Feminism in Victorian Novels? Impossible. Not when the status of women places them just a bit above spoiled children. But I found Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and realized I was wrong.
I had never heard of her until a couple of years ago when I saw the popular BBC series, North &South—based on a novel of the same title by & Ms. Gaskell. I looked up “women in Victorian times” and the name of the actress who played the heroine who I had never heard of her. I thought she was compelling in her role.
I learned the BBC miniseries had a fervid following and it centers on the male protagonist, John Thornton. Quite understandable: This type of show usually attracts women and in Richard Armitage, BBC found the perfect Mr. Thornton to fuel fantasies. He is tall, dark and handsome and puts his scowl to use better than any other period piece hero. In the series, he imbues the role with an intensity—sometimes brooding, sometimes longing—always simmering just beneath the surface. This is evident early on when he beats a worker for smoking inside the mill, a scene absent from the book. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Thornton is more controlled or, perhaps, Gaskell just never imagined him in such a situation.
In both Gaskell’s book and the series, Thornton is the Victorian incarnation of a sensitive male. He’s attuned to his feelings (more obvious in the book) and deeply attached to the women (mother and Margaret) he loves. But he could hold that love under wraps when needed—an attribute that actually makes him even more appealing. An alpha male, virile but vulnerable.
As a young Victorian woman, Margaret Hale is bound by social conventions to hide her feelings from the eyes of society. Still, you see them, as does Mrs. Thornton. At the dinner party just before the contentious incident at dinner. When her sad gaze follows Mr. Thornton as he turns around and walks away from her. When she quickly turns away, appearing unconcerned about another pretty woman who happily claims Thornton’s arm. When she averts her eyes after Mr. Bell confronts her about her sentiments for Mr. Thornton. Then, at the train station, she’s like a schoolgirl in love, her eyes downcast, a little breathless at seeing Mr. Thornton again.Daniela Denby-Ashe does as excellent a job at her role as does sexy Armitage/Thornton. She exudes a natural self-assurance that sets her apart from the other female characters—except, perhaps, Mrs. Thornton. Her brooding intelligence butts itself against Thornton’s alpha male. But her self-control is equal to his. Not until she sees his sensitive side does she allow herself to fall in love with him. She acts upon her own intense sensibilities (helping, defending workers or protecting her brother,) but never lets on that her feelings have changed for Thornton. Specially not after she believed herself sunk in his opinion when she lied to authorities.
Because I am, myself, nearly obsessed with issues of what it is to be female in my own time, Margaret Hale’s character resonated with me, more than the hero’s.
A consistent thread weaves through most of Gaskell’s books that stems from her concerns as a woman of her times, when industrialization was changing England radically. But this thread is lost or drowned under the much more vocal voices of a male-oriented society.
When Gaskell first wrote the novel, she intended to call it “Margaret Hale.” Apart from labor conflicts, she was clearly concerned with issues facing Victorian women. A lot of Gaskell’s books, in fact, bear the names of her heroines as titles.
Charles Dickens, who first published the novel, suggested a shift in focus to the stark contrasts between North and South England. No doubt he also thought North and South more in keeping with the interests of the male-dominated society—concerns regarded as more relevant and important.
The shift took the focus away from Gaskell’s deep preoccupation with women’s issues (evident in letters she wrote to friends and family). Such issues were ignored, seen as frivolous or, worse, assumed as nonexistent.
The modern view of a Victorian woman is of someone repressed, subservient, inferior to men in abilities, and in need of a man’s protection. Walking alone in public is socially forbidden. Her role is that of wife and mother at which she might try to excel.
She gains a bit more freedom to be different and to be counted if she’s rich. But until laws were passed in the late 1800s, she loses control of that money when she marries. If she has older brothers, she may not inherit at all. Unless, of course,she has the extremely rare fortune of having an enlightened parent. Such is the case of Barbara Bodichon. A moderately known painter/activist, she inherited an equal portion of her father’s wealth.Bodichon was also among the early feminists. She spearheaded a committee credited with the first organised feminist action in the UK (see Bodichon, above) to give women rights to their own wealth and property. Later, she wrote a radical pamphlet, Women and Work, calling for equal opportunities in education and work for women.
So, there were exceptions to the general truth and Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Margaret Hale as a character blossoming into one of those exceptions.