Una Duessa: Margaret’s Duality in Mr. Thornton’s Eyes

Mr. Thornton repeatedly dreams of Margaret as Una Duessa in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

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;

Who is Una Duessa? They are in fact two characters in a famous 16th-century epic, The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser. Una is Truth and Beauty and Duessa, Falsehood. Duessa takes on the form of Una to seduce Una’s lover.

Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen.
Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Gaskell’s novel, Thornton dreams a lot about Margaret, only hinted at in the BBC miniseries. Margaret as Una Duessa invades his dreams after she lies to the police about being in the train station with a strange man ( her brother but he doesn’t know that).

As in psychoanalysis, novels often use dreams to reveal repressed motives and feelings. Thornton’s dreams of Margaret as Una Duessa show he is ambivalent. He loves Margaret deeply, but the lie and her improper behavior at the riot put him off.

Modern women may continue to befuddle men, but we now accept that both women and men have good and bad sides. Not so in Victorian times. Society believed men and women inhabit separate spheres. Men belong to the public, aggressive, working sphere; women, the private sphere of home and feelings. Crossing spheres was particularly unkind on women.

But Margaret Hale does just that—subtly, at first. She’s immune to the feminine trappings of finery and jewelry, goes for walks alone in the countryside and, unlike her cousin, does not lie prostrate on a sofa. When she goes in front of the rioters and lies to the police, her violation of that code is complete.

She’s keenly aware of having crossed the line and feels ashamed of it. So ashamed, in fact, that she not only broods over “disgracing myself,” she faints! After the police inspector questions her. Her shame is more vivid, even melodramatic. Thankfully, the miniseries spares us this scene.

Margaret later begins to wonder why Thornton’s opinion matters so much to her. After reflecting on it, she realizes she’s attracted to him. Reflecting, then admitting her desire are not exactly Victorian feminine traits.

In fainting, Margaret reasserts her feminine modesty, a trait precious to Victorian women and expected by men. It denies a woman’s sexuality or at least hides her interest in it. Her show of modesty—though only to herself—makes Margaret feel better.

Falling for Mr. Thornton
In the novel, Margaret does nothing about her feelings until Mr. Thornton comes to London on business. In the miniseries, she returns to Milton to seek him out, an aggressive (read “masculine”) move. This ending drips with romance. And to Victorian society, Margaret’s audacity—crossing into the public sphere completely—would have been dramatic and shocking.

Want more of Thornton and Margaret? Buy Falling for Mr. Thornton

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