The Industrial Revolution was one of the most important periods in human history, when intrepid entrepreneurs, using the latest science and technology, dramatically increased the productivity of human labor and ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity that lifted all classes of society. It was also a time of dangerous, dirty working conditions and occasional famines.
Writings of the time usually focused on the negatives more than the positives. A genre of literature emerged, called the industrial novel, that dealt with the problems of the time. The most famous of these books is Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, with its rationalistic schoolmaster and heartless hypocrite of a mill owner. Such novels were usually sympathetic to the poor and indifferent or hostile to the industrialists.
Matters are different in an industrial novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. Entitled North and South, it deals with the conflict — and potential harmonization — of the gentrified South of England with the industrial North, circa 1855.
The heroine is Margaret Hale, daughter of an Anglican parson who has given up his clerical position in a rural southern parish because he can no longer in good conscience serve the Church of England. (Exactly why is not made clear, and is not the point.) He moves his family to the town of Milton-Northern, an industrial city based on Manchester.
The shock of the move is terrible for the Hales. Margaret’s mother, always delicate, starts to die slowly in the smoky air. Margaret is lonely and alienated and falls back on doing good works, befriending a family of mill workers named Higgins. Mr. Hale must earn a living by tutoring.
One of his students is a leading manufacturer of cotton fabric named John Thornton. Mr. Thornton had to leave school at about the age of fourteen when his father died in disgraced debt. He worked his way up to a position of success and now, at age thirty or so, would like to continue his education. Here is one of Margaret’s early impressions of Thornton’s appearance:
…the straight brows fell low over the clear, deep-set, earnest eyes, which, without being unpleasantly sharp, seemed intent enough to penetrate into the very heart and core of what he was looking at. The lines in the face were few but firm, as if they were carved in marble, and lay principally about the lips, which were slightly compressed over a set of teeth so faultless and beautiful as to give the effect of sudden sunlight when the rare, bright smile, coming in an instant and shining out of the eyes, changed the whole look from the severe and resolved expression of a man ready to do and dare anything, to the keen, honest enjoyment of the moment, which is seldom shown so fearlessly and instantaneously, except by children. (Oxford edition, p. 80)
You can see why so many female readers are in love with this character. Whatever flaws Mr. Thornton may have, and he does have some, this is not the face of some mere money-grubbing, worker-exploiting scoundrel out of Dickens.
Our author Mrs. Gaskell, despite her Christian values, which are frequently in evidence, clearly did appreciate the type of the industrialist. Here she has Thornton hold forth on the inventor of the steam hammer (who was in reality a friend of Gaskell’s):
And this imagination of power, this practical realization of a gigantic thought, came out of one man’s brain in our good town. That very man has it within him to mount, step by step, on each wonder he achieves to higher marvels still. And I’ll be bound to say, we have many among us who, if he were gone, could spring into the breach and carry on the war which compels, and shall compel, all material power to yield to science. (p. 81)
There are other passages almost as good as these two. Unfortunately, there is a passage where Mr. Thornton attributes his success to his Teutonic blood. It’s not clear whether he means this in a racist manner. He seems to be contrasting the culture of the north, the part of England least touched by the Norman Conquest, with the luxury-loving gentry of the south.
Thornton is not without problems. He does not much relate to his hands (i.e., his workers) on a human level, but regards himself as their rightful despot during their working hours.
Gaskell refers to him once as willful; an example of this would be that he would not obey a law lessening air pollution, even though it would work to his financial advantage, because he resents the attempt of a distant government to rule over a business about which they know very little. (He had installed the pollution-reducing device before the law was passed.)
The central event in the story is a strike against all of Milton’s mill owners. Thornton brings in Irish strike breakers, which proves to be a bad idea, because they can’t operate the machines properly, and their presence provokes a riot among the starving workers in which Margaret is injured defending Thornton. Although Thornton is very brave through the whole affair, his judgment is bad and he damages his business. Clearly, he needs to change.
But the point of the story is not to humble the northern industrialist. Margaret needs to change too. Thornton needs to overcome his pride and relate to his workers as human beings, while Margaret needs to overcome her passivity.
The life of a pampered and controlled girl in languid southern society proves stultifying to her. She thrives on the energy and purpose of Milton, even though she feels great sympathy for its less fortunate citizens, in keeping with her natural inclinations as a Christian.
The general direction of the story is a convergence of disparate types. Thornton and Margaret approach each other, Thornton and his hand Higgins build a human relation that inspires Thornton to reach out to his workers and respond when they reach out to him. Thornton becomes an enlightened capitalist.
The story is almost “dialectical” in that it concerns the resolution of seeming opposites: master and hands, male and female, life as exertion vs. life as appreciation of beauty, and North and South. This is an exciting way to present ideas.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression of the novel by going on about Thornton. He is not the primary character; Margaret is. The novel is as much about her family and the Higgins family as it is about him. But for fans of Ayn Rand’s writings, the main draw will be the manufacturer.
Margaret and Thornton have a wonderful antagonism-blossoms-into-love relationship, right out of Jane Austen. The ending is incredibly romantic without being overblown. And I prefer it to Jane Austen because the characters are, or want to be, productive.
I found North and South to be quite readable by Nineteenth Century standards. It’s not long-winded, as Hugo can be, nor idiosyncratic like Dickens and Dostoevsky. It does have some of the period’s scarlet blushes and hot tears, however.
Gaskell’s psychological insights are quite keen. One thing I liked about it was her ability to see everybody’s point of view, without being relativistic or all-forgiving in a Christian way.
The BBC made a four-hour miniseries out of the novel in 2004. I very much enjoyed it and it would be worth watching, even before reading the book. It has certain advantages and disadvantages compared to the novel. The major advantage is the visual realization of Milton and of Thornton’s mills, into which Gaskell never ventures. The power looms and the cotton fluff in the air are beautiful. The acting, especially by the stars who play Thornton and his mother, is very good.
On the negative side, Margaret is a little miscast, too cherubic and pious-looking, not as proud and statuesque as the Margaret of the novel. And Thornton’s character is somewhat re-written to be more brooding and even violent, which he is not in the novel.
Call it the Bronte-ization of Elizabeth Gaskell, making Mr. Thornton more like Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff. It’s a legitimate re-interpretation of the same general idea though, and I have not felt a need to choose either book or miniseries over the other.
Let’s be clear: North and South is not an Ayn Rand novel. But it is a novel an Ayn Rand fan could love.
Kurt Keefner is a writer and teacher who studied philosophy at the University of Chicago. He lives near Washington, DC with his wife. His first book, Killing Cool, will be published later this year. His recent essay “Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris” is available from Amazon. Visit his blog at kurtkeefner.com.
The cover photo at the top of this article was taken by David JL.