Wednesday, 18 January 2012


In  Mary Barton  (1848), Elizabeth Gaskell  started to draw her own tragic picture of the “eternal subject for agitation in the manufacturing districts”: “the differences between the employers and the employees”.  John Barton, after witnessing  the painful death of his only little son helplessly, had tried to fight for better living and better working conditions for himself and his fellow workers as chairman of a Trade Union  . He had also joined a political movement asking for universal male suffrage and the possibility for a man of no property to become member of Parliament:  Chartism . All his attempts resulted  as failures and that made his rage against factory-owners explode into murder.

Desperate workers attack the mill - From BBC North and South (2004)

Ungovernable violence is also what moves the mob of enraged workers to attack Marlborough Mill in  North and South  (1855). In a moment of deep crisis of the market, Milton’s workers start a strike to obtain higher wages from their masters.  All the mills in Milton have to stop their production, the workers’ families are starving. So, when they hear  that Mr Thornton,  has brought in black – leg workers from Ireland, their rage  mounts and they are ready to attack the unfortunate Irish hidden at Marlborough Mill. Their fury, addressed to Mr Thornton, endangers the lives of many and, eventually,  injures innocent Margaret Hale, the young heroine of the story.
The agony of the poor , according to Mrs Gaskell, is not the agony of privation, but of “privation without sympathy”, without the sympathy of those more fortunate. The wilful ignorance of the rich mill-owners and their lack of knowledge of the conditions of the poor is symbolized by Mrs Hunter, the manufacturer’s wife, who passes John Barton “loaded with purchases for a party” on the day that his son dies of starvation.
In her Preface to Mary Barton Elizabeth Gaskell states: 
The more I reflected on this un happy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers  and the employedmust ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony of these dumb people; the agony of suffering without sympathy of the happy, or of erroneously believing that such is the case”.
Brendan Coyle as Higgins in North and South (2004)

Donald Read  (“Chartism in Manchester”, Chartist Studies, London, MacMillan,  1959) recognizes that “a widening of the class gulf was not, of course, an intended effect of the new laissez-faire economics". On the contrary an integral part of the new political economy was its theory of social union, which Mrs Gaskell exemplifies in the troubled but finally successful relationship between Nicholas Higgins (worker) and John Thornton (mill-owner) in North and South.
Thornton comes to understand the value of 'cultivating some intercourse with hands beyond the mere "cash nexus" ' (N&S p.431), once he has been brought "face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him" (N&S p. 419).

Nicholas Higgins and John  Thornton shake hands - BBC North and South (2004)

Thornton's  discussions with Higgins lead to greater understanding on both sides. At the end his business troubles will be treated by Higgins with sympathy rather than with "the suppressed antagonism which had formerly been smouldering."
They agree the work of masters and hands is totally complementary, they depend  on each other. This is something Higgins and Thornton totally understand and try to achieve.


  1. I love the scenes with Higgins and Thornton together. Read the book last summer for one of my bookclubs. Very good.

    1. It is one of the novels I find most interesting to re-read and teach about. I consider Mrs Gaskell very brave for writing novels such as "Mary Barton" or "North and South". It mustn't have been easy at all for her to bear the scorn and the ostracism of the rich factory-owners in Manchester. I deeply admire her for that. Glad to hear you liked this novel too. Thanks for your comment, Kirk.