In North and South (1854-55), Elizabeth Gaskell invites the reader to recognize the problematic relationship between master and workman. As the novel unfolds, we become aware of the benefits of the North, the prosperity its industry brings. But in contrast to this picture stand Higgins, Boucher, Bessy and Mary. These characters of the working class, introduced to us by Margaret Hale, bring us into close proximity with the working man's struggle not only to sustain himself and his family but also to understand his role within the traditional system of master-tyranny. Gaskell uses Mr. Thornton's development throughout the book to suggest an alternative possibility: that of making the workman's interests, independence, and suggestions an essential part (perhaps even the primary part) of the decision-making process.
In the context of mid-nineteenth-century politics, mere consideration of this idea seems unlikely. The voice of the contemporary press alerts us to the ignorance of the working classes and to the futility of striking to make themselves understood. An article from the Illustrated London News, "The Working Classes and Their Strikes", is quick to point out that the defeat of the working classes "arises, not from any tyranny or injustice on the part of those who employ them, but from the inexorable laws of nature and society." 23 (No. 639 Saturday, August 20, 1853): 126 Therefore the workers who strike, those who are not content to continue in the present system, cause their own defeat: "In some cases, they force a staple manufacture into a new district, and ruin an ancient town; in others, they run the risk of exiling the employer and his capital to another country, where he can have a fairer chance of success."
Little understanding, or desire to understand, the needs of the working classes existed. But one must realize the economic conditions that accompanied these views. The prosperity and advantages of the industrial North improved the economic situations of many. The Illustrated London News states, "No doubt the working classes expect, and ought to partake of, the prosperity caused by Free-trade and the influx of gold. That they do partake in it, and far more largely than any other class, is apparent on every side we turn." An article entitled, "The Condition of the Multitude", suggests that working people knew improvements in all aspects of their life: "never so well off as at present . . .and have time for mental improvement, healthful recreation, and the enjoyment of their families and friends." (Illustrated London News, No. 630 23, Saturday, July 2, 1853.) Gaskell's book confirms these statements by the press. Northern life, however deficient she portrays it at times, proves vastly superior to the struggles of the southern agriculturalists. Passages, such as this observation of Mr. Hale's, give the reader an idea of northern advantages: "compare one of these houses with our Helstone cottages. I see furniture here which our laborers would never have thought of buying, and food commonly used which they would consider luxuries." (p.212)
The industrialization of the North brought with it prosperity. Of that fact the newspapers of the time assure us. But other issues, such as the possibility that a workman's ideas be considered and reflected in the master's actions, seem unimportant when compared to the great steps taken in the country's prosperity. Gaskell gives us Thornton, a master who befriends his workers, who listens to their ideas and who ultimately sacrifices his own prosperity for the good of his workmen. The conclusion of the book, which rewards Thornton with the woman he loves and renewed prosperity, suggests development into a "sensitive tyrant" as the admirable path to follow.
Based on the articles cited, contemporary columnists would likely have thought Gaskell's ideal of the relationship between master and workman an unnecessary and impracticable one. By describing the prevailing thoughts and attitudes of the day, those same columnists allow today's reader a fuller appreciation of Gaskell's proposed idea. Gaskell presents an accurate depiction of life in the industrial North and in a subtle, yet powerful way promotes radical answers to the working man's problems.
Created October 1992; last modified 25 March 2000