Presentation of Social Class Realities and Interactions
North and South is a condition of England novel which, like Gaskell’s earlier work Mary Barton, sought to give a voice to the working class and expose the middle and upper classes to their suffering through the medium of literature. Published in 1854, and written in the style of a Bildungsroman, North and South explores the geographical and social divide amid the industrialised town of Milton, and the picturesque hamlet of Helstone. The characters of Bessy Higgins, Boucher, and the protagonist, Margaret Hale herself, to at least some degree, each embody Gaskell’s presentation of the poor and working class in Milton. Through an in-depth consideration of these and others characters relationships and interactions, the social divide within the early nineteenth century England will be illuminated.
The town of Milton, located in the north of England, and presumed to be an interpretation of industrial Manchester, is a location which is used by Gaskell to contrast the “idyllic hamlet” of Helstone in the south. The contrasting geographical locations in Gaskell’s novel, are illustrative of the social divide throughout England in the Industrial Revolution. Milton is predominantly inhabited by factory workers who are for the most part impoverished, implied largely by their seemingly constant “clemmin”. By comparison, Milton is also home to several characters of contrast who live the affluent lifestyles of a “Master”. John Thornton is the owner of the Marlborough Mills in Milton, which is infamous in the north for its successful production of cotton. Gaskell’s novel depicts the encroachment of capitalist values into a somewhat feudal-system society, which therefore explains to a certain extent, her unforgiving yet empathetic depiction of the poor. Capitalism has the capability to alter relationships between humans, but also between that of a man and his surrounding landscape, whereby illustrated in this novel through Thornton seeing the Marlborough Mills in Milton as an economic benefit, and cares not for the physical well being of his employees. The Thornton’s descriptions of their employees both as “hounds” and “fools” degrades them almost to a sub-human status, emphasizing their perception of them merely as “hands.” It is therefore believed that before the creation of the welfare state, the workers had no support system in times of strife, which is implied in the misery and hardship of the poor in Milton, who often only have a “black miserable frizzle of a dinner.”
The life and death of Bessy Higgins in Gaskell’s novel illustrates the many adversities which the working class encounter upon living and working in Milton. Upon moving to Milton, Margaret Hale befriends Bessy, who like Margaret, is a young lady whom necessitates to find a purpose in the entrepreneurial climate of Milton. Bessy is presented to be an extremely sick young girl, who as a result of working in a cotton mill, has inhaled a treacherously large amount of “fluff” into her lungs. Bessy is therefore too ill to even consider leaving her own home, and as the novel progresses, becomes increasingly immobile. Consequential to her illness, Bessy’s disposition often changes; she is at times calm and resigned with her fate, whereby she seeks comfort in religion, but at other moments, her character is illustrated to be delirious and raving. In this sense, Bessy Higgins exemplifies the differences in opinion of many of the inhabitants of Milton; those who are accepting of their way of life, which for the majority is destined to remain cold and bleak, but also of those who find it their best interest to take action and bring about change, which culminates in Chapter XIX with the “turn out” of the factory workers.
Furthermore, Bessy’s friendship with Margaret helps the protagonist understand the manners and activities of the working class in the Milton society, and although their opinions of social norms differ, arguably Margaret is ameliorated for knowing and befriending her. Gaskell’s use of dialect and colloquialisms moreover highlights and to a certain extent alienates the societal class divisions in Milton, alongside giving the population a sense of identity. Margaret adopts the so-called “factory-slang” and as the novel progresses, her tone and mannerisms become more of those of a woman from Milton. In a ‘breach of convention’, Margaret is depicted to be, as Patricia Ingham describes, “on the wrong side of the class divide by the casual use of a few dialect terms in contexts where the workmen and their families might use them.” The poor’s “slang” however is seen by Mrs Hale as vulgar and unrefined, however Margaret’s response illustrates the extent to which her character grows to understand the language, and arguably therefore the identity, of the people she has come to live with in Milton; “And if I live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I speak it. Why, mamma, I could astonish you with a great many words you never heard in your life.” Margaret’s spirited tone demonstrates the degree to which she believes how the way a person’s speaking and their dialect, reflects their sign of class. Margaret actively seeks to understand, as can be seen in her many conversations with Mr Higgins and Bessy Higgins, as well as in a significant conversation with John Thornton in which they discuss their different interpretations of “man” and “gentleman”. In this way, Gaskell presents Margaret to embody cultural mediation, illustrated through her use of the poor’s “slang”, which comes to be representative of each character’s identity.
The tragic character of John Boucher furthermore depicts the harsh, material conditions of the lives of the working class population in Milton. Gaskell illustrates Boucher to be a workingman who refuses to join the Union Committee in the town. Boucher’s “children are hungry ad are not yet old enough to work for themselves; his wife exerts continuous pressure on him; and the Union exercises a “slow, lingering torture” that prevents him from making his own decisions.” In consequence to these hardships, Boucher drowns himself in a brook where “there’s not water enough to drown him,” illustrating that he was a “determined chap. He lay with his face downwards. He was sick enough o’ living, choose what cause he had for it.” Gaskell depicts the suicide of Boucher, which although is heartrending for his six children who are representative of many of the “clemmin” youth in Milton, in the long-term, the suicide is exercised to encourage Nicholas Higgins to temper his class antagonism and ask for work from the “masters” that he originally opposed in the strike. The presentation of Boucher, who the reader later discovers is of Irish descent; Margaret exclaims that “I would guess from their tones that they had Irish blood in them”, which illustrates how Boucher’s determination for an alternative future confirms “the inability of the Irish to be incorporated into England’s developmental times.”
Elizabeth Gaskells North and South depicts the punitive conditions in which the working class lived throughout the industrialization of England in the mid-1850s. The presentation of characters including John Boucher, Bessy and Nicholas Higgins and their interactions with those from a more privileged background, highlights the fact that North and South celebrates characters that subordinate alternative futures and synthesise multiple cultural times. Furthermore, it is significant that both the characters of Bessy and Boucher eventually die in the novel, and Gaskell uses death to open the eyes of the middle class to the suffering of the lower, whilst simultaneously forcing the lower to realize the positive effects of the middle class influence.
 E. Gaskell, North and South (1853) Penguin Classics: London. p. xii
 Scholl, L. Place and Progress in the Works of Elizabeth Gaskell. (2015)
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North and South is a condition of England novel which, like Gaskell’s earlier work Mary Barton, sought to give a voice to the working class and expose the middle and […]