the validation she wants for her son and the promise of a joyful tomorrow. Higgins finds friendship and a renewed purpose.
What I love about this story is that everyone grows. It’s hopeful! These characters show us that we don’t have to stay the people that everyone thinks we are or expects us to be. We can be something more than that. We can just be us – the very best version of ourselves. Yes, we are flawed and we will make mistakes and we’ll judge unfairly and we’ll struggle with – everything. We’re a mess! But since we’re all a mess, we can extend grace to each other – and accept grace from each other – and grow.
I love North and South because it’s so familiar and so redemptive.
Yeah, that’s what I love…Well, that AND the last scene in the study. I really, really love that. Seriously, have you read that lately?!
What about you? Have you found pieces of yourself in this book?
Note from loriBear: *thank you Courtney for agreeing to write this post. Be sure to go and have a look at Courtney’s “bio” on our “Contributor’s” page. You can also get a hint of Courtney’s blog by viewing her post about this post on her blog! lol that was a bit of twist there wasn’t it. Also … I’ve already commissioned another post from Courtney. You can’t frequent WoM without knowing Courtney is very passionate about the book ending of North & South. I put her on notice that a post, defending her stand will be required in the future .. stay tuned.
How often have you seen this statement? In my seven years since discovering North & South, this thought has been presented on more than one occasion. After a few times, I will admit, I got quite annoyed, now I’ve settled into a much more patient place. This very thought was once again brought up in a discussion on another web discussion platform.
The question was asked quite honestly.. with a desire to understand. How could Thornton be this confident mill owner and then at the same time feel himself unworthy? The question arose in her mind after examining the ending that she states plainly to love dearly.
“Oh Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough.”
“Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.”
The fan goes on to say that she understands Margaret’s feelings of unworthiness, given her lie about Fred. Yet she didn’t understand why Thornton would feel himself unworthy. She then went on to quote other parts of the novel like:
“I dare not hope. I never was fainthearted before; but I cannot believe such a creature cares for me”
“…a great rough fellow, with not a grace or a refinement about him.”
In reading her thoughts, I did feel compassion for her struggle. Many in our modern age struggle with this element in Thornton’s character. It’s hard for some to understand and grasp the balance of ‘confident commanding master’ and ‘humble, tender, loving man’. Yet, it’s the complexity of Thornton’s character, the factor that he possesses all of these qualities that make him such an amazing man.
What can appear as “low self-esteem” to some, is only Gaskell revealing the man beneath the stern master. The quote from early in the story, “I dare not hope. I never was fainthearted before; but I cannot believe such a creature cares for me…”, true to Gaskell’s brilliance of writing, delivers many things at once. To be honest, it’s easy to miss the true beauty of this line. It is but a small segment of a larger, more powerful scene yet it still delivers a punch all on its own. We see the two sides of Thornton. “never was fainthearted before”, displays his strength and intelligence and then “I cannot believe such a creature cares for me…” delivers the depth of his passion for Margaret. This man is bursting at the seams and he doesn’t know how he can contain himself any longer. His love for Margaret is unchartered territory for him. I could go on about this.. but let’s move onto the more practical side of this feeling that Thornton has “low self-esteem”.
Before you can really grasp any of the characters in this novel, you have to understand the world that they live in. Much of Victorian Britain, as with many era preceding it, was controlled by a strict social class system and it plays a heavy role in what is behind many of Thornton’s statements throughout the book that can be confused with “low self-esteem”. What we struggle to understand on this front, is something that readers of the Victorian age would have not only immediately understood… in truth, would have expected. I read an article years ago that spoke of how North & South was not received well by the upper social classes of the time. Many felt the love story was unequally matched. (translation: the upper classes didn’t approve of Margaret falling for a man of the working class)
In Victorian Britain, class separation still ruled society yet it was being challenged. With the evolving industrial revolution, people who were considered “working class” were rising to heights of wealth and power, and this was upsetting the well established social apple cart (so to speak). This very issue plays a heavy role in the message that Gaskell was attempting to communicate in her story. The disadvantage for us, in these modern times, is that Gaskell doesn’t spell this out. Again, because the readers she wrote to understood this without explanation, they were living it.
At the time that Gaskell wrote this wonderful story, though this element was changing… full change had not yet taken place. Thornton, though immensely wealthy, was well aware of his “lack of refinement” by the definition of the class above him. He had not been born into a social class that would have taught him those refinements, in fact, the tragedy of his father’s death also plays a role in his lack of training in this area. His statements on this topic were not a lack of confidence but rather a reflection of what he knew to be true in the society he lived in. His understanding of this and his full opinion on the matter is revealed in more detail in his discussion with Margaret about the true definition of a “gentleman”. To sum up his words, he held himself to a higher standard than that which was thrust upon him by society. He speaks of being weary of the misuse of the word “gentlemanly” but brings out the element of being a “man” to be more powerful. Though it is not said in exact terms, Thornton held himself to a higher standard. Not to please others but “to himself—to time—to eternity.” It was more important to live a life of high morals, honesty and integrity. This is not a man suffering from ‘low self esteem’. (quotes from Ch 20 ‘Men & Gentleman’)
Thornton knew, instinctively, that Margaret would view him as “lacking refinement” and he was spot on. We all know very well Margaret’s prejudice against him in the first half of the book. With comments such as “not quite a gentleman”. If he had not loved her so keenly, I don’t think this would have bothered him much. It was nothing new to him. In fact, if you look closely at the beginning of their acquaintance, though he felt attraction to her, her view of him he found rather amusing. It was only when his attraction began to grow, against his will, that this ‘fact’ began to sting.
Also, his statements about feeling unworthy of Margaret also reflects his humbleness of character. It’s the tender, compassionate and humble side of Thornton that he has had to keep locked away since his father died. Margaret awakens that part of him and forces it to the surface. His passion for her is unchartered territory for him. His love for her and then her cruel rejection of him, knocks him completely off balance. This confident, powerful man is shaken to his core by his love for this rather naive, idealistic southern refined lady. Yet even there, though it takes time, he is able to regain his equilibrium and his strong sense of self.
In truth, loving Margaret redefines him. As I stated above, I don’t believe it is until he meets her that he feels the full brunt of the social class constraints. Though he was well aware of them, it wasn’t until his heart longed for her love, that he felt the full weight of the limitations it put on him.
The last point that I will make comes from another quote in the novel. One of my all time favorites.
“…he passionately loved her, and thought her, even with all her faults, more lovely and more excellent than any other woman…”
He adores her. Because he thought of her (in translation) to be the best woman in the world, it is not so surprising that the humble side of him felt unworthy of her. In truth, it is quite beautiful. Gaskell reveals much the same in Margaret. In the second half of the book, Margaret comes to understand Thornton. She sees him for what he is.. a man like no other. She not only understands, but knows what Thornton stated about being a ‘man’.. was the only way to view a man. Her great sorrow, comes from her understanding that she rejected the best of men. She adores him and this is articulated in her sorrow at what she feels is lost to her nearing the end of the book. Sitting before a fire, even though she and Henry had grown close, she resigns herself to the fact that she would never marry. To her, in that moment, no other man could ever live up to what she knew Thornton to be. Every other man would suffer in comparison.
Gaskell reveals the depth of their love for each other in those last words (quoted above). Their love is pure. Not some idle infatuation. They see each other clearly, faults and all and believe the other to be “more excellent than any other…”
It is not a self-esteem issue.. but rather a thing of real beauty.
So now it’s your turn… have you struggled with this thought? Have you had this very discussion with others? What are your thoughts?