Mr. Bell Quotes in North and South
“If we do not reverence the past as you do in Oxford, it is because we want something which can apply to the present more directly. It is fine when the study of the past leads to a prophecy of the future. But to men groping in new circumstances, it would be finer if the words of experience [from history] could direct us how to act in what concerns us most intimately and immediately; which is full of difficulties that must be encountered; and upon the mode in which they are met and conquered—not merely pushed aside for the time—depends our future. Out of the wisdom of the past, help us over the present. But no! People can speak of Utopia much more easily than of the next day’s duty; and yet when that duty is all done by others, who so ready to cry, ‘Fie, for shame!’”
“But the truth is, these country clergymen live such isolated lives—isolated, I mean, from all intercourse with men of equal cultivation with themselves, by whose minds they might regulate their own, and discover when they were going either too fast or too slow—that they are very apt to disturb themselves with imaginary doubts as to the articles of faith, and throw up certain opportunities of doing good for very uncertain fancies of their own.”
After visiting with Margaret in London, Henry and Mr. Bell chat about the struggles the Hale family has endured in recent years. Henry remarks that he’s heard from Mr. Hale’s successor, Hepworth, that Hale need not have abandoned his position as rector over a few nagging doubts. Henry argues that “country clergymen” become so morbidly consumed by their own ideas that they make mountains out of theological molehills, and overreact about small things. They have no neighbors of similar education, so they have few opportunities to test and refine their thinking against others. The result is that they become disproportionately fixated on certain pet ideas and sometimes do what Mr. Hale did, walking away from a potentially fruitful ministry for no good reason. While Mr. Hale himself had warned of the risk of stagnation in country life, Henry’s claim is presumptuous—assuming that Hale’s doubts were insignificant, and that his heartbreaking choice to leave Helstone need not have been made. It also lines up with the bias, seen elsewhere in the novel, that concrete, measurable action is to be preferred to thought.
“After all it is right,” said she, hearing the voices of children at play while she was dressing. “If the world stood still, it would retrograde and become corrupt, if that is not Irish. Looking out of myself, and my own painful sense of change, the progress all around me is right and necessary. I must not think so much of how circumstances affect me myself, but how they affect others, if I wish to have a right judgment, or a hopeful trustful heart.” And with a smile ready in her eyes to quiver down to her lips, she went into the parlour and greeted Mr. Bell.