Monday, May 15, 2017

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell *****

Consider the progress made by literary women in the 40 years between Pride and Prejudice and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. In the latter, protagonist Margaret Hale is more concerned about social issues (hunger and workers' rights) than domestic issues (marriage and dances). Margaret speaks directly to the men and successfully negotiates between the factory masters and the workers. It is Margaret's brother who is marked for life from a youthful indiscretion. While the men around Margaret seemed eager to see her married, she is not interested and turns down offers with ease. She also has no problem inheriting or managing a sizable estate.

Central to the plot is a strike in the northern industrial town of Milton. The plight of the workers in the strike-breaking, union busting climate is, similar to today.
how we all had to clem [hunger]...yet many went in every week at the same wage, till all were gone in that there was work for; and some went beggars all their lives at after.
the strike...must end in...the invention of some machine which would diminish the need of hands at all.
Margaret views the situation around her in terms of power and economics, who controls the soldiers and who has the capital to survive. She also sees herself as a person who can change the course of events, sometimes subtly...
Margaret did not want to encourage him to go on by replying to him, and so prolong the discussion.
Other times more directly, as when she confronts an angry mob of strikers on her own.

She also declares...
I shall never marry.
In the end, she makes the surprisingly contemporary conclusion:
But she had learnt...that she herself must one day answer for her own life, what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.
While Austen might have written of the plight of 19th-century women, Gaskell writes of women with agency and courage. Here in 1855, Margaret is a strong, intelligent women who would not be uncomfortable in the 21st century. She is contemporary of Dickens (who lived and died with a few years of Gaskell). Her perspective of 19th-centruy England is well worth reading.

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