The Concept of Unity in Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South"

By Tristan Gans
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 1/1

North and South is a novel defined by the resolution of binary conflicts: heroine Margaret Hale is presented with a number of divisions of sympathy, between industrialists and the working class, between conflicting views of Mr. Thornton, and even between her conflicting views of her own intelligence.1 In almost all cases, Margaret does not so much choose sides as acknowledge mutually dependent and beneficial relationships. The ending of the novel, in which a proposal to loan money to a newly benevolent Mr. Thornton manifests the confluence of her compassion and her business sense, binds these seemingly dichotomous elements together. However, it also addresses a change of values and reasoning that otherwise would be left hanging by the death of Mr. Hale. Mr. Hale’s decision to leave the church due to “painful, miserable doubts” (35)2 concerning church doctrine constitutes the one event in the novel in which a sympathetic character directly chooses to avoid discourse on a dichotomous relationship: unlike characters confronting issues of labor relations or personal integrity, he refuses to foster discussion or challenge authority figures on these unspecified religious issues.

A key insight into Mr. Hale’s reasoning is found during his discussion with Margaret and Higgins, when he states that “your Union in itself would be beautiful, glorious, —it would be Christianity in itself—if it were but for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another” (229). This statement directly mirrors the sentiment of Unitarian theology of the 19th century as primarily defined by 18th century scientist and philosopher Joseph Priestley, who famously described the Trinity as foremost of the corruptions of Christianity.3 Elizabeth Gaskell, whose husband and father were Unitarian Ministers, would no doubt have been familiar with Priestley’s writing and was known to hold strong Unitarian opinions,4 so the statement of the protagonist’s father in this key scene of the novel holds special weight.

During Margaret’s long conversation with Higgins on the rights and obligations of workers and masters, Mr. Hale only speaks three times: first to encourage her daughter’s approval of Mr. Thornton for not seeking revenge on the workers (page 228, “I like him for it”), then the previously quoted comment, and finally to ask Higgins to join in family prayer. This final act is especially poignant, as the narrator says “Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm” (230). Here the author has created an unholy Trinity—heretic Father, un-feminine Daughter,5 and the rough, uncivilized Spirit on whom the ‘gentility’ of their class depends—and the chief deity is named a Dissenter, a word that in the 19th century especially connoted Rational Dissenters (often Unitarians), such as Priestley and William Gaskell.6 The implication of equality despite class and doctrinal differences is a clear refutation of the Trinity as perceived by Unitarian theologians.

Given Mr. Hale’s proclivity towards Dissent, one wonders why unlike Priestley, W. Gaskell, his forbearer John Oldfield,7 or his daughter with regard to the mutual responsibilities of masters and workers in the riot in Chapter XXII,8 he chooses not to argue his cause. It again seems to be a choice of unity over binary conflict: he won’t fragment his integrity or conscience, “hazarding the loss of [his] salvation; in a word” (36), by saying one thing and doing another. The option of preaching in a different forum, as did Priestley, Gaskell, and Lindsey (whose quotation of Oldfield is referenced by the author, according to the editor), however, is neglected in favor of an attempt to sell to Thornton his antiquated cultural capital, and therein lies the connection and resolution of the novel.

Mr. Hale declares, in conversation with Higgins, “I teach in order to get paid” (285). This revelation illuminates the point of the family’s political and geographic transition: by bestowing upon Mr. Thornton his learning, Mr. Hale is granting him the signifying power of upper class erudition.9 This transfer, part of an overall transfer of much of Mr. Hale’s character equity including compassion, listening skills, humility, and Margaret, gives form to the ultimate resolution of the novel.10 Mr. Thornton, as a self-made man and a capitalist, is better placed in the new English order to express the sentiments of his generation than a gentile minister, saying for his generation that “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” (327). Mr. Hale fails to back Mr. Bell (the Oxford man) in this conversation, and shortly after Mr. Bell takes notice of the romantic feelings between his daughter and Mr. Thornton, he resigns himself to obscurity: “My one great change has been made and my price of suffering paid. Here I stay out my life; and here will I be buried, and lost in the crowd” (330).

When Mr. Thornton, without further verbal explication, proposes to Margaret in a “strange and presumptuous way” (424) at the end of the novel, we see the proper structure of an intimate relationship: both sides respect each other’s power (425, “not good enough…deep feeling of unworthiness”) while refusing to impose a political hierarchy. This is emphasized by the exchange over the flowers, which he bought as a token of her independent self,11 which gives rise to his second comment referring to marriage as possession, saying he had “no hope of ever calling her mine” (425), and the second refutation of such terms.12 Their unspoken resolution to marry signifies the resolution of the novel—the binding of two genders, halves of England, social classes, individuals, etc., into one.

Unitarian theologians are quick to point out the absence of the Holy Spirit from scripture.13 Despite the principle of sola scriptura asserted by Martin Luther as a central principle of the Reformation, the ideological construct of the Trinity, written into Church catechism after the defeat of the Arian Heresy at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD,14 remained a well-enforced facet of Protestant doctrine.15 Unitarians well known to the Gaskells, such as Priestley and Lindsay, were actively claiming in the years prior to the publication of North and South that the Trinity was an artificially constructed relationship that established and consolidated the power of the Church.16 It is therefore entirely within reason to derive that Mr. Hale, the Dissenter, has qualms with Anglican doctrine on the Trinity, and furthermore that his Dissension both literally initiates the conflict of the novel and that the unspoken issue frames the thematic content.

There are three central conflicts that define the novel in its historical and artistic context: those of labor/industrial relations, love, and interior dialogue.17 In each case, resolution is found not through a partisan victory to establish hierarchical order, but in an acknowledgement of mutual respect, dependence, and intertwined destiny.18 The fact that the novel is framed by Unitarian discourse grants us the ability to derive a religious implication on the same terms—that the governing principles of the characters should stem from a similarly unified metaphysical entity, one that as Mr. Hale states exists “for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another” (228). In this passage particularly, but given the apparent transition of sympathy from Mr. Hale to Mr. Thornton we can easily apply our insight to the novel as a whole, Elizabeth Gaskell is equating the social conflicts of Britain—and their ultimate and necessary resolution, from her perspective—with her own theological conflicts and resolutions.

1.) Nancy Mann in her essay “Intelligence and Self-Awareness in North and South: a Matter of Sex and Class” declares that the novel “concentrates on a crucial problem of the development of the novel in the nineteenth century, the relationship between abstract intelligence and self-awareness, and the ways in which this relationship may be affected by factors of sex and class” (1). Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1975.

2.) Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. New York: Penguin, 2003.

3.) See Priestley, Joseph. A History of the Corruptions of Christianity. Available through google books, This is, as the title would indicate, more of a historical essay, but it describes how the Trinity arose from corrupt authorities in the early church and the Roman empire (see Part I, sections III-XI).

4.) See article by Peter Hughes for the Unitarian Universalist Association (, “William Gaskell.” Numerous articles and books attest to this reading of Gaskell’s literary outlook, and the known Unitarian sympathies of her editor, Charles Dickens, are further testament.

5.) I.e. she displays literary qualities previously thought to be masculine, such as abstract intelligence, verbal aggression, and little sexual objectification.

6.) Gaskell’s philosophical pamphlets and sermons were widely publicized, and he also encouraged his wife’s literary career, providing notes for Mary Barton. See Hughes.

7.) The editor’s note (428, No. 5) states that Oldfield was a dissenter who left his post in the 17th century; this soliloquy was used on a similar occasion by Theodophilus Lindsey, who abandoned the Anglican Church for Unitarianism in the 18th century, was a close associate of Joseph Priestley, and may have been a model for Mr. Hale. The editor also cites several critical works and biographies (Easson, Uglow, etc.) that further extricate this point as well as the Unitarian connection. See also Dan Eshet’s “Rereading Priestley: Science at the Intersection of Theology and Politics,” from History of Science, vol. 39, 2001, p. 128.

8.) In this chapter and subsequent references to it, Margaret removes herself from the context of the romantic heroine, arguing that Mr. Thornton as a man is obliged to parlay with his workers, and they have a corresponding responsibility to treat him with respect physically and verbally.

9.) George Orwell writes in The Road to Wigan Pier “In times of stress ‘educated’ people tend to come to the front; they are no more gifted than the others and their ‘education’ is generally quite useless in itself” (48). Gaskell, who lacks Orwell’s bourgeois guilt, asserts that there are substantial differences between the classes (usually manifested in dialect), and agrees that the education is inherently useless, but emphasizes its importance as status (cultural capital) through, among other things, the fact that despite Mr. Thornton’s (and his mother’s) lack of social pretensions—“we are a different race from the Greeks, to whom beauty was everything” (Gaskell, 326)—he pays for the classical education. Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier. New York: Harvest, 1958.

10.) It would take too long to explicate each claim; however, Thornton’s liberal managerial qualities towards the end of the novel (ceding credit for the workers’ cooking space to Higgins, for instance) both emphasize his sympathetic qualities and, presumably, lead to the financial downswing that places him in Margaret’s debt.

11.) As indicated by his trip to Helstone: he respects her unwillingness to subsume herself in Milton-Northern, and attempts to appreciate her true self.

12.) The first through his deprecation as being ‘strange and presumptuous,’ the second through her offer to buy the flowers from him, calling to light her more literal financial ownership of him.

13.) More accurately, the absence of the Holy Spirit as a specific embodiment of God, as opposed to a manifestation of His actions. See Priestly, I-vii.

14.) Arius (256-336 AD) was an Egyptian priest who refused to advocate the eternal divinity of Jesus Christ. He is alternatively viewed as a Monotheist and therefore completely within the heritage of the early Church and Judaic tradition, or as an early anti-Trinitarian, depending on one’s perspective. Sola scriptura, one of the five solas in Lutheran theology, appears in numerous texts of the Reformation onward.

15.) John Calvin famously had philosopher Michael Servetus, who in addition to his authorship of On the Errors of the Trinity was the first scientist to properly describe pulmonary function, burned at the stake in 1553.

16.) Thomas Jefferson, in a letter requesting that Priestley author a review extricating the philosophical teachings of Jesus from Christian theology, described Christianity as “the most perverted system that ever shone on man,” and wrote that members of the Church “have disfigured and sophisticated his actions & precepts, from views of personal interest, so as to induce the unthinking part of mankind to throw off the whole system in disgust,” among other statements as to the hierarchical agenda of the Church. Priestley accepted the proposition. From Jefferson’s letters to Priestley on 3/21/1801 and 4/9/1803, respectively.

17.) See Mann essay, note 1.

18.) In the case of labor relations, as seen through the relationship of Higgins and Thornton. Higgins acknowledges that the Union efforts failed when the members failed in their human obligations to the master and society and “began rioting and breaking laws” (286). Similarly, Thornton reflects that “that intercourse [between the two men], which though it might not have the effect of preventing all future clash of opinion and action, when the occasion arose, would, at any rate, enable both master and man to look upon each other with far more charity and sympathy” (410).

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