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North and South: Love and Economy in Victorian England

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) typically centres on the conflicts between public and private areas as well as social warfare. In this framework, Gaskell presents a love story between John Thornton, a self-made entrepreneur, and Margaret Hale, the only daughter of Thornton’s private tutor. Thus, the author presents two different perspectives of capitalism in Victorian England to define a new paradigm of women in finance where female actors are responsible for humanising socioeconomic activities and trade.

North and South describes the adventures of Margaret Hale, the only daughter of a church's vicar, who must move with her family to the industrial city of Milton (as Manchester is known in the novel). After leaving her comfortable and rural life, Margaret feels horrified helping her father in pastoral duties in a city where she has no connections or friends. When meeting the city’s locals, she befriends Nicholas Higgins, a trade union activist, and develops an ambiguous relationship with a prosperous entrepreneur, John Thornton. At first, she feels repelled by his view of his workers, but both have a strong sexual relationship. When her parents die, Margaret decides to move to London, but she never forgets the enigmatic figure of Thornton. In the end, Margaret finds herself as the heiress of a substantial inheritance and becomes the landowner of Thornton, who, in the end, loses his business in the aftermath of a strike and an economic crisis. Ultimately, they get married, and she lends him the money he needs to start again “on an experimental, consultative basis with his workforce” (Gold, 2021, p. 134)

Figure 1: Writing on the Sand. (Rossetti, 1859)

The representation of finance in Victorian literature becomes commonplace after the Industrial Revolution. These representations often feature moral and ethical aspects of financial matters. Nevertheless, the most important factor is the inclusion of women in these narratives "since they are perceived as the only ethical actor to allow love to influence their financial decisions" (Reeds, 2014, p. 60). This trope was first satirised in the 19th century by authors such as Laurence Oliphant, whose criticism often featured naïve female investors who were inherently unfit to manage money matters. However, Gaskells employed this trope to advocate investment trust and “suggested that willingness to risk can be the ethical position of men as well as women” (Reeds, 2014, p. 61).

American historicist Catherine Gallagher (1985) claims that North and South should be understood as a discussion that features both public and ethical politics. In this view, the novel offers a subversive reading in which “the domestic sphere (Margaret) leaks into the public sphere (Thornton, Higgins, and other men) with the optimism that it can reform capitalism” (Scupham, 2022, p. 3). The novel's romantic plot is the element that unifies the story against a landscape of social warfare (Gold, 2021). Therefore, the marriage at the end resolves the romantic tension and the class conflicts (Scupham, 2022).

Figure 2: The Strike in the region of Charleroi. (Koehler, 1886)

Margaret and Thornton present different perspectives on the workforce and trade. Thornton refuses to be held accountable to his employees because of his status as an entrepreneur and mill owner. Nevertheless, Margaret recognises that owners have the human right to act as they desire with their business, but claims that they do not have a religious one. Thornton embodies a paternalist ideology where despotism becomes the best form of government. However, Margaret’s speech plants some seeds of doubt in his mind, as Thornton is not the stereotypical businessman (Gold, 2021). Thornton’s complexity is seen in his relationships: “interdependence (regarding his mother) and denies it (regarding his workers)” (Morrissey, 2019, p. 242). Thornton identifies his success as self-denial of any kind of pleasure, while his workers calmly enjoy indulgences. His work philosophy links economics with a work ethic that wants to satisfy the demand of a capitalist free market (Morrissey, 2019).

Thornton even defends Milton’s aesthetic when criticised by a foreigner. The industrial city is often considered to be cold, with buildings featuring different shades of grey. Thornton understands this as an aesthetic and social criticism. Consequently, he defends Milton, its people and their way of life by saying that they are direct descendants of the Hebraic race. He contrasts Milton’s people with Ancient Greece, where beauty was a major principle. He anticipates the scholar Mathew Arnold’s analysis of Hellenism and Hebraism, where the former means light and intelligence, and the latter is linked to pain and obedience (Moore, 2018).

Figure 3: A View of Murton Colliery near Seaham, County Durham. (Wilson Carmichael, 1843)

Nevertheless, Gaskell creates a brilliant metaphor that alters Thornton’s work philosophy: his love for Margaret. Since he is used to repressing his desires, the longing for Margaret turns into pain. His marriage proposal means his definitive submission to her and, therefore, “in stark contrast to the unfeeling masochism of Thornton’s socioeconomic behaviour, in love, he relishes vulnerability, pain” (Morrissey, 2019, p. 255). Thornton’s desiring gaze exposes the reader to his feelings for Margaret while the characters try to understand and accept his desire. The technique of the desiring gaze transforms the novel into ‘sexual realism’ and “creates the affective sense that the sexuality and romance of the novel are realistic and visceral for readers” (Scupham, 2022, p. 9).

In turn, Margaret combines her feminine allure with a masculine leadership trait (Steele, 2017). She is depicted as a character to whom the others adore submitting themselves because of her sweet and caring nature. Ultimately, she is responsible for the novel’s resolution, where the character that embodies industrialism, Thornton, metaphorically surrenders to her in affective and economic terms. Thus, Gaskell subordinates business to domestic needs and rejects the longing for wealth and the cold socioeconomic dynamics. This does not mean that Margaret is the master and Thornton her servant since she becomes his in erotic terms in exchange for his economic power (Morrissey, 2019).

Figure 4: The Tax Collector and his Wife. (Van Reymerswale, 1539)

In conclusion, North and South showcases the socioeconomic dynamics of the 19th century. However, as other authors already did, Gaskell focuses on the moral and ethical consequences of trade and the capitalist free market. Nevertheless, Gaskell excels at presenting a new paradigm of the woman in finance, in contrast to other parodic and satiric representations of naïve and incompetent ladies. For the author, women are responsible for humanising the cold socioeconomic dynamics and, in turn, submitting business to the tangible needs of the people.

Bibliographical References

Gallagher, C. (1985). The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago University Press.

Gold, M. (2021). ‘Frames of reference’ in Victorian England: What Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South reveals about perceptions of the employment relationship. Journal of Industrial Relations, 63(2), 126–148.

Moore, B. (2018). Invisible architecture and social space in north and south. The Gaskell Journal, 32, 17. Retrieved from

Morrissey, C. (2019). "Alive to distant, and dead to near": Masochism, suicide, and masculinity in North and South. Studies in the Novel, 51(2), 239-259. DOI:

Reeds, E. (2014). The Ethics of Risk in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South”: The Role of Capital in an Industrial Romance. Victorian Review, 40(2), 55–71.

Scupham, H. (2022). The desiring gaze, affective narration, and Elizabeth Gaskell's 'sexual realism' in North and South. The Gaskell Journal, 36, 1-20. Retrieved from

Steele, K. R. (2017). 'To give way': Women and grief in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. The Gaskell Journal, 31, 21-36, IX. Retrieved from

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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