Was Thornton a virgin?


I’m thrilled to be a contributor to this blog. Thanks, Loribear, for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts and start some discussions here. I’ll be posting from time to time on various subjects. I hope everyone reading feels free to add their observations and opinions. 

Emotions can run high when contesting for the romantic image that John Thornton has impressed upon our hearts and minds. From what I understand, the question of Thornton’s virginity was one of the most hotly debated subjects on the C19 Internet forum a few years ago (before my time).

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I’m willing to open the discussion anew. But here let me make my premise clear: in seeking for an answer to this question, I will be looking solely to Gaskell’s works, since the only person who can give us the definitive answer would be Gaskell herself. Any impressions garnered from Richard Armitage’s portrayal of the character have no real substantive place in the intellectual wrestling of this issue. However, the emotional and romantic impressions individually cherished by Armitage’s portrayal are the untouchable, private province of each individual. Everyone is entitled to believe in her own version of John Thornton, but in this blog discussion we are looking to discover the character as written by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Phew! So serious already! Now let’s look to see what inferences we can find in the book…

The first glimpse we are given of Thornton’s past is what Thornton himself offers in chapter 10 (Wrought Iron and Gold), when he tells the Hales about how he had to find work after his father died. The cold, hard facts are that he moved from Milton at about the age of 15 or 16 to live in a small country town where he took work at a draper’s shop. He was the sole provider for his mother and Fanny, and earned 15 shillings a week. His mother taught him to put 3 shillings aside every week.

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Mr. Hale provides more information after Thornton leaves, telling us that it is believed that the Thorntons survived on water-porridge for years and that at some point John returned to Milton to pay installments on his father’s debts long after the creditors had given up hope of being paid. Thornton was then taken on as a kind of partner by one of these creditors.

Gaskell gives no details as to when and how he became the master of Marborough Mills, but I believe we are to assume he continued to apply the same diligent effort and determination to whatever work he was given in order to rise to such a position.

This basic picture of his history suggests that his life has so far has been primarily consumed by work and the responsibility of providing for his family as well as re-establishing for them a position of dignity and stature.

Yet it’s what Thornton himself remarks about his experience that gives us the most insight into his character. He credits his mother’s strength and resolve in determining to save money to pay off debts. His respect and gratitude for her guiding hand are summed up in these words: I had such a mother as few are blest with.

Mr. Thornton tells us what he believes he learned in following his mother’s austere plan to save three shillings a week:

This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial…I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.

And he goes on to explain the philosophy he has developed from this hard experience:

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Now when I feel that in my own case it is no good luck, nor merit, nor talent, – but simply the habits of life which taught me to despise indulgences not thoroughly earned, – indeed, never to think twice about them, – I believe that this suffering, which Miss Hale says is impressed on the countenances of the people of Milton, is but the natural punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure, at some former period of their lives. I do not look on self-indulgent, sensual people as worthy of my hatred; I simply look upon them with contempt for their poorness of character.

He appears to take great pride in being a man of uncommon self-discipline. Whatever pleasures he gains from life, he does not consider to be self-indulgent or sensual.

I think it’s safe to conclude that John would have had little opportunity or resources for self-indulgence in those early years of working. I can’t imagine him spending money on drink or women. Can you imagine having to explain to Hannah where he’d been?! No, I think John was on the straight and narrow during his teen years.

But is he human, you ask? Wouldn’t he have had ‘needs’? I’m not implying that John Thornton was the perfect man, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that he did not fall into the practice of indulging himself. As he said, he didn’t even think of it. He learned to accept and thrive on a pattern of austerity and dedicated purpose.

What about John’s later years, after he had established himself as master, wouldn’t he have had more time and opportunity, not to mention money, to loosen up a little?

There is little in the book to suggest that Thornton changed his habits. As far as we know, taking lessons with Mr. Hale is the first time he has taken the time to pursue a personal pleasure. At least we get the hint from Hannah’s disapproval that this may be an altogether new venture for him.

What does all this have to do with whether or not John Thornton was a virgin before he met Margaret? I believe that Gaskell is making it rather clear that Mr. Thornton was a man of high principles who was consumed by his work, leaving little thought for ought else.

In my estimation, given his strict habits and abhorrence of self-indulgence as well as his great respect for his mother, I find it hard to imagine that at any time he sought satisfaction with prostitutes or dallied with the farmer’s daughter/scullery maid.

You may disagree. I would love to hear what induces you to believe otherwise.

Of course prostitution was rampant in the Victorian era. The strict moral codes of conduct for the middle and upper classes of society regarding marriage and courting left little option for men to acquire their experience.  The double standard of the day allowed men to find ‘release’ from their desires with prostitution, at the expense of degrading countless girls and women to a status that afforded no chance of redemption.

Could Thornton have had a romantic relationship with a girl or woman at some time in his past wherein he lost his virginity? If he did, then the relationship was immoral and the girl/woman likely degraded. However, there’s nothing to substantiate the assumption that he ever had a romantic relationship before Margaret. In fact, Thornton himself declares that he has never been in love before:

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I have never loved any woman before: my life has been too busy, my thoughts too much absorbed with other things.

I take Gaskell at her word here. I think the author sets the story beautifully by showing us how much of an impact Margaret makes on John from the very beginning. From the moment he sees Margaret, he is arrested by her beauty and her dignity. Gaskell goes to great lengths to describe how this brief encounter is essentially life-altering for Thornton. He has never had this reaction to a woman before.

In the book’s scene of Thornton’s first encounter with Margaret Hale, I believe Gaskell is painting a picture of a man wholly unaccustomed to romantic love who is, right before our eyes, undergoing a sexual awakening. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

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106 thoughts on “Was Thornton a virgin?

  1. Sorry, that’s all I had time for a minute ago…I completely agree that with the character evidence we have for Thornton being incredibly self-controlled and consumed by work and his high standards (self-imposed) for living an honorable life, I can’t see any evidence for sexual encounters. Any opportunity he would have had would have violated at least one of those values, so I think he refrained.

    I also believe that he and Margaret would have waited until they were married before having sex of any kind and I believe they would have gotten married very, very quickly. My position may come as a surprise since I’m a strong advocate of the final book scene being super sexy, but that doesn’t mean I think they went too far then or at any time before they were properly married. I think they had too much respect for each other and themselves to engage in that kind of behavior.

    • No question as to your agreement, Courtney! That they would stay chaste before the wedding night is a given. Thornton would never dishonor her. However, any prolonged wait would be a mighty struggle if Margaret was in Milton for the duration of the engagement. I believe there are some fanfics that depict this very thing….

  2. First and foremost, THANK YOU to Trudy for taking on this particular topic. I was present for the MUCH heated debate that happened on C19 several years ago. The debate was so heated that I had to stop reading it after awhile. There were passions on both sides of the topic. Some feeling very passionate that Thornton had to be experienced.

    Of course, like Courtney, I am in FULL and complete agreement of all Trudy points out. I believe that the evidence to fact that he was a virgin goes all the way through the book.

    I also completely agree Courtney that they both would have been virgins on their wedding day. The integrity of Thornton as well as Margaret’s passionate moral standing would have not allowed for anything else. Trudy is correct, it would have been very difficult and some fanfics have portrayed the two to not last until their wedding night.

    Still, this discussion is open for all. If you happen to disagree or just have more questions on this topic, I hope you will feel free to comment openly. The goal of this blog is for all of us to learn… and what better way to learn than through respectful discussion!

  3. I’m totally agree with you. It’s a funny coincidence, because yestarday I was thinking about this topic after the 10th chapter of
    ” A heart for Milton”. Thornton has his high principles, and he’s not that kind of man who coul spend his time with easy ladies…he also believe in marriage and its disposition, so it would be very strange. And I also think that Mrs. Thornton could stopped him in case he was having an affair with a woman of lower value. Her beloved son had to had only the best!

    • Thanks for commenting. I don’t even think Thornton thought much about women. It just wasn’t on his radar, really. So I don’t think he was ever involved with anyone of the opposite gender, even of the lower class variety that mum would have disapproved of. I’ll get to that in a bit…

  4. Oh thank you Trudy for this. I was really stumped what to add when I read this, as I completely agreed with you – John Thornton had made his life a ‘perfection’ of exercising self-control – so I always have been of the view that he would have been a virgin, as part of this control being exercised over his whole life. I certainly believe that he never had time for love – and I stress the word love – until he met Margaret.

    HOWEVER… I was talking to my husband about it this morning, and he said, yes, of course he would have had sex – men always do, they always have the desire for sex, if they want to, they find the opportunity. So what do I think? I am going to play devil’s advocate here…

    I can see my husband’s comments have some truth, not necessarily relating directly to the text but more to the social norms of the times – firstly, the Victorian dichotomy of the public vs private life – that people had social obligations to uphold, in public, but what they got up to in private life was another, unspoken, matter.

    John Thornton’s mother wouldn’t have known what her son was up to, if indeed he was off visiting a lover or prostitute – John Thornton was no mummy’s boy to run home and tell. Mrs Thornton was an amazing woman in many ways – so upstanding (of her own views), so firm in her outlook, there is no evidence of her condoning such behaviour (if it existed). No mental shrugging of “men will be men”.

    Although a ‘little’ too involved in her love for John, Mrs Thornton did manage to let her son be a man, have his own life and also live in the same house together. She was always very thorough in the workings of the mill, but she did her best to allow him to have some sort of private life.

    But John Thornton certainly would have had opportunity to have a lover at times – he was a man of business and a magistrate, out at all hours and places, so he had a lot of control over his own actions, his timekeeping, and less accountability than most.

    Chastity and virginity need thinking about as well. Robertson Davies book that “chastity is a quality of the spirit” while virginity is a physical technicality. Maybe John Thornton was chaste, but maybe not a virgin, exercising self-control over his body and soul.

    There’s also our lack of understanding of the context – which would have been implicit to the readers, of how it was at the time this book was written. Our view of the Victorian era is tempered by the way we understand and exist in our own time, as well as by the visions of the past painted by modern books and films. Likewise – and I am sorry if this upsets people – our understanding of the acceptability and use of prostitutes in the Victorian times. Our view today is that prostitute use is a bad thing – whereas to the Victorians it was not a great thing, not to be spoken about, but definitely a part of life.

    Also today, we’re just bombarded with overt forms of sexuality every which-where. I think that our conditioned automatic response is the assumption that people must be active sexual beings. But when we read all this excellent fanfic – thank you Trudy for your latest chapter btw – we love the thought of John and Margaret getting together, becoming lovers, because their love is so special, it is pure, and they are chaste before each other. Physical love must have been so overwhelming because it was hidden, unspoken and undocumented. It must also have been really really exciting!

    So a big ‘thank you’ to my husband for making me look at this another way. I now see both sides of the story, but I am ultimately hope that JT was a virgin when he wed his Margaret. I know, from the book, that he most definitely kept himself chaste for her, and to me that’s not a shabby second best.

    • Oh thanks, Jude! I was hoping my argument wouldn’t fly free without being challenged! I only laid out the basic foundation of my case. I have so much more I can offer to validate my contention that Thornton remained sexually inexperienced. I believe I’m aware of all the counterarguments. And I’m also fairly aware of the differences in perception and acceptance of various social and moral issues between our current society and the Victorian society, some of which you have mentioned.
      In regard to your husband’s assumption, I think the essential question to be asked is how we perceive mankind. Are we primarily animal creatures to be governed haplessly by physical, chemical urges and sensations along with the myriad other animal species in existence, or does our humanity, our high ability to reason and think, give us more freedom in choosing our actions despite our baser urges? Of course you will determine that I believe the answer is the latter. Through personal conviction and conscious decision, we are able to govern ourselves and in civilized society are expected to govern ourselves above the level of the base animal.
      I do not deny that men carry an urge to have sex. But I don’t believe that he has no power to control it. In Thornton’s case, I believe he has lessened the occurrence of temptation because his mentality has been focused on other things. From all that we can glean from the book, it would seem that his mind truly does not wander there (to sexual lust, fantasy), so there is not as much struggle to restrain himself.
      Although I think Thornton kept pretty busy as CEO of Marlborough Mills, I’m sure he could have found time for a lover or social courting if he had had the inclination. But in every reference made regarding his experience with women in the book, he appears to have virtually no thought of being a sexual object or taking the opportunity to flirt or seduce.
      His mother warns him not to be caught by a penniless girl (Margaret) just before he goes to tea. What is his answer?
      “….I never was aware of any young lady trying to catch me yet, nor do I believe that any one has given themselves that useless trouble.”
      Is he kidding??!!! This statement screams that he is quite out of touch with the husband-catching game that is ever a part of Victorian socializing of the sexes. He seems quite unaware of womankind in general here and of his own desirability as a wealthy businessman of marriage age. Mentally, he’s not in the game at all. And his naivety suggests that he is uninterested, unaware of women not only in regard to marriage, but as sexual prospects. There is no sophisticated ring to his statement that suggests he’s had his share of what women offer.
      There’s also this quote from the dinner party. Gaskell has Margaret notice (about Thornton) that “He was not in the habit of talking to ladies; and what he did say was a little formal.”
      I think all this still plays beautifully into my original exposition. Gaskell is showing us how unprepared and untested he is in the realm of love and sexual desire. So that when Margaret comes along and his attraction, love, and desire grow, he comes completely undone. He becomes lost in a passion that he has little control over.
      If he were already experienced, the impact of this signal change in Thornton and the effect it has on him would be significantly weakened.

  5. Trudy – again, I so agree with you. john’s passion for Margaret when it occurs is so strong, staggering, insightful and earth shattering that it is all he can do to contain it – so novel in fact, that he barely knows what to do with himself. There’s no way he’s been in love or strong attraction before if his responses are anything to go by.

    I think his age and life experience helps him to see Margaret for who she is, he understands that when she loves, she will do passionately – it all speaks of first love, but not blind first love.

    He sees her for what she is, his experience is the counterweight to her immaturity – but all the time his passion is that of someone who is new to love and courtship.

    And his excellently-developed self control generally, but not always, reigns him in from being too much of a fool.

    So I’m with you Trudy, I believe JT to have been chaste, virginal and new to love. What a lovely combination for them both.

  6. Like Trudy, I would like the thank you Jude for your comment and taking on the role of devil’s advocate. It is working through all these elements that we find the true nature of Thornton. I don’t have extensive time at the moment to go into too much depth but there are a few things that need to be considered when considering this topic. (though the length of this comment would suggest OTHERWISE! lol)

    Trudy, your thoughts on the factor of man being an animal or intellectual being is excellent. When it comes down to it, man is created as both. He is an intellectual being made of flesh. Still, let’s put all of this into a nutshell. Thornton was a man so, yes, do I believe that he had all the normal desires. Yet what I am not prepared to say is that because he is a man, he could not or would not control himself.

    I’m going to turn the table back around Jude. You are EXACTLY right, in that, we have to be EXTREMELY careful when we view morals, traditions and actions for another era/society. Our view is skewed. Yet, I see the reverse as more of an issue. The majority of our modern society, as a whole, does NOT applaud the moral aspects of the Victorian era, it tends to distrust it and write if off as, “what they said BUT (wink) NOT what they did!” It’s also why this question tends to be so frequently asked. In our modern structure, it seems so unlikely for a man around the age of 30 to be chaise in both mind and body.

    Was prostitution available and around in that time period? Absolutely, there is proof of that. Were there opportunities for men to take advantage of poor young ladies? Absolutely, there is proof of this found in text of the day. Were the Victorians, a highly moral people? Yes that is also true. Was this morality only observed in public society? For some yes, but I do not believe for all. I believe and have seen evidence that there were some who did not just live this moral code on the surface but took it to heart and truly lived by it. Isn’t this true of every society, even today?

    Jude, I too chatted with my husband about this issue several years ago. I even chatted with other men, friends and relatives. Of course there were varying answers, depending on their own experiences and moral codes. I came away with a deeper understanding and perspective on the issue. All of them agreed that remaining celibate until marriage is not easy, yet what I found more interesting is that MOST of them (no matter their personal experience) felt that it was not just possible but a reality for some men. Two of them, stated that in most if not all cases, for a man to choose this, he needed to have a deep conviction driving it, a conviction that gripped him stronger than the physical desire. Something that drove their entire outlook on life and relationships.

    My husband reminded me that the ultimate authority on this issue was Gaskell herself. What was her view on the topic and how did she present this character? How did she present his view of himself and how did she write him conducting his life? Did he have convictions present that would influence him in this arena? Were these convictions strong enough to drive his life? Then my husband challenged me to look at the whole picture. Did he live his life honestly, or was he more the sort to present himself one way, while in truth, he was something else. Basically, it brought me to ask this question, was Thornton for societies sake a liar? What was my impressions of him, did he speak honestly from the heart or did he believe that he could be two things at once. One thing for society and another for himself?

    I said this over and over in the discussion several years ago, the perspective on this subject, is driven heavily on the individual and their personal experiences. If you’ve never known a single man to make the choice of being chaise both in mind and body, then of course, it would be difficult for that person to fathom that Thornton could be so. I personally know both, ones who chose experience and ones that chose to be inexperienced.

    My personal goal, when this topic came up years ago on C19, was to see the man that Gaskell presented. Gaskell, is the end authority on the issue, since he is a product of her making. I truly challenged myself to find the “man” and not make him into what I thought he should be. For others, this is not important and I’m okay with that.

    I do hope that if others still have questions or wish to present their thoughts, whether as a devils advocate or your honest opinion, that you will feel free to do so. It is not required on this blog to agree with the views of the admin (me) or contributors (like Trudy). The blog was created to give a place for fans of this book, classic novel and other period dramas to come and play. (yes other period pieces will be discussed eventually.. I promise! lol)

    • Loribear, what a great response. I’d just like to say that while being the devil’s advocate as I was, arguments for both possibilities stretched before me – that he was, that he wasn’t. But ultimately, he had never loved before, that much I believe to be true. AND, as you point out, the way he is written, John Thornton doesn’t seem to be living a delusionary life – saying one thing and meaning the other.

      in fact, he is the ‘ideal Victorian’ in many ways – he is looking to the future in his business, which is helping to change the face of society. the Victorians were fantastic – they built and expanded and organised the UK, massive public works were created, lives lifted up out of poverty, the roads, railways and bridgeingewe use today built. To do this you needed a society led by visionaries and idealists who wanted the best and were prepared to go for it. And I believe JT was one of these people.

      Despite the claims of just being a business man, John Thornton lives and works by a very firm set of ideals…. So, to lead back to the topic at hand, I believe that he was chaste and virginal, he had a strong moral code.

      As I said myself, it is our outlook that colours our perception – our inner voice says “of course he must have had sex” – Because Ms Gaskell wrote this truly incredible, courageous, moral man..How could we not fail to be impressed? He’s a catch, as my mother might have said. So of course he must have been sexually active… At some point… Because that’s ‘manly’, isn’t it? (please note sarcasm.) As you point out, having the strength to say no, to be chaste, is also a sign of being very manly as well.

      Ultimately, the bit I found sad was that he thought that marriage was not for him – that he thought himself alone – until he met Margaret. It seems like he was prepared to let a whole lot of wonderful life pass him by But thanks to Margaret he experienced this wonderful awakening emotionally, spiritually and physically, that he had loved and it made his life glorious.

  7. I also believe without a doubt that John was most certainly a virgin, for all the same reasons stated above. And to extrapolate further, I feel that if Margaret had never moved to Milton and met Thornton, he would have remained a bachelor to his dying day. This assumption is based on the character of the man that Gaskell has described to us in the book. He was apparently content for the mill and Hannah and Fanny to be the sole focus of his life. Since he had such a strong sense of discipline, it’s not difficult to believe that he never allowed himself to think about women as anything more than mothers, sisters, and perhaps future wives to men other than himself. I would wager that his peers (the other masters) also saw him as a confirmed bachelor with nothing but mill and magistrate business on his mind.

    The only hint of physical desire Gaskell ever gave us in Thornton was the disturbing dream Thornton had about Margaret after he’d known her for some time. Sorry, but it would take me forever to look up the quote, but I know all of you here know the sequence I’m referring to, and Lori and Trudy can probably cite the exact chapter off the top of their heads. But MH is dancing seductively towards him in the dream and she kind of morphs into something evil, and he awakens in a very disturbed state. You get the impression that this is the first time he has ever had an arousing dream about a woman, and his reaction is one of agony and denial, not enjoyment. John would not feel comfortable even fantasizing about Margaret in this way, thus his angst and feelings of frustration around her throughout the book. Virgin, definitely.

  8. I agree with everything Trudy, Lori, and Jude have said, and nothing Jude’s husband said, lol.

    I will also point out, for whatever it’s worth, the very simple dream Thornton had about Margaret in chapter 40. It’s not sexual – to us – but it really disturbs him. I think he was disturbed, in part, because it is such a light, affectionate, familiar Margaret and I think he’s a bit uncomfortable fantasizing about her – even though it was a dream and completely out of his control. Just one more piece of evidence for his values and self control.

    (And might I add, Lori’s husband came up big with the evaluate-what-kind-of-man-he-is-based-on-the-totality-of-his-life test. Way to be there, LH! Nicely played.)

  9. AUGH! Andintheend, I posted before I refreshed! Glad to know we’re in the same space, though. Here’s the quote:

    “He dreamt of her; he dreamt she came dancing towards him with outspread arms, and with a lightness and gaity which made him loathe her, even while it allured him. But the impression of this figure of Margaret – with Margaret’s character taken out of it, as completely as if some evil spirit had got possession of her form – was so deeply stamped upon his imagination, that when he wakened he felt hardly able to separate the Una from the Duessa; and the dislike he had to the latter seemed to envelop and disfigure the former. Yet he was too proud to acknowledge his weakness by avoiding the sight of her.” (Ch. 40, Out of Tune)

    • We have to remember that this dream takes place while he is agonizing over Margaret’s indiscretion of being seen with an unknown male in public. It is not an exaggeration to say that he is haunted by these images in his head. He is tortured trying to reconcile what he knows of Margaret and what he saw. It’s too conflicting images and one can not exist with the other. His heart tells him that she is still that innocent, virtuous woman.. but his eyes saw a contradiction to it. **This is why learning about Fred later is such a huge thing to him. Playing a heavy role in easing his heart and mind.

      Thank you andinthend for adding the the dream to this discussion. It is yet another window into Thornton and his moral standing and ideals!

      Thank you Courtney, I was out and about when I read all of your posts. Though I do carry a digital copy of the book on my iPhone, it was not the best environment to try to post it! lol

  10. Thanks, Loribear, for adding your thoughts. The cynical model of the typical Victorian whose private life differs from the outward appearance of propriety does not apply to Thornton. John Thornton prides himself on his honesty and forthrightness. I think as far as actions are concerned, he has nothing to hide. What he *does* hide is his tender heart. If there is any secretive side to our hero, it isn’t in lusty affairs but a more quiet, contemplative, gentle side. I mean, really. He chooses to read Greek classics in his spare time. He’s not really sounding like the guy to go carousing for women at nightfall.
    It is sad, Jude, to think that Thornton assumed marriage was not for him. I think he was still too married to his job to give it much thought, but when it did cross his mind, I think the overriding reason he was not in the ‘market’ was that he hadn’t met anyone like Margaret and had no interest in the types of women in his social circles. As we know, Margaret isn’t your typical girl. I think Fanny and Edith were meant to represent more of the typical females of her age – all pretty presentation, very little substance. No wonder John wasn’t interested. He’s unconsciously looking for someone more like mum: someone with a strong presence and identity who can hold intelligence conversations.
    Andintheend and Courtney – I don’t have a firm conviction about interpreting Thornton’s dream of a dancing, alluring Margaret. I think Gaskell puts that in the story to show us a couple of things. First and foremost it’s meant to demonstrate how deeply embedded his desire for Margaret is. He wants her to understand him, love him – and he wants her as his own, which includes (even if not consciously admitted) wanting her sexually. Gaskell is also using this to show us how disturbing it is to him that he has this sexual desire that he cannot shake. (The image of Margaret in his dream ‘allured’ him – a sexual term.) It would seem to show that this is unfamiliar territory to him. Ultimately, the author is showing how all his life-long self-control is not working here, not when it comes to Margaret. All rationality, the basic foundation of his life, is shot. He’s left struggling with some deep emotions without any clear direction of how to handle them. I think this whole occurrence reinforces the concept of his sexual inexperience.

  11. I agree 100% with Trudy on this subject.

    Thornton wasn’t a “gentleman” in the sense of the social classes, didn’t receive an education, etc. Because of this and as Trudy stated, his work ethic and self-discipline, is his state of being. He didn’t drink, gamble or have the social class to live as others did who seem more likely in my idea of the 19th century male to not be a virgin. Henry; not a virgin most likely due to his social class and general opinion of his own greatness(yes I did go there lol). I’m more likely to think Thornton a virgin than Mr. Darcy lol.

    I’m a bit surprised to learn this was such a heated discussion and debate at C19 as it doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue regarding the overall story to me. It’s not something I even thought about regarding Thornton when I read the book or watched the movie.

    • Back then as now there were gentlemen’s clubs where the men could relieve themselves if they didn’t want to ruin the reputation of a properly brought up girl. I,too, am glad that John wasn’t a cad like that.:-)


  12. Hi everyone,

    This is a great blog post and it was very interesting reading everyone’s comments. Trudy, congratulations on becoming a contributor here. It sort of seems like the natural scheme of things.

    Okay, in the movie I find it hard to buy that Thornton was a virgin because of that kiss at the train station, however, strictly going by Gaskell’s book, I have to agree with Trudy. To me, Thornton’s inexperience with women is evident the very first time that he met Margaret at the hotel. Thornton was blown away for the first time in his life by a woman. So much so that he couldn’t talk. I believe that if Thornton had been with women intimately before he would have handled his instant attraction to Margaret better. The passion that was unleashed when Margaret came into Thornton’s life makes it hard for me to believe that he was as self disciplined as many of you believe he was in that area. I am only talking about the area of sexual desire. Victorian times or not, it is perfectly natural to have strong sexual desires. In men between 17 and 30 they tend to possess a very high sex drive. I do not find it out of the question that Thornton indulged in “self service” when those desires ran high. Thornton would never go to see a prostitute. Thornton also would never compromise any young woman in his circle by bedding her for pleasure. However, that does not mean that Thornton would never “service” himself in the privacy of his own room during those times when his normal sexual desires ran high. Thornton was a very self disciplined man but not superhuman.

    It is surprising as well for me that this topic of Thornton’s virginity caused such a heated stir at C19. Even though I thought about it as I was reading the book, it is NOT that pressing an issue. I am always more interested in the love story than who was or not a virgin. I would have to agree the Henry was not a virgin. I would also tend to believe that Mr. Darcy wasn’t one either.

    I love Trudy’s sensitive handling of John & Margaret’s wedding night. I loved all the the love making scenes in A Heart for Milton. I thought they were all very tasteful and beautifully written. It would be fun to do a group read of that book too.

    If Mr. Thornton never met Margaret I don’t think he ever would have loved another woman in that way. However, I am not sure about him remaining a bachelor for life.

    • Okay Xenia… there are just a couple of things that I want to say in reply to your comments. I, like others, completely agree with your assessment of that very first meeting. To be quite honest, there is nothing in the book, that I have found, that supports otherwise. The only thing that challenges this idea is perception. Whether perception of RA’s performance, perception of men as a gender and then perception of era’s in time.

      Quickly, on Thornton’s experience… as pertaining to “self service”. This is truly not something that matters much to me so I wont press it. Still another thing to keep in mind, is the challenge of putting todays socially accepted activities onto another era that had much different outlooks on such things. In past cultures and in some circles today, “self servicing” was viewed and taught as being “wrong”, even to the point of “sin”. Did it happen still in these cultures? Of course it did, it is not a new thing.

      So the question is, what were the influences in Thornton’s life? We know that Thornton was spiritually influenced and had strong beliefs. I can’t see Hannah speaking to him about the issue, though truly who knows? Maybe George did before he passed?

      In the end, did Thornton have opportunity? Of course he did! Did he view this act as a self indulgent activity? We don’t know and in reality, never will. I return to the challenge from my husband. What do we know of Thornton? What we do know, is that although Thornton is human, he also had very strong self-discipline. Whether or not he even needed to go there and how often, is up to each person to decide.

      [Now to more fun topics.] Speaking of RA’s portrayal of that kiss at the train station, is a hot topic with those that hold on to the idea that Thornton was not a virgin. Many woman believe that no virgin could ever kiss like that! (also see Jude’s comment) I beg to differ. I think a man who is a virgin, even a man who has never kissed a girl before is capable of “instinct” and natural abilities. Kissing does not demand experience. Experience helps but is not required. Still, I do understand why many do not. That kiss, I feel, is the best on screen… hands down!

      Attempting to step away from sighing (lol), we also can not forget that this kiss was delivered by an experienced actor… with experience & talents all his own. Staged and created by a production staff. Then performed with a equally talented actor, DDA (Daneila Denby-Ashe). I’ve read that on screen kisses are a ‘learned’ art. I say this because I’ve seen several of RA’s on screen kisses and let’s just say, the other actors fell short. Which tells me that DDA also had a role in how that kiss played out on screen. Then again.. as I said, it’s hard to beat that one isn’t it! lol

  13. Xenia, that is an excellent point regarding Thornton’s reaction to Margaret and her beauty in the hotel the first time they met. He was so taken out of what he had experienced in seeing someone to him who was attractive he couldn’t function or speak. Had he not been a virgin, he would of reacted, spoken and treated Margaret very differently throughout the whole context of the book if he wasn’t a virgin. I’ll have to agree with you on the “self-service” point you make.

    I tended to think he would of remained a bachelor for life however, and that’s because of his relationship with his mother. I don’t think he would of loved another or offered marriage to another because he didn’t need marriage. Though to counter my view, yours could be correct in that he may have married, but not loved, simply for an heir. That’s a tough side of the fence for me to be on now!

    • Hi SugarMagnolia, I love your screen name. I don’t think that anyone can convince me that Thornton would not have done the “self service” thing. I don’t think it would have been a regular thing, just once in a blue moon when that natural urge was too strong to make it go away on his own. I guess it is just hard for me to believe that a man, even during Victorian times could go to age 30 without ever acted in any way towards sexual relief. I know that anything is possible though.

  14. Excellent post and would like to collaborate with a thought. Although I believe that JT was chaste and had few experiences with women, due to his moral principles, as well as placed here, and I have doubts about his virginity. I have trouble reconciling the issue with a general culture in different peoples and traditions, where boys are initiated under the influence of his father or the older men of their society, sometimes even a forced way morally. Issues of masculinity and virility in a paternalistic society may surface in infancy. So I turn to JT’s childhood while his father was still alive. How was the issue of sexual initiation among boys in the Victorian era?
    I apologize for my English and maybe some of you know me from the C19.
    I usually introduce myself as Ana Cris.
    best regards

    • All very valid points Ana Cris. The idea of this, even today, is largely effected by what the young man is being taught by his father and other male role models. SO very true.

      Yet one thing that I think we need to be very careful of is making broad statements. Can we say that no male survived childhood without partaking in this “ritual”? Could there have been some father’s who strongly stood against such practices? Again because of their own convictions?

      Either way.. we know very little about George Thornton or any of the other male role models in Thornton’s life.

      • Thanks for your response loribear. I believe there will always be men and women who break rituals, especially those that hurt its personal nature. JT could be that man already in his childhood by various reasons such as the absence of his father early, aversion to model of his father or strong moral presence of his mother.
        So, it is just another look, because there are many aspects that are not considered in the book.
        best regards

        • Again Ana Cris, you bring up valid and thought provoking points in this discussion. Historians can study the available data but even their study has its limitations. Limitations to the quantity, quality and availability of information.

          One of the most important things I’ve gleaned from historian friends is that if it looks absolute, look deeper. Basically meaning that, just as you said, there are always exceptions to the rule.

          Still, your points can not be brushed aside. What was the culture of the English Victorians? Even deeper still, what was the culture or traditions of the different classes of that era? With this particular question, we would need to dive deeper into the English Victorian middle class, where the Thorntons were.

          Which brings me back to the question, what does Gaskell tell us about Thornton and his family?

  15. Hello Sugarmag and Xenia, I’m going answer the C19 question first and then reply to your comments more directly Xenia.

    Why was the discussion so volatile on C19? On the whole, it’s a simple thing to answer and at the same time extremely hard to answer. All I can give you is my own impression of the entire discussion. Though I stopped posting fairly quickly, sadly I was drawn back to that discussion despite the factor that I grew to loath it.

    Obviously, you had two sides of the argument. Those that were PASSIONATE about the idea that Thornton HAD to be, not only experienced but talented in this particular “skill”. You then had those that were convinced through study of the book that he was indeed a virgin. What seemed to heat up the discussion was when the topic became less of a study and more of a ‘personal’ opinion.

    The “pro-experienced” side became VERY passionate over the idea that some were trying to take their fantasy image of Thornton away. They kept stressing that they didn’t care what the evidence was, they could NOT believe that a man of 30 did not seek out some pleasure. Many of them also held on tight to the image of that kiss at the train station (as you brought up Xenia). No virgin kisses like that! (I will cover that in my reply to you Xenia) Now to give this side of the issue some slack.. many of them had seen the adaptation only and had no desire to read the book. Their image of Thornton was centered on RA’s portrayal.

    The “pro-virgin” side became passionate when they felt that Thornton’s character was being sullied by the insistence that he was not only experienced but a woman-izer. They presented textual evidence, time and time again, only to see it shortly rejected.

    Some participants were swayed to the “pro-virgin” side… while few, if any, were swayed the other way.

    I came away from the discussion understanding that for some, finding the true essence of the character Gaskell created was their sole objective. While others, “NEEDED” to believe that he was experienced because it fulfilled their romantic image of Thornton. I also realized that if you’ve never known of a man who had a strong conviction to say pure before marriage, of course, it would be much harder to grasp that this was even possible.

    For me personally, I don’t need to make Thornton a virgin… I just believe that it is the character that Gaskell created. Another favorite hero of mine is Rochester… there is no question that he is not a virgin. That is quite obvious. That fact doesn’t change my image of the character, in fact, it plays a role in who he is and what he becomes. Now considering the Austen heroes.. it varies with each character. Darcy? Yes I could see him being experienced as well but that is PURE speculation because Austen gives us no clues at all there.

    One element that we have not discussed yet is Gaskell herself. In looking at her work and the topics that she covered, it is not hard to determine her personal opinion on men who participated in such acts. Her opinion was not high!

    Does this answer the questions about the discussion on C19?

    • Yes, Loribear you answered the C19 question very well. Thank you for clearing that up.

      I don’t need to make Thornton a virgin either, but as you wrote it is the character that Gaskell wrote so I am fine with it. For those who did not read the book in C19 during that hot debate obviously did not have the entire story.

  16. This debate (as you tell it Loribear, above) all seems a bit bonkers to me – I don’t think we need a consensus on this issue – like all books, we all have our slightly different versions of John Thornton in our heads. Whether he is this or that, there are aspects of John Thornton’s character than we identify with in different degrees – including our thoughts about his sexuality and sexual experiences. I love a lot of what people have said – it got me in a real fluster last night to re-read the text – at this rate I am going to wear out my Kindle!

    It’s a shame that the movie colours people’s judgements – to me those kisses were sweet and poignant rather than HOT! EXPERIENCED! TALENTED! Proof of extreme virility etc., etc. They spoke more to me of love and new beginnings than of some kind of sexy make-out session. But I love Gaskell’s delicious silence even more… what a fantastic way to end a story…

    • I totally agree with you Jude. To me what was SO powerful about this kiss is exactly what you described. He loved her, cherished her and adored her. Don’t get me wrong .. there is passion there but it is secondary to the wish to “love her”. That is the power for me. This kiss is the best kiss on screen because of its innocence and simplicity. This is what I talked about in my other response. Why I feel it does not take experience to deliver such a kiss.. it only takes that love.

      BUT please I hope everyone understands me. The kiss articulates other things to other people and that is totally okay!

    • Yes, YES Jude!!! You hit the nail on the head about the kiss. As Loribear wrote it was passionate indeed, but it was not a kiss that screamed I am hot and an experienced male. What I saw was a man who after two years of pent up feelings for his twin soul finally getting the chance to love her and he wanted to drink in all of her through that kiss. That kiss was screaming I LOVE YOU MARGARET WITH ALL MY HEART! Thornton was also not just kissing her with his mouth. Thornton was kissing Margaret with his eyes from the time he got up and out of the coach of that train. And then after the kiss John stopped and looked Margaret DIRECTLY into her eyes kissing her some more with his. That was a look of total surrender to love and Richard Armitage did it superbly. Hands down it is the ABSOLUTE BEST onscreen kiss EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  17. So many great comments in the past 24 hours! I almost hate to close my laptop and get on with RL. Sugar Magnolia, I totally agree with you about Thornton engaging in “self service” in the privacy of his room. As you say, he IS human, and I would suspect it would have become a problem for him in his struggle to deal with all those intense emotions and longings he was experiencing if he wasn’t. But from the almost puritanical image that Gaskell gives us of him, I think doing so might have caused him some feelings of guilt. He so prides himself on his self-control.

    I remember checking out the old thread on the virginity discussion at C19 when I was a new member a couple of years ago. It did seem like a lot of the ladies were strictly going by their impressions from the film. Also, it sounded like many of them were even projecting their impression of RA onto the image of Thornton. It was really not an analysis based on any literary evidence whatsoever.

  18. Should have clarified, I was referring to those on the nonvirgin side of the discussion. Obviously the other side had read the book and were quoting from it, not just giving their own gut feelings about it. In their defense, it is pretty hard to imagine JT without projecting RA’s sexual appeal onto him. Whenever I revisit chapters in the book, you know I’m imagining Thornton as personified by RA, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that!

    • When I read the book I am always projecting my image of RA as Mr. Thornton. The Thornton character will always be my favorite RA role. It is also the role that introduced me to RA in January 2012. Prior to that I had never heard of Richard Armitage. I almost skipped watching North & South. I had it in my Netflix queue for about a week. I was not sure that I wanted to watch it because the synopsis of the storyline did seem depressing. Being a huge sucker for romance I finally decided to go ahead and stream it and my whole life changed…LOL

  19. Having said all that about the kiss I am still not convinced that Thornton would know what to do if he had not kissed a woman before. I concede that he was a virgin, but he could have kissed women before. As a mill owner and magistrate Thornton would have traveled a bit and had plenty of opportunity to gain in that experience.

  20. I don’t think Thornton would have done that though (kissed someone). A kiss was a promise and would have degraded the woman if the man didn’t marry her. Just look at A Room with a View and Lucy’s reaction to George’s kisses…and that was what, 50 or 60 years after N&S? I believe Thornton was too upstanding for casual kissing.

    • Courtney that is a good point, but I was not necessarily talking about casual kissing among the Milton gals. I acknowledge Thornton’s self discipline and respect for the rules of society, but I think we have to be careful of making him out to be a saint. Thornton would have traveled a bit and had plenty opportunity to have kissed a gal without it having to turn into a marriage proposal. I understand that we all LOVE Mr. Thornton, but I suspect he was not flawless.

  21. Perfect point, Courtney! There was no casual kissing back then. It was a completely different courting scene. I don’t see why a novice very much in love can’t deliver a good spine-tingling kiss if the tenderness and passion of his emotions are in it.

  22. Xenia, you opened the door and I’m walking through, lol! Who would Thornton have been kissing if he wasn’t kissing casually? He had never been in love and was, by all the textual evidence offered, oblivious to women before Margaret. The problem I have with the theory of Thornton as experienced (in any way) is that sexual desire grows once awakened. It doesn’t dissipate or stay in a neat box. So the minute that Thornton (or anyone) indulges his sexual desire – even if it’s just kissing – he would have opened a door he wouldn’t be able to shut fully. Eventually, his thoughts would have consumed him and he would likely have started acting upon his impulses. That is the natural progression of behavior: thoughts, fantasies, action. Since we don’t see any of the latter behaviors, I have trouble entertaining the idea of his indulging in kissing – even on a road-trip. And I don’t think he would have to be a saint not to kiss someone. In our day it’s common to be alone, unsupervised, with members of the opposite sex leaving us plenty if opportunity to express or experiment with behaviors that are less than honorable. It was much less common for his people to be in such situations. Perhaps that also contributed to the awkward first meeting between JT and Margaret. Maybe refraining from a sexual lifestyle isn’t easy or “normal” but it was possible then and it is possible now and I think all evidence suggests Thornton was just such a saint…oops, I mean guy. 😉

    • Courtney I am going to have to watch what I say from now on. I don’t want you walking through any more of my open doors….LOL If John Thornton was “self servicing” in the privacy of his bedroom does that count as sexual desire unleashed? Why do you have trouble picturing Thornton indulging in casual kissing, even on a road trip. Even Jimmy Swaggart bowed to temptation…lol

      • JIMMY SWAGGART?! LOL, I think Thornton’s character and Swaggart’s character are about as similar as Ghandi and Freddy Krueger! (I’m actually L-O-L-ing.) I think this goes back to what Lori was saying: Is JT a duplicitous person? Is he the type to act one way around certain people and another way around others? We just don’t see any evidence of that. In fact, we see the opposite. He is known for being trustworthy and honest and true – in his social circle and in Higgins’ circle (since Higgins had high praise for Thornton’s honesty even before they were friends). Furthermore, we see even outsiders who have high opinions of him. At the end of the book, at the dinner party at the Lennox’s house in London (can’t remember the guy’s name right now – book’s at home) there was a stranger who asked who Thornton was and when he heard his name, he said something like, “THE Mr. Thornton? Of Milton?” His name and reputation, as Hannah said to Margaret, were well-known even beyond Milton. Yet there’s nothing but high praise for him. No disdain, no remarks about his conquests. So, either he was doing a GREAT job hiding those conquests or he wasn’t conquesting. I think the weight of the evidence is on the latter. But as long as we’re hanging out here, what kinds of scenarios are you imagining in which he could/would have been kissing someone?

        As for ‘self-servicing’, I don’t know that that would have been a big part of his life. I don’t think someone who makes it a point not to dwell on sexual thoughts probably ‘self-servicing’ a lot. In other words, I’m guessing (at least at the place in his life when he met Margaret) he probably wasn’t choking the chicken* that often. He was busy and self-disciplined and his thoughts were elsewhere. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part and he was actually really, really…active. Don’t know.

        *I hope you’re not offended by my slang. I try to keep it classy, but I’m not good at that. I’m better with “funny” than “classy”…LOL :)

        • LOL……YES I do know that Jimmy Swaggart and John Thornton are WORLDS apart….LOL I was only trying to be funny and lighten things up a bit…..LOL Regardless of how things may seem I am really not that hard headed. I can understand that Mr. Thornton probably did not engage in “self servicing” either. I LOVE your choking the chicken remark and I am here laughing so hard that tears are running down my cheeks….LOL I sure hope that we can laugh and have a little fun while talking about Mr. Thornton. I think that if Mr. Thornton was born later he would have had a subscription to playboy. :-)

  23. It’s all right, Xenia, if you’d like to keep your vision of Thornton as at least a little experienced. That’s why I originally mentioned that we each have the privilege of entertaining our own personal notion of Thornton.

    Now, here’s what really happened….one day, while John was working at the draper’s shop, he was pulled into the back corner by an ardent female admirer who had frequented the shop regularly to flirt with the young Thornton. Seeing her wiles getting nowhere, she took matters into her own hands. Now, what happened is up to you, but John has since endeavored to wipe the experience from his mind as if it had never happened.

    Seriously, it can be very difficult to disentangle the preconceptions and comparisons we make based on own experiences and culture from the consideration of what Thornton may have experienced as a young man trying to raise his family from disgrace and want in the 1840’s. Our current culture seems to assume that a man of a certain age should have experience, otherwise we slap a negative label on him and he is considered an oddity.

    Not everyone is the same. There are vast numbers of people who have different outlooks, proclivities, aims, and experiences from our own. Not everyone follows the beaten path or looks for the same rewards in life as their neighbor.

    From all the clues given us in the book, I believe Thornton was an introvert. He was a workaholic and a family man (son and brother). Gaskell seems to suggest that his socialization was business-related, not sought for pleasure. His mind was on his work and aiding his family. Given his inclination to be private and self-controlled and the rules of mixing with the opposite gender, it’s not difficult to imagine that he seldom thought of himself as a sexual being who was missing out on something. His life was full, he was busy, he had his mother and Fanny to care about. It was not on his mind. Is that saintly or strangely odd? I think it was just a part of the natural course of his personal experience. Perhaps if he had been the sort to hang out with the guys after work he would have been egged on to go sow his wild oats. But there are many examples in the book that reveal John Thornton really didn’t listen to what anyone else said or did. He made his own mind about who he was and what he was about.

    Gaskell is setting him as a man apart from the crowd. And I don’t believe she was making him out to be a saint. He had some rather harsh views that needed softening. But he thinks for himself, makes decisions based on his own evaluation of things. The patterns of his life are pretty set, He thinks he knows what he’s doing and what he’s about….

    And then he meets Margaret.

    • Hi Trudy, Thornton is definitely a man apart from the crowd, however to me, he still would be a man that would experience sexual desire by nature, just as any man would, no matter how busy they are building an empire or what period in time he lived in. I am not adamant that Mr. Thornton had to be experienced. It is not something that would make me love him more. But whether or not Mr. Thornton had experience, sexual desire would have come up within him by nature and that is all I am trying to say really. I did not mean to imply either that Gaskell was making Thornton out to be a saint. I mean that many READERS of the book are doing that.

      Perhaps Thornton’s mother had something to do with why he did not pursue the opposite sex. Hannah Thornton was a very strong minded woman and even though John was his own man Hannah did influence her son to some degree. Mrs. Thornton did not believe that any girl was good enough for her son. She probably had him thinking that they were all gold diggers and he had to be extra cautious and careful. It is through Hannah that we know that the Milton gals were after her son so Thornton must have thought about it. Maybe he did not dwell on it or take it seriously, but the subject had to have come up over the years. If Hannah was aware that Thornton was the most eligible man in Milton then Thornton himself must have known what the Milton gals were up to. It is possible that none of them interested him and it is as simple as that. Margaret comes into the picture and wham…Thornton is walking two miles to Crampton and with each step he is thinking he is getting closer to seeing his Margaret. I wondered how many times a week Thornton was doing that before the rejection scene…LOL Two miles coming and going at night to catch a glimpse of Margaret is nothing to dismiss. There is a lot that can be read in between the lines about Mr. Thornton as everyone here has demonstrated.

      I don’t assume that Thornton’s life was full in the sense that he was happy and completely satisfied. I think that it was not full if Margaret could turn his whole existence upside down in an instant in one meeting at a hotel. I more see Thornton as being content with his life before Margaret and dwelling in a “comfortable” satisfaction. His life was full in the sense that he was very busy, but not full in the sense that he was truly happy and fulfilled. This is all the more why he suffered so much inside over Margaret for so long.

      • I agree, Thornton most likely did think about women. I just don’t think he dwelled on those thoughts. I can’t imagine him having elaborate sex fantasies about anyone, since he was uncomfortable with the one dream we know he did have about Margaret. And I certainly don’t think he ever acted upon any of those thoughts. But I think you’re right, Xenia, that those thoughts pop into our heads and I don’t think Thornton would have been immune to them. As for his being content, I think you’re right in saying he was “comfortable.” He knew what was safe and he stayed there. I think he was oblivious to a lot else. Since he was forced to grow up and be responsible at such an early age, maybe in many ways he was still a boy – inside – and Margaret made him into a man! (I know that sounded provocative…It was intended. heehee)

      • I think everyone here understands the general point that you are making Xenia. Many of your points are completely valid. I don’t think anyone is trying to say that Thornton was void of sexual desire. He’s 100% man… and that comes with the territory.

        I think the difference in perspectives is that, you feel if he has those feelings than “he will” act on them at some point in time. What others (myself included) have tried to articulate is that, despite what our modern society tells us, not all men do. Some men, for differing reasons, not unlike Thornton, keep those feelings and urges under strict control. Some men will control them by controlling the environment that they are in. They don’t put themselves into situations that will draw those thoughts out. Then when the feelings come of their own accord, they use other things to distract them from indulging those thoughts. Gaskell tells us and shows us that Thornton was such a man. His opinion of people who indulged in such practices, as displayed in the quote that Trudy shared in the original post, was not high.

        Though Xenia, I truly respect your opinions, I do not believe that Thornton would have had opportunity or would have allowed himself the temptation of ‘casual kissing’. That would risk his resolve.

        To one point that you make, in both the adaptation and the book, Thornton says himself (chapter 9, Dressing for Tea). ‘I never was aware of any young lady trying to catch me yet, nor do I believe that any one has ever given themselves that useless trouble.’ You see Xenia, he stubbornly refuses to let his mind go there. I believe he was an attractive man, looking not unlike RA portrayed him, so yes I believe Hannah’s words that he has caught the eye of young ladies in Milton. Still, all that saying, Thornton’s strong words here show his stubborn thoughts on that matter. He just doesn’t let his mind go there.

        I do agree with Courtney though.. that maybe if you describe the scenarios that you envision, it might greatly help. I think all would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

        All in all, Xenia, understand that we all respect your thoughts. We don’t agree with some of them, but that’s okay. There is no rule that says we must agree.

        • Hi Loribear, I will just leave it at that and not pursue it any further. I think that everyone here has picked the book apart much more than I have. I only read the book once and listened to the unabridged audio version of the book about 20 thousand times. I just cannot get enough of the audio version. It is very well done. The printed book is on my list to read again as part of my Goodreads 2013 challenge to read 55 books this year. Reading the book this time around I will try to takes notes. I read for pleasure and I love to get lost in the stories I read. I don’t ever want reading to become like work, but I think I will enjoy breaking down North and South as many of you here obviously have done countless times. For as many times as I have listened to the audio version It was always purely for enjoying the unfolding of the story. I never went any deeper than that with it.

          • Aww, Xenia. That was sweet and endearing. The book is so much fun to enjoy and get lost in. You’ll love reading it again. I’m glad you’re here. ((hugs))

          • Well there is absolutely nothing wrong with that Xenia.. not at all. I didn’t intend to “study” the book either to be quite honest with you. I just fell so much in love with the characters that I began to take notice of things. Finding things that made other parts make a lot more sense. It just.. happened.

            Though I’ve physically read the book several times, my favorite way to enjoy the book is by audiobook as well. To be honest, it was through that means that I actually started to study the book more deeply. My favorite “reader” is Juliet Stephenson and there was just something about the way she read it that things just started to STAND out to me more than they did before.

            I will tell you this much though Xenia, even though each time I go through the book I learn more… one of the best experiences for me was participating (I also moderated it) in a book read. Going over the book a couple chapters at a time, having the option to re-read it, if needed. Yet best of all, it was going through it with others. Listening to what would stand out for them and then discussing it. It was a great experience.

            Still Xenia, we are so glad you are here and none of us expect you to “know” everything because none of us know everything. We are all still learning and that’s why we are here! Your comments have caused us to “go dig deeper” which brings new insights to us as well. Because of what is told to us in the book, I’ve always known Thornton’s virginal status. Yet, I had not thought through completely the aspect of how difficult it would have been to “gain experience” and still hold true to who he is. Thinking through the available options was a new aspect for me. So you see… THAT is why I created this blog.. so we all could learn new things!

  24. Your comments on Thornton’s character Trudy really make a couple of things clearer to me. Margaret’s influence on him was kind of a double whammy. Her beauty and grace bowled him over initially, causing his first sexual awakening. That in itself, as we’re all stating here, would have been new and confusing territory for him. He went to the hotel at the beginning, expecting to meet a man with a female child. JT was totally unprepared for the comely woman who greeted him and left him tongue-tied. But your evaluation of Thorntons understanding of himself and his harsh views concerning the weaknesses of others makes me realize that Margaret’s influence on his perception of others would eventually become as agonizing for him as his desire for her. The poor man was not only experiencing these intense feelings for a woman for the first time, but was also as time went on, beginning to question his ironclad belief system about humanity in general. This gradual reevaluation of his long held work ethic, which he rather smugly felt set him above others, must have been quite traumatic for him to consider. Here he is smoldering away and trying to keep his passions in check, and all the while MH is chiseling away at his cut and dried opinions of how to run a business and treat his employees. All of this is rather OT from the virginity theme, but it is wonderful when you discover more levels of underlying tension, questioning, and discovery in John Thorntons inner world. His was not a simple romance or discovery of sexual awakening, but an all inclusive reevaluation of life-long patterns, expectations, and perception of others.

    “He had some rather harsh views that needed softening.” MH allowed him for the first time to soften his gruff exterior by his efforts to be gentle and caring towards her and her family, but more importantly to soften his interior opinions regarding the value systems of others. I often forget about this when I’m watching the film, so thanks Trudy for reminding me that there are many levels of change going on in our protagonist, which I expect is the message EG was hoping we would get.

  25. This is a vexed question and one that I recall from when I was first a member on C19 … it had just about run its’ course at the time, but there were still heated debates going on.

    It’s a complex issue.
    Do we base our opinion on the TV programme, RA’s acting, the book itself, or all three? Much as I love the series and particularly THAT kiss at the end, I feel that, for me, I have to return to the text itself.

    It’s hard enough to know the motives and ‘inner life’ of those closest to us, let alone that of a fictional character from over 150 years ago! Though once you have seen that production and RA’s version of John Thornton, it IS hard to be impartial and objective, I know.

    So to go back to the text –

    What do we know about John Thornton and the way that Mrs Gaskell tells his story?

    Firstly, that had a relatively hard time growing up.
    Though he was never starving in the gutter, things were pretty awful for him and his family after his father died.
    It was a time of shame at his father’s actions and a time of penny-pinching. Added to which, there was his sadness at being dragged out of school early, to go and work in a shop.

    Secondly, that his experiences in his youth formed him into the man he eventually became.
    He became self-sufficient and slightly socially withdrawn from his peers (despite throwing lavish dinner parties). He may have felt shame at his father’s disgrace and so avoided any possible risk that might damage his family. ‘Speculation’ was a dirty word in his eyes.

    Thirdly, that he was a man of honour and religious principles.
    Despite being in a poor financial position after his father’s death, he and his mother made it a point of honour to repay his father’s creditors – even if they had to do it in instalments, as Trudy says.

    His religious denomination isn’t easy to define (unless I’ve missed something, lol!) but I detect a strand of Non-conformism in his attitude – moral self-examination being an important part of that denomination. His default setting was one of self-sacrifice and tight control over his emotions – including his sexual needs.

    Fourthly, he had made it to a position of some importance – not least of which – he was a magistrate
    Would he have been willing to risk it all on some dalliance with a servant, an affair with someone of his own class or, even worse, by going to a prostitute?
    Prostitutes were very much a part of Victorian life – but that doesn’t mean that a sizeable proportion of males availed themselves of their services. It was, and is, illegal … I can’t see Thornton being driven to using one – let alone the horrible fate of anyone faced with veneral diseases with no known cure at the time.

    Fifthly, that he was too taken up with business and making a comfortable life for his family, that he had had no time for courtship etc.

    I know that some people find this incredible, but I can’t say that I do.
    I think that it’s entirely possible that somebody so single-minded and driven could well have sublimated their own feelings & not have made time for romance/relationships.
    Even nowadays we have people who are ‘workaholics’ – who work very long hours – without the added feelings of shame and desire to improve themselves that Thornton undoubtedly had. It doesn’t give you much time or energy to have much of a life outside work.

    Sixthly, his reaction to his feelings for Margaret was so extreme that it caught him by surprise
    He had never experienced anything like it before.
    The fact that he was unaware of how many of Milton’s young ladies would have been after him, speaks volumes. He had been bound up in work at a time when other young men would have been falling in love (see point 5), so it would all be new to him. He was rather charmingly naive about the whole thing, in fact, despite being experienced in business and being a magistrate.

    So those are my reasons for saying that I think that John Thornton WAS inexperienced in matters of the heart and was totally thrown into turmoil when he encountered it for the first time.

    • I agree 100% that Thornton was inexperienced in matters of the heart when he met Margaret. I don’t think that it necessarily means that he really never EVER thought about women; not even once. I more believe that he did not think about them much and not seriously. None turned his head before as Margaret did. The Milton gals that he would have encountered were the poor working class that worked for him or the ones who went off to finishing school and were looking for a good catch upon their return. Margaret was different as well as beautiful in his eyes.

  26. Reading some comments over on Servetus’ blog made something come into my head. What other character did RA play who also fell deeply in love with a woman the instant he met her? The answer is Harry Kennedy. Harry said that the minute he laid eyes on Geraldine he fell in love with her. Do you get the impression that those kinds of deep feelings were new for Harry too? I got the impression that it was his first deep love relationship. Harry did not seem to come with any baggage so I assume it was the first time that love hit him. To me Harry Kennedy is the 21st Century version of John Thornton. Both characters also love books. Harry is a bit more relaxed and free spirited than John Thornton but he could be geeky at times.

  27. I’ve never thought about Harry Kennedy in those terms,Collarcity, lol, but you may well be right. Both men are serious-minded, but Harry is more light-hearted than our poor old JT who basically has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
    For me, though, the similarity ends there – I don’t think that Geraldine was Harry’s ‘first’ – looking like that and living in London in the 21st century, it seems hard to imagine that Harry was ever ‘lonesome’.
    What RA brings to both roles is that they are both quiet, introverted characters in many ways, with hidden depths … and both are bowled over by love at first sight.
    For me, the Vicar of Dibley fell down a bit by the relationship of Harry with his sister – I have brothers, and we have never walked, cuddling up to one another like that. I realise that the writer needed to do that to make Geraldine jealous, but it didn’t ring true to me personally, lol.

    To return to John Thornton; as I said in my previous post, things WERE different back then, and it’s very difficult to reach an accurate portrayal of what was happening so many years ago. Because there is so much written about the Victorians, and it’s relatively close to us in history, we imagine them as being similar to us in many ways … I think that this is a bit simplistic.
    You only have to think how much society has changed since the end of World War II, for instance, which was less than 70 years ago, to realise that many things have changed immeasurably in the past 150 years or so since North and South was written.
    For example, in the UK until the 1870’s it was the case that women were not legally entitled to their own property … once you married, all your property (even that you had before marriage) was legally your husband’s; you had no control over, or right to your children either. If the marriage broke up your husband could take everything and you might never see your children again – as happened to several upper class women including the author Caroline Norton. In fact, it took an expensive Act of Parliament for each, individual, divorce … so it was very much a preserve of the upper classes.
    Ordinary women didn’t even have that choice!
    Sorry, lol, rant over. I apologise for going off-topic

    • Hi Pattygee, I agree with you. I never saw Harry as inexperienced either; just that I think love hit him hard for the first time with Geraldine. Living in London during the 21st century and looking so handsome Harry would have had girlfriends in the past, but no one who made him want to commit. I could even imagine Harry Kennedy having a live in girlfriend at one time in the past. I enjoyed your rant. :-)

    • Harry Kennedy is contemporary men. Of course he would have had a number of girlfriends. I certainly don’t think the he was a womanzier and he probably never felt for anyone what he felt for Geraldine, but he would have had a few relationships he entered with good intentions but that ultimately didn’t work out because feelings weren’t strong enough. No moral rule would have prevented him from that.

  28. Pingback: Legenda 61: Stuff worth reading « Me + Richard Armitage

  29. Thanks to servetus for the legenda pointer to this discourse.

    Fascinating. In fact, I read N&S after seeing the series. I did not have, in the book, an urge to transpose Armitage onto the book character. One is a book, written during the mid-Victorian era; the other is a modern interpretation. The actor caught the ESSENCE of Thornton. The film’s railway scene is entirely anachronistic. It seems unlikely that even such an independent “business” woman of that era would have been traveling alone with Henry, without a chaparone. And off the train, without hat and gloves??? A kiss would have out of the question! A charming and delightful film – a 21st C interpretation of the work of a significant Victorian writer.

    So was he? Or wasn’t he? Mrs. Gaskell did not back away from the gritty telling of times as they were. (I have to check my Mary Barton, for for specific direction here.) But I doubt she would have the inclination to spell out, more than she did, Thornton’s “experience” or non-sexual experience. She was intent on creating a moral (initially rigid) man, who did, in fact become beguiled by a young woman who had the strength of his mother, from a different cultural environment. It might be just my impression of the book, but I also felt the the literary N&S was more Margaret’s story than it was that of Thornton. Thornton was more prominant in the film.

    • Welcome and thank you fitzg! I SO appreciate Servetus for her mention of this topic on her Lengenda post. I was notified of her inclusion of it this morning when she posted. I’ve sent a thank you comment.. but she has not approved it as of yet. She is a busy lady!

      We didn’t really dive into Gaskell herself in this discussion, yet her view of “experienced” men was laid out pretty plainly in her book ‘Ruth’. This information does also play a role in understanding the character that she was creating. He was a man of her making and therefore he was subject to be what she designed. *It should also be noted that after writing ‘Mary Barton’ where, the masters are not portrayed as favorably, manufacturer friends of her husband complained of her negative portrayal. Her writing of John Thornton, is heavily speculated (by literary historians) to have been an attempt to communicate that some manufacturers were indeed nobel and upright.

      You are correct that in reality, this story centers around Margaret. It was her first intention to title the book Margaret Hale but that was vetoed by Dickens… so we now have North & South. Still for not being her main focus, Thornton jumps off the page. She lays bear this man’s heart and thoughts in a way that I had not read before. I think it’s one of the reasons he’s one of my favorite classic heros.

      Again.. welcome to West of Milton. I hope we will see you again!

    • You’re correct, fitzg. Gaskell originally intended to title her work “Margaret Hale,” but Dickens thought ‘North and South’ would be more marketable. Thornton steals the show in both mediums, however, because Thornton’s emotions are so clearly revealed by Gaskell in the book, and by Armitage on film. Margaret’s emotions are more hidden, and more difficult to discern. My personal conclusion from all the inferences to Thornton’s character throughout the book is that he was virgin. The moral code he chose for himself was very stringent. Until he met Margaret, he was a man of exceptional self-discipline. The secret to his success in avoiding temptations I feel was given in Thornton’s own summary. He followed “habits of life which taught me to despise indulgences not thoroughly earned, – indeed, never to think twice about them…” That sums it up very well for me.

      ETA: I’ve echoed Lori’s answer. We’re both ardent fans of the book.

  30. Oh, holy moly. I haven’t read all of this yet, but plan to soon (if I dare). Goodness knows I’ve gone on about it for page after page at c19. I was just thinking yesterday about something that strikes me as weird in biographies: even if religion was very important to someone, biographies rarely consider it as a factor in a person’s personality. For example, I’m currently re-reading Juliet Barker’s collective biography of the Bronte family, and even though it’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, knocking down all sorts of myths about the family, Barker rarely reflects on the fact that the family–not just the father–were members of the Church of England and had been brought up in that faith. She mentions Charlotte’s glee at making fun of dissenters and her brief moments in a Catholic confessional, but doesn’t remark on the fact that most of Charlotte’s teenage writings involve scandal and adultery–or that her passion for one of her teachers would have been sinful (in the eyes of the Church of England, at least). There are some very strong contradictions between what she felt and her Church’s teachings.

    That’s a longwinded intro to this: Thornton’s religious faith may be quite an important factor. He certainly does pride himself on his strength of will in resisting temptation; perhaps one of the temptations he resisted was fornication. I wonder if a c19 (19 century) dissenter who had engaged in sex outside of marriage would have been able to feel so confident of his own righteousness?

    • Excellent point NM, (glad to see you here!) I totally agree! You have to look at the character completely.. to get a fully picture of them. If you ignore one aspect then your view is cloudy and incomplete! Thornton was rather quiet about his faith, but Gaskell makes it quite plain in several sections of the book, primarily when he is comforting Mr. Hale after losing Maria) that Thornton’s faith was deeply felt. It is a big part of who he is.

  31. Really interesting post. I really like how you interpreted the text. It certainly made me think about this issue again in a different way and has inspired me to have a look at the text again. Thanks very much for your post.

    • Welcome Watty08! It’s wonderful to have you here! I’m looking forward to any insights that you might pick up from your review. There will be a new discussion coming soon.. but this discussion will be live for quite awhile!

  32. A good point, NM (and hi, long time no see, lol!)
    Would Thornton have been as able to be so self-righteous about other people’s failings if he had had a shady past himself?
    He might have been self-righteous and rigid in his opinions, but I don’t think that for one minute he was a hypocrite – so I tend towards the opinion that he DIDN’T have a shady past to hide

    • And he would have FELT it was a shady past, as well. I don’t imagine that a modern man like Harry Kennedy would have been ashamed of having had lovers in his past; I think most people would find it pretty weird if a man his age HADN’T had sexual experiences, and I get the feeling that the woman he falls in love with has been around the block a few times herself, despite being a clergywoman. Despite that, the people she lives among value and respect her.

      That’s today; those weren’t the norms for respectable middle-class men and women in 1855. Yes, of course there are always people who are going to engage in sexual behavior outside of marriage, but that’s pretty much respectable in much of the Western world today. But what’s seen as normal sexual experience for respectable middle-class women has changed hugely since the Victorian period, as I think most of us will agree; we know Margaret Hale doesn’t have a sexual history because Gaskell tells us, in context of Henry’s proposal, that she’s never thought about marriage or having a partner (despite being an adult, and despite having been so active in organizing her cousin’s marriage; most women her age today have had some romantic experience or at the very least have considered the possibility of having romantic relationships in the future, especially if they’ve been spending ages flipping through magazines for brides!)

      If it is possible to for us to believe Gaskell when she tells us that such things hadn’t crossed Margaret’s mind, can we also believe Thornton when he says he has never had time to think about romance, and that he’s proud that he’s turned away from indulging in gratification? If we’re willing to credit what Gaskell says about Margaret, shouldn’t we try to accept what she says about the hero of her tale? Yes, of course there were some middle-class men who used prostitutes, kept mistresses, and so on, but they almost invariably knew their society in general would be likely to be scandalized by that; they hid it away and weren’t open about it. It wasn’t respectable–that is, if people found out, a man would usually lose others’ respect. They’d also probably find it virtually impossible to be seen as morally admirable. Those aren’t concerns that would trouble Harry Kennedy.

      p. s.: And a warm hello to you, too, pg! Good to see you!

  33. Very interesting discussion, this! I’ve considered this subject myself and also have concluded, for many of the excellent and well-expressed reasons above, that John was, indeed, a virgin. In this sensually open society, it might be difficult for some to imagine a healthy man denying his ‘needs’; yet, there is a component in Gaskell’s book that makes such self-denial more easily understood, at least it does for me. Though it is not a pervading thread, there is a tone of spirituality expressed by the characters that would make it plausible, even likely, for a man of otherwise moral integrity to wait until he found the woman he would marry before indulging indiscriminate sexuality. Though her characters did not walk around quoting chapter and verse, there is an understanding that from the lowest to the highest levels of society in Milton there was at least the knowledge of certain moral/religious principles. Bessy was literate and read the scriptures; Nicholas did not espouse the same dogmas, but lived his life trying to maintain the spirit of them, if not the letter. Mr. Hale had a crisis of faith, yet I don’t believe he stopped believing in God, rather in men and man’s interpretation of God, since he gave spiritual comfort to Nicholas after Bessy’s death. Margaret adhered to a purity of thought and action that pointed to a sensitive conscience and spiritual awareness. Mrs. Thornton lead the servants in prayer each evening, though, unlike Higgins, she appeared to adhere to the letter of the law more than the spirit of it. Yet, after many readings and contemplation of Mrs. Thornton and in spite of her veneer of harshness, I’ve concluded she was a woman of personal integrity and deep moral conviction. I suspect she had a heart of gold (!). We catch glimpses of it it the book and the mini-series in regard to her beloved son. This is the woman who raised John Thornton. It’s not difficult to imagine him adopting her personal creed, and God’s, because it was right and because he had too much self-respect to violate something he held deeply.

    • Welcome heartfelt… let me also thank you for adding your thoughts to this discussion. You are correct that the spiritual element of the characters has not yet been touched in this discussion and you are also correct that it plays a heavy role in most of the lives Gaskell brings to us. As Trudy states, Thornton is private concerning his beliefs but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. One of my favorite passages from the book is during the time when Thornton came to visit Mr. Hale after the death of his wife. “Man of action as he was, busy in the world’s great battle, there was a deeper religion binding him to God in his heart, in spite of his strong willfulness, through all his mistakes, than Mr. Hale had ever dreamed.”

      Also thank you so much for your insights on Hannah. She is a character that I think is greatly misunderstood and I am anxious to dive into her character deeper. I am looking forward to seeing what you will add to that discussion! In fact, I hope you will return often… I look forward to all of your insights.

  34. Lovely insights, Heartfelt. Thank you for adding your thoughts. The spiritual component of Gaskell’s works should not be overlooked, you are right. Most of the main characters held deep convictions of purpose, truth, and morality based on God. Thornton keeps his religious convictions private, but he declares to Margaret that he has them. And if Hannah is reading Scripture every night in Milton, don’t you think she did so in those troubled years when they were living on John’s meager wages? There is great strength and hope in trusting in right and good (God). I think the Thorntons had this faith. They lived what they believed.

  35. I agree, though I’ll cheerfully stand up and say that while I believe John would follow the moral codes and spiritual wisdom he’d been taught and witnessed as good, I think that without wanting to say that I necessarily endorse them.

    Often in discussing this question or questions like it, some will conclude “Oh, you want Thornton to be a virgin because YOU think a man should be a virgin” or “You want Thornton to follow a particular version of Christian ethics because YOU believe in them.” No, not necessarily, if I’m trying to think historically; instead I’m trying to saying how a man of his class, culture, and historical period might feel, and that has nothing at all to do with what I or any of us may feel.

    If I can make a kind of outlandish comparison: if we were discussing a character from fiction or history who owned slaves–let’s take the real-life American President, Thomas Jefferson, for instance–I think we might conclude that if he followed the morals he’d been raised by, he’d feel no guilt at all about owning slaves. That was the norm for many wealthy men in his time and where he lived. But we can say “I think Thomas Jefferson would have felt perfectly comfortable owning slaves” without that meaning “and I think that way because I want to own slaves too” or “and I’ve reached that conclusion because I think he’s kind of hot, and besides, if I could choose my dream date, he’d be a rich white man who owned slaves.” None of that is true. Saying “owning slaves probably didn’t seem wrong to him” does not mean “Owning slaves doesn’t seem wrong to me, either.” Far from it. Likewise, saying “Thornton’s religious and cultural values probably made him feel chastity in men and women was honorable and desirable” doesn’t mean “And I feel the same thing.” In both cases, I’m just trying to make statements that may explain how the two men’s cultural and religious views influenced their behavior.

  36. Also, though I’m afraid my husband’s tombstone would say “Okay OKAY already! He was a virgin! Fine! I don’t care one way or another! Could you just SHUT UP about it??” We’ve decided to spare our son embarrassment and just get cremated.

  37. Glad you could join us, Ewa. I can see the other masters going to such establishments for various purposes, but I just don’t get any clues that John was of that ilk. He was of a different mold than most men in that he was comfortable making his own decisions without considering what others were or weren’t doing. He certainly wasn’t one to follow the pack. And when it comes to ‘boys will be boys’ – thank goodness for his independent streak!

  38. Forgive me if this has been mentioned (and I suspect it has. I seem to rise from the dead occasionally on this blog. and I wish I was a more frequent participant . . . I’m a huge fan of Gaskell’s, and I wouldn’t throw Richard Armitage out of bed for eatin’ crackers (if he was so blind as to get into it with me.) I tend to go on and on. Please forgive me.

    If we’re talking about Book Thornton rather than Adaptation Thornton, I think we can also call on the fact that his religious convictions would leave him feeling that sex outside of marriage was a shameful sign of weakness and self-indulgence rather than a jolly good time. He’s also a magistrate, someone who administers the law. That was a position normally given only to the most upstanding, reliable, honorable men, and I think–but am not sure–that it would have been a surprising mark of distinction to give it to a man of Thornton’s age.

    And now, in our More Filth from the Mind of nickimama Department . . . I wonder if there was much organized prostitution in towns like Milton? There certainly were brothels for heterosexual sex and homosexual male sex in London, but I suspect that most prostitution in the country as a whole was kind of an amateur effort, something that a woman might resort to if she couldn’t survive otherwise. I think that the act was often of the “knee-trembler” kind: the woman has her back to the wall in an alley or side street (there wasn’t much street lighting in most towns). The man faces her, and the act itself is one in which the man jerks his knees up and down, if you see what I mean. He pays then if he hasn’t paid before. And that’s that–a furtive, brief encounter in which the man and woman usually wouldn’t exchange names and might not even have seen each other very clearly.

    There were high-class courtesans in London: “Skittles” was the nickname of a famous one. But in London on the whole, prostitution involved going to likely parts of town where prostitutes walked about. Piccadilly Circus was a big venue–the lighting wasn’t what it is now, of course, but a woman could promenade again and again around the Circus, hoping that someone would approach her. Then it was down one of the side streets or alleys. It all seems pretty sordid and depressing, and it’s all the more so when you realize that a lot of the women were seamstresses or hat makers who weren’t paid enough to survive.

    • That reminds me of the line from the musical, Les Miserables, when the factory women find out Fantine has a child and after their scuffle they try to incite the foreman to fire her.

      “At the end of the day she’s the one who began it. There’s a kid that she’s hiding in some little town. There’s a man she has to pay. You can guess where she picks up the extra. You can bet she’s earning her keep sleeping around. And the boss wouldn’t like it.”

      I know it’s not England and it’s the line from the musical, not the book, but what you said reminded me of that.

  39. How undignified. Can’t even begin to imagine John partaking in THAT. Do you mean to say there might not have been any bordellos in Miltonwhere there are rooms and beds for this?
    I did research on this subject and now have forgotten. Were there civil laws regarding prostitution in the 1850’s? If so, I find it impossible to imagine that John Thornton the magistrate would be partaking of illegal activity to get his jollies, especially if it was likely he could be seen by other citizens indulging in such behavior.
    I’m sorry. There’s absolutely nothing that could that could convince me that John was of the type to pay for sexual gratification. And there’s nothing to convince me he had a consensual relationship that included sex. It would have been immoral. I admit, I love my hero absolutely inexperienced but ravenous to give it a go once he found the right girl! 😉

  40. Well, I’m with you. And I suspect that a prostitute in Milton who had a rented room might take a man up to it; that may be what happened with Mary’s aunt in “Mary Barton” though plenty of women ended up sleeping under bridges or under the “protection” of a pimp. Yeeeecccch. If a woman was visibly ill she would probably not have wanted her customer to be able to see her, so even the light in a Victorian bedroom might have been more than she wanted to risk if she wanted to get her money. It’s all awfully depressing, and no, I can’t see Thornton being involved (unless as a magistrate, since prostitution was illegal). There must have been areas in London and at least some large towns where the police turned a blind eye.


  41. Interesting information, as usual NM!

    Courtney, Faline’s storyline is one that continues to grab my heart. In the musical, her song, “I dreamed a dream” brings me to tears every time I hear it, whether experiencing in the play itself or hearing on the radio. Faline’s story I don’t believe was a unique one for this time.

    Though it seems strange, Faline’s story does relate strongly to what we are discussing. Faline was that sweet innocent young girl who is taken advantage of by a wealthy man, who used her to satisfy his “needs”. She also puts a face to the life of a prostitute of this time period. The deep sense of sorrow and desperation. The tragedy of it.

    For Thornton to have a casual affair with a shop girl, wouldn’t be any different than the man who abused Faline! Do we see him frequenting a prostitute, such as Faline? Once again, using a woman for his own pleasures, then tossing her aside? Our view today on such activity as normal and even expected. Though consequences of casual affairs still exist today, a lot is subsided with birth control. Yet in Victorian times, this is not the case. The consequences were not so quickly avoided, such as in Faline’s story.

    Also, Thornton’s religious beliefs are something that I find many people choosing to ignore completely, yet it plays a strong role in his character. Thank you for bringing that to the front of this discussion NM!

  42. I could go on forever in validating my view on this topic. (And I know some of you are begging for this discourse to be over!) But let me add a few more thoughts as to why I believe Thornton was not a dabbler in the sexual realm. I think we’ve established pretty clearly that Gaskell depicts him as a man of great self-discipline, principle, and honesty. In literature, the reader has the opportunity to witness how the characters’ choices affect their lives from an outside perspective. It’s much harder to remember in our daily living that our habits, beliefs, desires, aspirations, and self-perception all work toward forming our moment-by-moment choices.

    The death of his father brings the responsibility of the family upon John (with Hannah’s help and guidance). This is his life’s defining moment. I think that the high goal of paying off their debts and proving their dignity was kept in mind constantly as he went to work. His moral decisions were reinforced constantly. He didn’t do anything of significance in a casual way. He thought everything through. I don’t think he was naive. I’m sure that he saw the display of humanity at its worst in those earlier years and made the constant decision to choose his own path. And he must have continued to see the scum of the earth in his work as magistrate. He knew very well what can happen to people who do not choose well or fall prey to others.

    Although it was much more common then to treat women as chattel, I can’t help but think that John’s experience helped form respect for womankind. Not only did his mother serve as a strong moral guide, but he also must have been like a father to Fanny. She was only about 3 when he became the head of the family. Don’t you think he thought of what might happen to Fanny if they didn’t return to middle class wealth? I think his close relationship with his mother and sister would have an effect on how he saw girls and women in general.

    Lastly, I think his introverted nature kept him away from hanging out with the guys. Need I say more? lol. But seriously, he seemed very much the type to either be at work or at home, not out partying or carousing for a ‘good time.’ And there is something to be said about how much the people you hang out with affect your behavior. Someone like John would have been bullied to go prove his manliness or whatever nonsense guys do IF he had hung around such guys at the pub or wherever.

    • I think the picture Gaskell paints of Hamper’s son in Chapter L “Changes at Milton” is what Margaret probably thought of John (and all “shoppy” tradespeople) before she knew him. And yet, this picture is drawn to distinguish between John and the younger Hamper, to show John’s high moral character (as if we needed extra proof, lol).

      “…[T]he young man was half-educated as regarded information, and wholly uneducated as regarded any other responsibility than that of getting money, and brutalized both as to his pleasures and his pains. Mr. Thornton declined having any share in a partnership, which would frustrate what few plans he had that survived the wreck of his fortunes. He would sooner consent to be only a manager, where he could have a certain degree of power beyond the mere money-getting part, than have to fall in with the tyrannical humours of a moneyed partner with whom he felt sure that he should quarrel in a few months.”

      Although this description is about business affairs, the inclusion of the statement that the young Hamper “brutalized…as to his pleasures” seems not to be about business at all, but his personal life and would indicate that, unlike him, Thornton did not engage in vulgar “pleasure-seeking” activity. He wasn’t like the young Hamper and all of those back-alley trolls, using up poor young women for their own passing fancy. Thornton was different.

      And that’s why we all love him. :)

      • I could not agree more Courtney. Thank you for bringing that comment to this discussion. I remember it well. The brutalized comment has to relate to a personal element of Hampers son. This text refers to both the personal ethics of the son, as well, as his business practices. All around, the young man had little potential. This is also proved in the element that Hamper even proposed the idea of Thornton, in the first place. Obviously, Hamper had little confidence in his son being able to run the business himself.

        You are also correct in the focus on Thornton’s reaction. Some may say this all pride but I think Gaskell reveals to us that it came down to wisdom and integrity. Thornton was wise enough to know that this particular business proposition would not in reality be a partnership. I also believe that Gaskell makes it clear that Thornton turned down the offer for business and personal reasons. He did not wish to be associated, as partner with a man such as the son. Accepting the position of manager, though lower in status gave him both the freedom and power that he could live with.

        Indeed, it is all these elements that we’ve discussed play a role in showing us the character of Thornton. And yes, it is why we love him!

      • Fantastic find, Courtney! I remember that John turned down a partnership because it didn’t match his ideals, but I don’t recall the disdain for the potential partner’s character. That Gaskell slips this in is extremely important in verifying our understanding of his character. There’s disgust in the term ‘brutalized’ that indicates that John loathed pleasure-seekers and those who only sought pleasure and wealth for themselves. This goes well with another snippet in the chapter “Out of Tune” where Mr. Bell is light-heartedly chastising Miltonites for spending their lives chasing money. Thornton says his strife is not for money. “It is a home question” is his vague answer. This is a man who believes all his years of hard-work have gone toward building a home – security, provision, dignity, status – for his family. Selfish, indulgent pursuits don’t seem to be part of his mentality. But falling in love is a different story. :) This is why he so deserves some loving!

        • Oh my, it took me a day and a half to finally read through the entire thread…. so many comments so many good ones :)

          Without any intent to open up the whole discussion again, I just feel that there are couple of moments that are not mentioned here….

          First on “self-service”. I don’t know much about Church of England in particular, but given that Church did play a huge part in lives and conduct of the people in that time, I want to mention that in some religions “self-service” is viewed to be worse than going to a prostitute…. It was a bigger sin to “self-serve” than to use a woman who was willing. I am not saying JT was a prostitute client, but I am pretty sure with his faith and strong believes he wasn’t “comforting himself in a privacy of his room”

          Second, I find it interesting to see how people argue their points based on social norms and practices today…. About “men will be men”…. Yes, today women are wearing short skirts and pants and tanks and bikinis and who knows what else, and there are magazines and posters and TV and “sex, sex, sex” is just everywhere, but it’s not the case for 19h century. These men were first conditioned by the church not to think of women….. Then women were hardly allowed to talk to men without anybody being around. Also there were no magazines, no TV shows, no sexually-oriented commercials for men to get ideas they get today about sexuality and women….. These ideas where just not accessible as much as they are accessible today. Then again – women dressed totally different… They were covered up. And lastly, marriage wasn’t discussed in terms of sex, it was about duty and obligation, status and who knows what else…. Even when people talked and thought about marriage it was completely different set of mind then we think it was….

          Yes, there were men clubs for gentlemen, bars and streets for lower classes and drinking parties for middle. Men could talk “dirty” there and get ideas, but again environment in general was so much less sex-oriented than it is today. So when people apply their modern views to the men of that era it’s just doesn’t make sense to me…. Lines such “no man could” or “a healthy man denying his ‘needs’” just kill me….. These men had less “needs” in their heads due to environment….

          It’s the same thing as to talk about how scared people are of dinosaurs today… Are you? Why not? They are huge scary animals that can kill with one move….. Oh, but they are not around and that thought just doesn’t cross your mind… So there is no “need” to be cautious of them I guess ….

          Similar logic is for sex thoughts and needs of men of that era… environment had less stimulants to think about the issue so it was easy not to have any such pressing needs. And when there were some, well, there was usually church to tell you how to feel about this and how to deal with cases like that.

          Some of this comes from my conversations with my nephew who follows “no sex before marriage” principle, and totally no “self-service” principle as well. He told me it’s not really that hard to “deny needs”, his thoughts are just formed and controlled that way that “needs” don’t arise and if they do….. it’s not that hard to distract from them IF that’s what an individual wants to do…. there are mental tools…

          And again back to my point, in that era men were conditioned to control these thoughts, though some did and some didn’t, but yes, it’s a matter of personal choice, though acceptable norms were to control….

          • Very well stated Galina! I will admit that it can frustrate me as well, when people make decisions on past era’s based on the social norms of today. It’s an unfair comparison.

            I have men in my life just like your nephew so it hasn’t been that difficult for me to imagine a healthy man making such a decision and sticking to that decision. I understand that this decision is difficult for men in our society to make but even with all the elements that they have to face there are more than a few that successfully achieve this goal!

            Thank you for adding your thought provoking comments!

          • I do think it’s very important, Galina, to try to understand the prevailing atmosphere of thought and conduct of the era in comparison to our modern culture. You’re right, the sexualized images of the media would not be hounding Victorians from every side. A bride was truly expected to be a virgin. The moral standards for a good woman was strict. And at least theoretically, I think, the men were also supposed to abide by a strict standard of morality. Unfortunately, there was a strong undercurrent of desire in Victorian times to taste the forbidden fruit. Although the Church claimed the better part of the population is its own, there were far fewer true followers of the faith. Many, it appears, were satisfied with showing a veneer of respectability while indulging their baser instincts.
            I mention this because I don’t want anyone to think of the era as more innocent than our times. There were whole parks and arenas of London that turned into brothels and pick-up places at night. The number of children contracting venereal diseases was horrifying. Clearly, there was a lurid underlife going on in England at the time which would be appalling to our modern sensibilities.
            But the same conclusion remains. It was a matter of individual choice whether a man crossed the line to indulge in whatever form of satisfaction he fancied. It’s easy to imagine that John Thornton kept himself occupied in working, providing, and striving to advance further. And he would have come across the worst of the worst in Milton as a magistrate, so he would not have been ignorant of the muck into which some of humanity fell.

  43. not a post really, just want to get to the “notify me of follow-up comments via email” part so I don’t miss on any more details here….. don’t know how to do these subscriptions without posting a comment yet and I forgot to check the box with my original post….

  44. I agree, Galina. I don’t know if this is mentioned in the thread, but in the book John has a dream in which Margaret seems to be sexually enticing him, and he is horrified because part of him wishes he hadn’t woken up. (I think that’s correct, anyhow).

    Masturbation was frowned on; some doctor felt it had bad effects on a man’s health, and/or felt that the Bible prohibits it in a passage about a man named Onan in the Old Testament. (If I remember correctly, the King James version has something like “Onan spilleth his seed upon ground.” Clearly before the invention of Kleenex.

    At any rate, yes, I think that masturbation went on, but furtively and guiltily. I don’t think there’s any indication that Thornton engages in it, but then Gaskell wouldn’t have said so (or, probably, known about it).

  45. Sorry if I am wrong Nickimama, but doesn’t he have this dream of Margaret after he has ‘evidence’ of her secret lover? I could be wrong, however as much as I saw it as a sexual awareness of her, he was tormented by the thought of her ‘falseness’ and impropriety. I googled the quote:

    “He dreamt of her; he dreamt she came dancing towards him with outspread arms and with a lightness and gaiety which made him loathe her even while it allured him……………when he awakened he felt hardly able to separate the Una from the Duessa;…”

    Which – I think – and my Elizabethan english lit recollections can be a bit hazy, but I think it comes from The Faerie Queene, the Una being truth, the Duessa being falsehood. I’ve always taken this passage as it tying in with all the contradictions of Victorian sexuality – what he hopes to find with her (passion, sexual awakening, but love most importantly), failing to do so initially, only to ‘discover’ her expressing with another; versus what is expected in ‘proper’ life, meaning that John Thornton’s mind was a mass of confusion.

    Now I must apologise, that’s not a proper sentence, but I have always thought that Mrs G wasn’t filling it with subtext (sexual behaviour), more that John was grappling with the strong conflicts in terms of the way he sees his love object, how he reconciles her behaviour (perceived) versus his innate understanding of her character. It’s something I love – Margaret is forthright, strong and uncompromised, and he completely ‘gets’ this about her – it’s just so unusual. He doesn’t want her to be a certain way, he just wants her to be the way she is, with him. What a guy.

    • Oh Jude, I love your interpretation of this troubling dream! I’ve always struggled to define what this passage was trying to convey to us, but I think you’ve hit it squarely on the head. He’s struggling mightily in many ways. He’s clinging to his gut understanding of her as a moral, chaste girl. He can’t believe she has been entirely improper. But he is also aware of her passionate nature – that when she loves her whole soul will be given to fierce devotion. He loves both aspects of her: the gentle, good Victorian girl and the passionate-hearted woman who speaks her mind and loves without limits. It’s driving him wild to think that someone else is getting her loving – the kind of loving he wants so badly for himself. And there’s no doubt that the thought of her as a passionate lover is tantalizing in a sexual way as well. That torturous Victorian conflict between expression and repression of emotions is evident in his longing to express himself freely with Margaret and meet strong and free expression of feeling in return! It’s quite a powerful picture to imagine these two lovers finally getting together. There’s such an intensity in his longing to love and be loved.

    • I apologize Jude for taking so long to respond to your thoughtful comment. I’m doing my best to get another topic/post done and it’s been slow going.

      I, like Trudy, love your interpretation of Thorntons dream. I’ve always felt that his dream was Gaskell’s way of articulating the status of his mind and heart. Even though the line “while it allured him” speaks of a sensual element, Gaskell’s true focus of the dream was to communicate the depth of his turmoil. How he was tormented by the process of trying to reconcile what he knew instinctively to be true about her to what he had seen with his own eyes.

      The text leading into the description of his dream also defines his torment and duplicity. “He shrank from hearing Margaret’s very name mentioned; he, while he blamed her—while he was jealous of her—while he renounced her—he loved her sorely, in spike of himself. He dreamt of her; …” His conscious mind and broken heart blamed her, was jealous of her even renounced her but he could not escape his heart completely. Wounded or not, he loved her. We also see later in the text that he was fighting with all the strength he had to maintain his intellectual mind and self control. “To convince himself of his power of self-control, he lingered over every piece of business…” Yet, despite his efforts he could not over rule his heart. It is this scene as well that leads to the meeting with Margaret when he loses control over himself and makes that comment about Margaret “being too remarkable for the truth?”

      The dream was only one piece of the picture Gaskell was painting to first, communicate Thornton’s state of mind but also the depth of his love and devotion to Margaret. As you so beautifully stated Jude, he loved her in a manner that was not common in those days or even today. He understood her better than anyone else in her life did and he loved her for who she was. And as you so beautifully stated, he didn’t wish to her to be who he thought she was, he wished her to be herself.. with him! You are SO right.. what a guy!

  46. Trudy, I find this dream to be the most personal disclosure the book holds of John’s feelings and inner life. John Thornton has, in narrative, a strong emotional life that we, as readers, are privy to.

    But the dream passage shows how his great love throws him into such indecision and turmoil – in such few sentences. It always feels to me that I am dipping into his soul at this point, it is such an incredibly private, personal moment. He’s so confused – this young girl throws him so deeply that the man of action dies not know what to do, so strongly is he in the sway of his feelings.

    I can’t imagine a man such as this to take physical love lightly. His stern judgment of Margaret – his disappointment at her ‘behaviour’ – shows to me how disappointed he would be in himself if he slipped morally. As he feels so confident in his skin, I take it to mean that this isn’t the case. To me it is the best answer, in terms of character behaviour, the narrative and characterisation.

  47. Loribear, I love your character build up. You capture the growth of his turmoil so well. I am entranced by the way he renounces her, blames her, is jealous of her and yet loved her so sorely as well, and probably all at the same time. So much do that he can barely speak to her or of her, to others.

  48. Hi, new here (going through a personal N & S reawakening, which happens occasionally).

    Yup. Agree with most of the comments. I always find it fascinating that male virginity in period lit/drama is Just. So. Hard. To. Grasp. I blame the standard romance novel trope — you know, sex-god baddie with a sekrit!heart of gold just needs the “right” woman (preferably a young, “pure” one) to rescue him — which, to be fair, can be traced back I suppose to the Byronic heroes of Victorian/gothic romance and their virtuous heroines. And Thornton fits within the Byronic hero tradition: BUT not all Byronic heroes are alike. (For example, Thornton is nothing like Rochester on one hand or Wentworth on the other. Yet all three are considered Byronic heroes.)

    Anyway … I really wanted to weigh in on a couple of things mentioned above in regards to historical context. Most C21 minds are predisposed, I think, to see only the negative aspects of Victorian sexuality which enforced rigid gender stereotypes and double standards and, in turn, led to nothing but repressed individuals seeking gratification on the DL. In truth, the Victorians, like us, were not a monolith. Our queues from literature — and anecdotally from stories passed down through family history, etc. — tell us that many men AND women waited until marriage. Certainly “respectable” men and women did. The difference is: though a man could harm his reputation/good character by having dalliances, he wouldn’t be cast off from good society for it. A woman, however, would be; it resulted in social ruin.

    Class played a key role in attitudes towards sexuality as well (my second point). The middle class was the lynchpin of Victorian morality. The upper class — and here I’m speaking of the aristocracy (titled families possessing a rank of baron or higher) — viewed Victorian social mores as necessary for the lower classes but superfluous for them because of their ~superiority (though unmarried, legitimate daughters of noble stock were still expected to be virgins). Thornton, as we know, came from a middle class background and wouldn’t have been as nonchalant about premarital relations as, say, a duke. This is not to say that many middle class men didn’t fool around; we know they certainly did. But it wasn’t normalized; it wasn’t “ok.”

    Another misconception, I think, is that Victorian writers just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) address sexuality, and therefore, we “just don’t know” whether, e.g., Thornton was a virgin. That’s just untrue. They didn’t talk about it in the frank, explicit way contemporary writers do, but they do address it. Charlotte Bronte plainly told us what Rochester’s sexual history was. Her sister Anne left no one in any doubt of Arthur Huntingdon’s character/sexual history. Dickens demonstrated many examples of men and women who played by the rules and those who didn’t. As many stated above, the key is the text itself, and Gaskell paints a pretty clear picture of a man who didn’t indulge himself.

    This segues into my final point, which is that it sounds like the “debate” described on C19 was more fundamentally about textual interpretation of canon, not Thornton’s character per se. And this division you’ll find in every fandom. Generally, it doesn’t bother me if folks want to hold on to their personal RA-inspired fantasy about Thornton. My exception to this, though, is OOC writing in the fic context. Fanfic, to me, is first and foremost about getting the characters right. You can experiment with plot, tone, structure, mood, narration, theme, etc. — and that’s where the fun in the AU is — but you have to respect canon characterization. Otherwise, you’re not writing fanfic, you’re writing original fic. And that’s totally cool but when I want to read Margaret/John fic, I expect to see characters which resemble Gaskell’s.

    Good post.

    • Weclome Shanghaied in LA!! It’s wonderful to have you. Your post was so insightful. It is clear that you have an extensive knowledge of literature and then wisdom concerning that knowledge. I look forward to reading more of your comments. I hope this reawakening to N&S will last awhile and you will keep returning to WoM. I, personally, would love to read more of your thoughts.

      **One comment right now concerning your above thoughts. I couldn’t agree more with your comments on the importance of getting the characters correct when writing a fanfic. Sadly, this topic alone shows how varied some fans can be on what they feel “getting the characters right” means. I am continually amazed by the vast mischaracterizations that happen with both Thornton and Margaret. I’ve read more fanfics than I can count. I’ve even had the honor of beta reading for may talented writers. Yet, my main service was helping writers with the plot and character consistency. Character consistency I think was the largest challenge by far. Most fanfics writer fall into the trap of making Thornton & Margaret into “their” ideal characters. Changing them slight to fit the image they have in their heads. You are correct that once this happens, it becomes a story “inspired” by but not a true fanfic.

      Again.. I’m truly looking forward to hearing more from you! Please keep it coming!

    • Great comments. You’re spot on about all the issues that make it difficult for the C21 mindset to grasp this in historical context. Victorian sexuality is a topic that seems to suffer from broad generalizations. There’s such a fascination with the double standard.
      I used to read a lot of N&S fanfic when I first found N&S. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of stories I can recommend that stay true to the characters Gaskell created. “Pack Clouds Away” is the best continuation story for Gaskell’s book I’ve read. It can be found at C19. (No elements of the mini-series can be found in this fan fiction – it’s straight Gaskell-inspired, a rarity.)

  49. Thanks, Lori and Trudy, for the welcome. I haven’t read any long multi-chaps/continuation WIPs yet. (I know both of you are fic writers so I hope to check some out soon.) I did check out a few one-shots and other shorts. One that’s really stood out so far is an older one: tofty’s “Hors de Combat, Hors de Commerce” on LJ (and I guess also on AO3). I thought it was clever of her to write a “fix it” fic that tries to reconcile the 2004 adaptation ending with both the book and accepted social norms of the period (which the miniseries totally ignores, LOL … it’s ok though — still a great final scene). And the dialogue sparkles; she really seems to have their voices down IMO.

    Trudy, I think you’re right about the fascination with the double standard. But I think it’s also conditioning. People just get stuck on that romance-novel trope: a strong/swoon-worthy hero (or romantic lead) HAS to be experienced in the bedroom, if not a downright Lothario. Back when I was marginally active in the Downton Mary/Matthew fandom I even saw it in M/M fic! (I mean Matthew Crawley?! Really??)

    Anyway, I look forward to more discussions. (As a matter of fact I’m about to drop a comment to your “Dinner with Thornton” post….) :-)

    • Oh yes, the conditioning is undeniable. Matthew Crawley is a do-good, duty-bound, mother’s best son. It’s ridiculous to try to make him wear the one-size-fits-all, bad-boy character outline. I don’t really understand. Is there only one type of sexy out there? Is there no variety allowed in what type of heroes might be attractive? This type of dumbing-down all romantic relationships to fit one sexually hyped-up model in fiction doesn’t speak well of modern-day female emotional intelligence. After all, who’s writing all these stories?

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