At the beginning of North and South, Margaret Hale’s first occasion for “usefulness” comes when she passively models some shawls for her Aunt Shaw’s company, an activity she finds amusing but “ludicrous.” While she and her friend Henry Lennox talk about it afterward, she reflects that she is caught up in a “never-ending commotion about trifles” as she helps cousin Edith prepare for her wedding. Upon her return to Helstone, however, Margaret must shoulder an escalating series of non-trifling problems, making serious decisions and taking initiative both at home and in public. Through Margaret, Gaskell models the ideal woman as one who acts, leads, and solves problems. More than that, the ideal woman shows quiet, persevering strength that bears others’ burdens and shields others from harm.
Margaret repeatedly takes on “head of household” responsibilities—such as relaying bad news, planning a household move, making funeral arrangements, and providing spiritual leadership—that would traditionally be expected to fall upon her father. After Mr. Hale tells Margaret about his change of theological views, necessitating his leaving the Church of England, he asks a reeling Margaret to tell her mother that the family must move to Milton. Margaret is aware that “it was an error in her father to have left [Mrs. Hale] to learn his change of opinion … from her better-informed child.” Despite her discomfort with her father’s decision and his handling of the fallout, she faces the dreadful conversation the following day, so that her father doesn’t have to.
Not only must Margaret be the voice of uncomfortable realities, she must also shoulder the responsibility of preparations for their move, because her father is too depressed to make the required decisions. After the relatively superficial duties of attending Edith in London, now every day “startled her into a decision … momentous to her, and to those whom she loved, to be settled.” This role is jarring for Margaret, but she does what is required of her. When a dying Mrs. Hale begs Margaret to write to her exiled son Frederick (a navy mutineer), Margaret acts quickly, despite her fears of Frederick’s capture and hanging if he returns to England. Her father approves her actions, acknowledging that “I durst not have done it myself.” Mrs. Hale recognizes the shifting dynamic in their household and leans on Margaret accordingly. When Boucher, an aggrieved millworker, commits suicide, it also falls to Margaret to tell his widow the news. “If I had time to think of what I had better say; but all at once—” begins the trembling Mr. Hale. Margaret doesn’t need to be asked; by now, assuming such burdens is becoming habitual. After Mrs. Hale dies, Mr. Hale appears lost, stroking his wife’s face and making soft noises like “some mother-animal caressing her young.” Meanwhile, all of the funeral preparations devolve upon Margaret; as her father and brother fulfill the traditionally feminine role of unabashed grieving, “she must be working, planning, considering.” Margaret’s leadership in such matters is now taken for granted within the household; she subordinates her own grief in order to tend to the needs of her family.
Margaret also occupies a kind of priestly role within the household. In the face of Mr. Hale’s and Frederick’s helpless grief, Margaret, “without a word of preparation … with a clearness of sound that startled even herself,” begins reciting the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John. Before her mother’s funeral, Mr. Hale asks for her prayers, and “almost supporting him in her arms,” Margaret recites all the comforting verses of Scripture she can remember. Far from shrinking from such a task, “she herself gained strength by doing this.” Margaret not only tends to others’ needs, but actively bears their burdens and heals their wounds out of her own strength.
Margaret not only assumes leadership at home; she also puts herself in harm’s way in public, showing her willingness to put herself at risk in order to forestall violence. Margaret’s courage is on full display when she faces the mob that has come to confront Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills. When she sees men about to throw their shoes at Thornton, she makes herself a human shield, supposing that the mob wouldn’t dare harm a woman. This is a miscalculation, but the sight of Margaret, bleeding and unconscious after being struck with a pebble, does help persuade the crowd to retreat. The realization that they’ve injured a woman shames the crowd and prevents them from attempting to do further harm. In the aftermath, Mrs. Thornton reacts with scorn to Margaret’s actions, retorting to her son that “a girl in love will do a good deal,” as though such behavior is only comprehensible as an act of love. Later, Margaret, knowing she is being viewed as a “romantic fool,” despairs at this interpretation, but determines that she can bear the insult because, by forestalling greater violence, she has done “a woman’s work.” She later tells Thornton that any woman would “feel the sanctity of our sex as a high privilege when we see danger.” In other words, Margaret believes that, because it’s taboo to strike a woman, women have a carte blanche to insert themselves in dangerous situations; by so doing, they can act on behalf of the defenseless. A similar standoff occurs when, following Bessy Higgins’s death, Margaret stands in front of grief-stricken Nicholas Higgins to stop him from going to the gin-palace, though he looks angry enough to strike Margaret. She then persuades Higgins to accompany her home for tea instead—again, using a feminine prerogative (this time, hospitality) to de-escalate the situation.
It’s worth noting that Margaret’s strength and agency are rooted in Victorian-era gender ideals of quietness, gentleness, and stainless virtue. Nevertheless, Gaskell does present Margaret as an empowered woman whose everyday endurance and courage amidst danger are as indispensable as the raw strength and public prominence of the men around her.
Female Agency and Strength ThemeTracker
Female Agency and Strength Quotes in North and South
“It is one of the great beauties of our system, that a working-man may raise himself into the power and position of a master by his own exertions and behavior; that, in fact, every one who rules himself to decency and sobriety of conduct, and attention to his duties, comes over to our ranks; it may not be always as a master, but as an overlooker, a cashier, a book-keeper, a clerk, one on the side of authority and order.”
“You consider all who are unsuccessful in raising themselves in the world, from whatever cause, as your enemies, then, if I understand you rightly,” said Margaret in a clear, cold voice.
“As their own enemies, certainly,” said he…
“I think, Margaret,” she continued, after a pause, in a weak, trembling, exhausted voice, “I am glad of it—I am prouder of Frederick standing up against injustice, than if he had been simply a good officer.”
“I am sure I am,” said Margaret, in a firm, decided tone. “Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used—not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless.”
“If you live in Milton, you must learn to have a brave heart, Miss Hale.”
“I would do my best,” said Margaret rather pale. “I do not know whether I am brave or not till I am tried; but I am afraid I should be a coward.”
“South country people are often frightened by what our Darkshire men and women call only living and struggling. But when you’ve been ten years among a people who are always owing their betters a grudge, and only waiting for an opportunity to pay it off, you’ll know whether you are a coward or not; take my word for it.”
If she thought her sex would be a protection,—if, with shrinking eyes she had turned away from the terrible anger of these men, in any hope that ere she looked again they would have paused and reflected, and slunk away, and vanished, she was wrong. Their reckless passion had carried them too far to stop—at least had carried some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot—reckless to what bloodshed it may lead…
“For God’s sake! Do not damage your cause by this violence. You do not know what you are doing.”
“At first, when I heard from one of my servants, that you had been seen walking about with a gentleman, so far from home as the Outwood station, at such a time of the evening, I could hardly believe it…It was indiscreet, to say the least; many a young woman has lost her character before now—”
Margaret’s eyes flashed fire. This was a new idea—this was too insulting. If Mrs. Thornton had spoken to her about the lie she had told, well and good—she would have owned it, and humiliated herself. But to interfere with her conduct—to speak of her character! She—Mrs. Thornton, a mere stranger—it was too impertinent! She would not answer her—not one word. Mrs. Thornton saw the battle-spirit in Margaret’s eyes, and it called up her combativeness also.”
“Oh, how unhappy this last year has been! I have passed out of childhood into old age. I have had no youth—no womanhood; the hopes of womanhood have closed for me—for I shall never marry; and I anticipate cares and sorrows just as if I were an old woman, and with the same fearful spirit. I am weary of this continual call upon me for strength.”
When her father had driven off on his way to the railroad, Margaret felt how great and long had been the pressure on her time and her spirits. It was astonishing, almost stunning, to feel herself so much at liberty; no one depending on her for cheering care, if not for positive happiness; no invalid to plan and think for; she might be idle, and silent, and forgetful,—and what seemed worth more than all the other privileges—she might be unhappy if she liked.
Then her thoughts went back to Milton, with a strange sense of the contrast between the life there, and here. She was getting surfeited of the eventless ease in which no struggle or endeavor was required. She was afraid lest she should even become sleepily deadened into forgetfulness of anything beyond the life which was lapping her round with luxury. There might be toilers and moilers there in London, but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears…There was a strange unfinished vacuum in Margaret’s heart and mode of life.
“I have arrived at the conviction that no mere institutions, however wise…can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact. Such intercourse is the very breath of life…I would take an idea, the working out of which would necessitate personal intercourse; it might not go well at first, but at every hitch interest would be felt by an increasing number of men, and at last its success in working come to be desired by all, as all had borne a part in the formation of the plan; and even then I am sure that it would lose its vitality, cease to be living, as soon as it was no longer carried on by that sort of common interest which invariably makes people find means and ways of seeing each other, and becoming acquainted with each other’s characters and persons…We should understand each other better, and I’ll venture to say we should like each other more.”
“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!”