Throughout North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel set in a Northern England industrial city, protagonist Margaret Hale frequently reminisces about Helstone, her home village in Southern England. Through the upheaval of several moves—from London to Helstone, from Helstone to Milton, and from Milton to London again—Helstone is an emotional mainstay for Margaret. The nature of Margaret’s nostalgia for Helstone changes, however, depending on her circumstances. By portraying Helstone through Margaret’s changing perceptions, Gaskell argues that nostalgia is often a misrepresentation of the reality of the past, and that it reveals more about the person remembering than about the place being remembered.
At first, Margaret sees Helstone through a sentimental lens. When Henry Lennox, cousin Edith’s future brother-in-law, asks Margaret about Helstone, he teases her that her description is picturesque, “like a village in a tale rather than in real life.” Defensively, Margaret replies, “I am trying to describe Helstone as it really is,” but quickly agrees that it is “like a village … in one of Tennyson’s poems.” Having spent most of her youth missing Helstone, Margaret reaches for romantic comparisons. When Margaret returns to Helstone after Edith’s wedding, her home at first “realized all [her] anticipations.” She delights in the natural environment and simpler rhythms of life, especially compared to London, and in contrast to the discontentment she unexpectedly perceives in her parents’ lives. When Henry comes to visit, she takes him out to sketch the village, determined to capture some cottages that had “[reproached] me for not having sketched them.” Margaret still views Helstone as if it is something she can possess and display as her own. However, she can idealize for only a short time: Henry’s undesired proposal of marriage and her father’s abandonment of the priesthood soon thereafter taint Margaret’s idyllic homecoming. Margaret’s sentimental view of Helstone, based on homesickness, can’t hold up to the reality that, like any place, it’s touched by heartache and failure.
In Milton, Margaret remembers Helstone primarily in contrast to both the collective and familial suffering she sees around her. In doing so, however, she illuminates more about her own past than she does about the reality of Helstone. When Bessy Higgins, Margaret’s new friend who’s dying of an illness contracted at work, asks about Margaret’s origins, Margaret speaks about Helstone for the first time since leaving it. She tells Bessy, “I cannot tell you half its beauty,” and waxes poetic about its lush trees, its birdsong, and the sharp voice of a distant farmer, which only “reminded me pleasantly that other people were hard at work … while I just sat on the heather and did nothing.” The description—contrasting with the industrial, gray harshness of Milton—is intended to soothe Bessy, but it also betrays Margaret’s comfortable upbringing; she was free to enjoy leisure while others labored. In Milton, she is forced to see the sufferings of laborers up close.
When Thornton, Mr. Hale’s pupil and a cotton-mill owner, brings Margaret’s invalid mother a fruit basket, Mr. Hale remembers the currants that grew in their Helstone garden. Margaret, strained from the millworkers’ strike, Thornton’s proposal, and her mother’s illness, finds that her father’s casual remark reduces her to sobs: “Did she not remember every weather-stain on the old stone wall; the grey and yellow lichens that marked it like a map…?” Minute details of home come to mind when she’s under the strain of circumstances she would never have faced if they had not left. Her view of Helstone is no longer simply one of naïve sentimentality about the South, but of firsthand knowledge of sufferings peculiar to the North. Though her loved ones’ illnesses tempt Margaret to think of Helstone as a haven from suffering, this is a reaction to Margaret’s current stressful environment, not an accurate reflection of Helstone itself.
After her parents’ deaths, Margaret revisits Helstone with her father’s dear friend, Mr. Bell. Observing its changes, she realizes that she can no longer idealize Helstone. Margaret is pained by “every familiar tree so precisely the same in its summer glory as it had been in former years.” Returning a more mature person, she finds it’s painful both to witness familiar beauties without her parents and to see evidence of life moving on in her absence. Visiting a local family, Margaret is appalled when the widow tells her that a neighbor had stolen and burned her cat, a charm believed to bring about the fulfillment of one’s wishes. Margaret walks away “sick at heart” at this “savage country superstition.” This shocking encounter suggests that Helstone, like Milton, harbors its share of darkness and suffering—something Margaret had been slower to recognize before her Milton years. Though Margaret feels overcome by changes in Helstone, she concludes that she must look beyond these changes’ personal impact, because “the progress all around me is right and necessary” in its effects on others. Having resolved thus, Margaret finds that Helstone is “reinvested with the old enchanting atmosphere.” As long as she observes Helstone in light of her own memories, she can’t see it for what it truly is—a place both beautiful and flawed, not just an ideal on which to project her own yearnings.
Though Margaret decides that revisiting Helstone is an experience too painful to be repeated, Helstone remains an indelible part of her identity. When Margaret and Thornton are united at the end of the novel, Thornton shows her some dried roses he has carried; he had gathered them on a visit to Helstone “to see the place where Margaret grew to what she is.” Though Margaret’s earlier nostalgia is inevitably colored by idealism and homesickness, Helstone’s formative influence upon her is not an illusion; there, Margaret first started to become the strong, compassionate woman who is able to be Thornton’s match by the end of the story. This shows that, ultimately, nostalgia can’t do justice to the reality of beloved places; sometimes only change and distance can reveal them in their full complexity.
Nostalgia and Identity ThemeTracker
Nostalgia and Identity 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.”
“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.”
“North an’ South have each getten their own troubles. If work’s sure and steady theer, labor’s paid at starvation prices; while here we’n rucks o’ money coming in one quarter, and ne’er a farthing th’ next. For sure, th’ world is in a confusion that passes me or any other man to understand; it needs fettling, and who’s to fettle it, if it’s as yon folks say, and there’s nought but what we see?”
“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.
“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!”