If one the typical characters of Jane Austen’s novels were to leave for any reason
the pampered life of a good, refined but secluded society made of balls, laces,
tittle-tattle, great expectations and shattered dreams to face the world outside,
well, very likely we would be reading one of the novels written by Elizabeth
Gaskell. Margaret Hale, the protagonist of North and South, could be in any way one
of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters : remarkably beautiful, intelligent, well
educated, young and therefore, ready to marry, but the pursue of a good match is
not the central theme here. Her perfect world will be smashed by her father’s sudden
decision to quit the church and move where the “dark satanic mills” have utterly
changed the landscape and the heart of people: the North. In Jane Austen’s books the
North has always been the remote place where the regiment was dislocated and
nothing more. There is never a hint about the profound changes the industrial
revolution was bringing about in the country. The arrival in the Northern town of
Milton will be felt by Margaret and her family as if they had been sunk into a hell
made of noise, dirt and machines. The verdant, peaceful, aristocratic South is only
a painful memory of the heaven they fear to have lost forever.
In the hell of Milton the Thorntons are the most distinguished family, and Mr Thornton is another Mr Darcy, a Darcy of the North, of course: a mill owner whose position has not been secured by breed, but by hard discipline and work .The educated but poor Margaret Hale and the rich but unrefined Mr Thornton are destined to follow the same love pattern of Pride and Prejudice: prejudice and misunderstanding at first, development of affection on both sides with a different degree of awareness, rejected proposal, smoothing of characters to a deserved happy ending. However, the context the two act, is harsher and more tragic than that of Pride and Prejudice. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s world there is pain, desolation, the desperate struggle to survive of the emerging, exploited classes working in mills and the brutal industrial plans of their masters. It is the real world which, nevertheless, allows the growth of genuine, sincere bonds and affections even among members of different classes.There is no time for frivolous deception and seemingly pointless conversation here, there is understanding and mutual support.
Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton share that scowl which actually hides a surprisingly sensitive nature, but Mr Thornton has deeper comprehension of people and himself. If we compare the two proposal scenes, for instance, Mr Darcy has no doubt he will be accepted. He is full of himself, after all, he knows who he is and what a good catch he would be for any girl. Elizabeth’s refusal takes him by surprise. Mr Thornton proposes not only because he is sincerely in love with Margaret, but because he feels bound in honour as Margaret’s coming to his rescue, while he was facing an angry mob, had been generally interpreted as a manifestation of her feelings for him. He knowns she doesn’t love him, that she thinks he is not good enough for her and that he won’t be accepted, even if she is in reduced circumstances. Despite her refusal, he will continue to offer his discreet support to her family in the many times of need.
Margaret’s love for Mr Thornton will grow, despite her initial prejudices, along with the understanding not only of the man but also of the dynamics of that part of the country he embodies. When Margaret, after a great deal of tragedy, visits the house she was born and bred in the South, the happy and enchanted place of her thoughtless years, she’ll be unable to revive those emotions that, however, are still vivid in her mind. That heaven like place does not exist any longer, because she’s deeply changed. Life had thrown her into the Blakean world of experience of the North and Helstone represents for her now that innocence she has painfully lost forever.