Though most of North and South takes place in an industrial city, nature and country life symbolize refreshment and are often associated with Margaret Hale herself. When Margaret first returns to Helstone from London, she initially feels perfectly at home in “her” forest—its “full, dusky green” filled with “wild, free, living creatures.” When Margaret is removed from this environment, she pines for it, and her memories of it provide solace both to her and others. When Margaret visits the ailing Bessy Higgins, for example, Bessy longs to hear about the country, and homesick Margaret pours forth remembrances of “the deep shade of rest even at noonday…billowy ferns…long streaks of golden sunlight,” soothing Bessy. After a later visit, Bessy, who’s dying of an industrial lung disease, reflects that Margaret is “like a breath of country air, somehow. She freshens me up.”
After Margaret rejects Thornton’s proposal of marriage, a dazed Thornton catches a passing omnibus (carriage), which carries him to a small country town outside Milton, where he wanders the fields. Though he is tormented, Thornton is only able to come to grips with his feelings for Margaret within the peace of nature, distant from his everyday industrial habitat. This is the only time the rural outskirts of Milton feature in the story. While Gaskell argues that no environment is perfect—as Margaret herself learns when she visits Helstone at the end of the novel—nature provides space for people to breathe, literally and figuratively.
Nature and the Countryside Quotes in North and South
“Oh, [Helstone is] only a hamlet…There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.”
“And flowering all the year round, especially at Christmas—make your picture complete,” said he.
“No,” replied Margaret, somewhat annoyed, “I am not making a picture. I am trying to describe Helstone as it really is. You should not have said that.”
“I am penitent,” he answered. “Only it really sounded like a village in a tale rather than in real life.”
“And so it is,” replied Margaret, eagerly. “…Helstone is like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson’s poems.”
“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.
“They are from Helstone, are they not? I know the deep indentations round the leaves. Oh! Have you been there? When were you there?”
“I wanted to see the place where Margaret grew to what she is, even at the worst time of all, when I had no hope of ever calling her mine. I went there on my return from Havre.”
“You must give them to me,” she said, trying to take them out of his hand with gentle violence.
“Very well. Only you must pay me for them!”