Richard Norman is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent. His books include The Moral Philosophers, Ethics, Killing and War, and On Humanism. He is a member of the Humanist Philosophers Group, a Vice-President of the British Humanist Association and Chair of Canterbury District Fairtrade Network. Below, Richard discusses Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South.
Richard Norman on North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
I've just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. Rather to my embarrassment and surprise, it's the first Gaskell novel I've read. I say 'surprise' as well as 'embarrassment' because having read about her and watched dramatizations on television I think of her as quite a familiar figure, but apart from starting Mary Barton many years ago and then dropping it, I realize I've never actually read her. I'm glad that I now have. North and South is not a great novel, but it's a very interesting one and there's much to admire and enjoy in it.
It and Mary Barton are Gaskell's 'industrial novels'. The 'North' of the title is the industrial north of the 1850s, specifically Manchester (called 'Milton' in the novel) and the cotton industry. The 'South' is partly fashionable London and partly the rural south, epitomized by a country vicarage in Hampshire. Through the contrast between the two, Gaskell addresses the pressing questions of the condition of the working class in the big industrial cities and the growth of industrial unrest and class conflict.
Prominent in the novel are 'set-piece' debates about the capitalist industrial system. Margaret Hale and her parents have come to Milton because Mr Hale, the country parson, realizes that he can no longer accept all the doctrines of the church, and consequently resigns his position to move north and find work as a tutor. One of his pupils is Mr Thornton, the mill-owner, and in conversations with Margaret and her father he epitomizes the attitude of the 'captain of industry' - immense strength of will, confidence in his and his fellow industrialists' 'imagination of power' and their determination to 'carry on the war which compels, and shall compel, all material power to yield to science.' He believes that anyone who shares that determination can rise from obscurity to success. He also embodies the limited social liberalism which goes with laissez-faire economics. He sees no alternative to running his mill as an autocrat and sees no reason why he should listen to his workers or owe them any explanation for his decision, but by the same token he accepts the right of his workers to live their own independent lives outside their working hours.
Margaret and her father feel some admiration for his energy and dynamism, but recoil from the unyielding class conflict which it engenders. 'I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way,' says Margaret, 'yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own; I never lived in a place before where there were two sets of people always running each other down' (chapter 15). The other voice in the debates is that of Nicholas Higgins, the mill-worker and trade unionist. He evokes the reader's sympathy and that of the Hales for the determination of working people to combine in order to find some escape from their suffering, but this is met by the relentless logic of Mr Thornton, that the owners cannot pay higher wages if this will put them out of business.
A subsidiary theme of the novel is the crisis of religious faith in mid-Victorian Britain. Strangely, we are never told what Mr Hale's doubts are, leaving us with the impression that he is perhaps over-fastidious but at any rate a model of intellectual and moral integrity - an ideal which Margaret inherits from him. The interesting religious discussions involve Higgins and are interwoven with the industrial theme. Higgins is sceptical of the other-worldly pretensions of religion. 'I believe what I see, and no more' (chapter 11). On the other hand, for his sickly daughter Bessy (her lungs destroyed by the polluted air), the hope of eternal life is her one consolation, and in this belief she is encouraged by Margaret. She epitomizes Marx's characterization of religion as being, for the oppressed, 'the heart of a heartless world'.
I've talked about 'debates' and that makes the novel sound like a dry didactic work. It's not. The attitudes put forward are seen to flow directly from the experience of the characters and to be put into practice by them in the plot of the novel. Gaskell has no answers to the conflicts between them, she doesn't put her finger in the scales, and we are left with a genuine sense of perplexity. One half-expects the novel to lead us to the message that if only masters and men were to talk to one another and understand one another's point of view, everything would be OK. There's a hint of that, but not naively so. By the end Thornton has changed, and is looking for some better way of organizing industry so as to engage the workers in the running of the factory, but he has no illusions. 'A more hopeful man might imagine that a closer and more genial intercourse between classes might do away with strikes. But I am not a hopeful man' (chapter 51).
Gaskell also humanizes the attitudes to industrial capitalism through the working out of the relationship between Thornton and Margaret. In this she is only partially successful. At first the two characters are bitterly opposed, but Thornton realizes he loves Margaret when she instinctively throws her arms round him to protect him from the rioting strikers. The change comes out of the blue, and it lacks emotional plausibility. The ending of the novel, however, has a genuine poignancy. Thornton's business fails. He cannot compete with cheap American imports and he cannot survive the slump in trade. He is brought down by the market forces which he had extolled. His acceptance of his failure, and the softening of his arrogance, is what finally brings Margaret to feel differently towards him.
There's one further resonance that the book has for me. Our world is not that of 1855, but the great economic injustices are still a matter of a divide between North and South - the terms increasingly used in place of the patronizing distinction between the 'developing' and the 'developed' world. The terms are reversed, of course - it's the South that is the locus of poverty and exploitation - and the parallels are not exact, but the inequalities are even greater, and like Elizabeth Gaskell I don't think we have any easy answers. There are still those who preach that the solution to global poverty is for uncontrolled market forces to put inefficient producers out of business. We know that there has to be a better way, but we don't know how to control the power of the global corporations. The best we can do is to support practical measures such as the Fairtrade movement which we know have a direct positive impact on the lives of marginalized and impoverished producers and workers, and which offer a model for more just and more humane economic relationships. They are no panacea, because there is none, but we can at least acknowledge, like Elizabeth Gaskell, that any better way must start out from the fact of our global 'mutual dependence'.