The Hales are out of spirits when they arrive in their new home on a foggy day—they “must endure smoke and fogs for a season; indeed, all other life seemed shut out from them by as thick a fog of circumstance.” Margaret reads a letter from Edith, whose new life at Corfu seems “all out-of-doors, pleasure-seeking and glad.” Margaret reflects on the contrast between her untroubled life in London and her present circumstances; she also knows that Henry, had she accepted his proposal, would not have understood her father’s issues of conscience. The latter, at least, makes Margaret thankful that things have not turned out differently.
The fogs of Milton match the Hales’ sense of disorientation and uncertainty about their future. Edith’s carefree Mediterranean life stands in stark contrast to the Hales’ cramped, gray surroundings. But Margaret seeks to be philosophical about her circumstances, rather than indulging in self-pity, and her instinct about Henry’s attitude later proves to be a wise one.
Mr. Hale meets with additional pupils, some of them boys who had left traditional schooling early in order to enter trades, and some of them young men who, like Thornton, want to resume their disrupted education. Mr. Thornton is Mr. Hale’s oldest pupil and also his favorite, and the two spend many lessons engaged in conversation. Mr. Hale finds Thornton rather grand in his success, but Margaret wonders who may have been trampled on in the pursuit of that success.
Milton’s industrial boom creates unusual educational needs, requiring people to balance the importance of schooling with the importance of commercial success. Despite their differences in class background, Thornton and Mr. Hale strike up a ready friendship. Margaret, however, remains suspicious of Thornton’s profession and how he got where he is. She is already aware that the toll of manufacturing success might fall differently on masters of industry and their workers.
Margaret undertakes a lengthy search for a servant to assist Dixon and finds it a very different experience from hiring respectful young girls from Helstone school. Margaret is “repelled” by the “rough uncourteous manners” of the Milton girls, as well as by their frank curiosity about the Hales’ financial means, seeing that the Hales aren’t engaged in trade. Most girls, she finds, prefer the wages and independence of working in a mill.
Margaret’s puzzlement about Thornton extends to her interactions with Milton’s young women—they don’t behave like the servants she’s known in the South, and that affects the Hales’ ability to recreate Helstone living—marked by plenty of domestic help—in a Milton setting. Likewise, the Hales don’t map easily onto Milton people’s class expectations. Gaskell also touches on the fact that manufacturing opened doors of financial independence to women.
In the course of her search for a servant, Margaret frequently finds herself in the streets of Crampton just as crowds of men and women are pouring forth from the mills. At first, she’s frightened by the boldness and jesting of the crowds; the girls even comment freely on Margaret’s clothing. She is eventually won over by their harmless, friendly remarks. The workmen, however, openly comment on Margaret’s looks, to her annoyance.
Margaret is becoming used to rubbing elbows with people much different from her. She quickly moves beyond discomfort as she adjusts to the frankness of Northern manners, though differences in Northern men’s attitudes toward women remain jarring.
One day, a bedraggled middle-aged workman compliments Margaret’s smile. She takes an interest in this particular man, especially when she later sees him walking with his daughter, who is evidently ill. Later, in the early spring, Margaret encounters them again and offers the girl some flowers she’s just picked. The three talk, and the father is touched by Margaret’s clear concern for the girl’s weakness.
Gradually, as Margaret spends more time among Milton’s masses, she begins to notice individuals more. Her natural compassion, cultivated in Helstone, helps her open up to a young woman in need, opening the door to genuine friendship.
Margaret learns that the two are named Nicholas and Bessy Higgins. She is surprised when they wonder why she wants to know their names and address—in Helstone, it would have been understood that she intended to pay a call. Though Higgins admits he’s not fond of strangers coming to his house, he relents in light of Margaret’s kindness to Bessy. From that day forward, “Milton became a brighter place to her,” because she has found “a human interest.”
Here, Margaret bumps up against another regional difference. As the village clergyman’s daughter, she’d taken her humanitarian role among Helstone’s poor for granted; but in Milton, her attitude is taken for condescension. In spite of the rocky start, however, Margaret’s interest in the Higginses is genuine, and her affection for Milton grows because of this specific human attachment.