Margaret falls into a state of physical exhaustion from the shock of Mr. Hale’s death. Dixon and Mr. Bell discuss what’s to be done about Margaret and decide to write to Aunt Shaw, commanding the indecisive woman rather sharply to come to her niece at once. Edith begs Aunt Shaw to bring Margaret home with her to London. Henry Lennox pretends indifference at the possibility of Margaret’s coming.
After years of steadfastly caring for those around her, it’s not surprising that Margaret would be overwhelmed by the sudden void in her life. Meanwhile, instead of Margaret making decisions for others, others are making decisions about her future.
Aunt Shaw journeys to “that horrid place,” Milton, to retrieve Margaret. Margaret finally finds the relief of tears on her aunt’s shoulder. Thornton inquires at the house, without seeing Margaret, and invites Mr. Bell to stay with him. Bell tells Thornton that Margaret wishes to quickly leave the place “where she had suffered so much.” Thornton makes no response to this. He thinks that Margaret’s eighteen months in Milton “had been a royal time of luxury to him, with all [their] stings…compared to the poverty that crept round and clipped the anticipation of the future down to sordid fact.”
Always occupied with the demands of the present, Thornton has found that Margaret has an elevating effect upon his character, and the potential loss of that is devastating for him.
As Bell, Thornton, and Mrs. Thornton chat at the Thorntons’ house, Bell makes a passing reference to Frederick, startling Thornton. Bell explains Frederick’s identity to the puzzled Thornton, but, not knowing about Frederick’s secret visit to England, assumes that Margaret’s male companion at the train station must have been Henry Lennox. Mr. Bell makes some light remarks about the attachment he fancies having seen between Thornton and Margaret, but Thornton sternly changes the subject.
This is another instance in the story where the lack of sufficient information causes problems—it’s dramatic irony for the reader, because Thornton is tantalizingly close to finding out the truth about the incident at the train station, but it’s not enough. Gaskell is underscoring the fragility of a woman’s reputation in the Victorian context.
Thornton talks about his acquaintance with Higgins—“a strange kind of chap”—and the brainstorm Thornton had to start a dining-room for his workers. He sought Higgins’ advice, who initially rejected the plan, only to return with his own, improved version, which Thornton, though initially ruffled, coolly put into practice. In time, Thornton has begun to share meals and conversation with his workers from time to time. He remarks that “I am really getting to know some of them now, and they talk pretty freely before me.”
The picture of the equally stubborn Thornton and Higgins partnering on such a project is humorous, but the outcome shows that Margaret’s instinct about face-to-face interaction overcoming class divisions was correct—and that Thornton took her advice to heart.