Dreams of Una Duessa: Margaret’s Duality in Gaskell’s North and South

Mr. Thornton has this recurring dream of Margaret as Una Duessa in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South after he sees her at the train station with a strange man.

He dreamt of her; he dreamt she came dancing towards him with outspread arms and with a lightness and gaiety which made him loathe her even while it allured him……………when he awakened he felt hardly able to separate the Una from the Duessa;

Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen.
Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Una Duessa are, in fact, two characters in Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century epic The Faerie Queene: Una is Truth and Beauty and Duessa, Falsehood, who takes on the form of Una to seduce Una’s lover. In the novel, Thornton dreams a lot about Margaret, something only hinted at in the miniseries. The Una Duessa dream comes after she lies to the police

Dreams in novels and psychoanalysis have often been used to reveal motives and feelings. Gaskell uses the device to show Thornton’s ambivalence. He loves Margaret deeply, but he’s also put off by the lie and her improper behavior at the riot. Modern men may continue to be befuddled by women, but they now accept this duality in both women and men.

Not so in Victorian times. Men and women were assumed to inhabit separate spheres—men, the public, aggressive, working sphere and women, the private sphere of feelings and retiring domesticity. Crossing spheres was particularly unkind on women.

But Margaret Hale does just that—unobtrusively, at first. She seems immune to the feminine trappings of finery and jewelry, goes walking alone in the countryside and, unlike her cousin, does not lie prostrate on a sofa. Then she goes in front of the rioters and, later, lies to the police after being out in public with a strange man. Her violation of that implicit code is complete.

But she is keenly aware of that violation and feels ashamed of it. Utterly ashamed, in fact, that she broods over “disgracing myself” after the riot. Later, her shame is more vivid, even melodramatic. She faints! After her encounter with the police inspector. We are thankfully spared from this scenario in the miniseries.

In fainting, Margaret reasserts her feminine modesty, her dual nature. She’s seeking shelter in a trait precious to Victorian women and expected by men. This modesty hides or denies a woman’s sexuality or, at least, interest or curiosity about it. After the riot, Margaret represses an awakening desire and rejects Thornton’s proposal. She insists she would have done what she did for any man. In insisting on her noble intentions, the lady doth protest too much.”

After lying to authorities, Margaret begins to wonder why Thornton’s opinion matters so much to her. She finally realizes she’s attracted to him. Admitting her desire comes only after much reflection, not exactly a Victorian feminine trait. In the novel, she does nothing about her feelings until he comes to London, presumably on business. In the miniseries, she goes back to Milton to seek him out, an aggressive (read “masculine”) move. This ending certainly makes for more romance and drama. Margaret has crossed into the public sphere more completely.

How is that for audacity in a Victorian woman?

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