Victorian Women: Variations in Margaret of the North

Maybe in jest, Gaskell once said that she could title her fourth novel (North and South) “Variations on Death.” Five people die in her novel in ways fitting to the characters. I could have used a comparable title for my sequel: “Variations on Victorian Women.”

Margaret Hale
Margaret Hale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are several female characters in the novel Margaret of the North: Margaret, of course; Mrs. Hannah Thornton; Dixon, Mrs. Hale’s maid and now Margaret’s; Edith, Margaret’s cousin who is presented as the ideal Victorian woman; and a fifth woman Catherine, who appears in later chapters. Other women are on the sidelines: Fanny, John’s sister; Mary, the daughter of Nicholas Higgins; and Elise, the Thornton daughter depicted in the last chapter as a very young adult. I tried to preserve the integrity of original characters from  Gaskell’s novel but, of course, changes are inevitable and these women react in different ways to them.

Nothing more need be said about Margaret whose growth is the subject of the whole book. Edith is still Edith and so is Fanny.

Hannah Thornton

The counterpoint to Margaret is, of course, Mrs Hannah Thornton, John’s mother. Fixed in her ways, she resists change. Vehemently. But she loses that which she most values, forcing her to see she almost has no choice but to swim along with the tide. Mrs. Thornton’s life revolves around the mill and, even more so, around her son, John.

In psychoanalytic terms, her attachment to her son smacks rather strongly of a Jocasta Complex, the maternal equivalent of an Oedipal complex. It is jealous, protective, possessive, and exclusive.

Mrs. Thornton’s strength is matched only by Margaret’s. Living as close as they do in the sequel is like butting two well-matched metal shields against each other. But these are Victorian women and there are no swords. Except for occasional verbal jabs and an inevitable joust of strong wills: Theirs is a battle for minds and hearts. But without a doubt, romance and passion are in Margaret’s favor. Dommage, Madame Thornton! Mais c’est la vie!

I actually find Mrs. Thornton a pretty intriguing character, a timeless paragon of a woman with a single-minded purpose. Undemonstrative of her affection, she is the most maternal, more so than Margaret (and Mrs. Hale in Gaskell’s novel). She also represents, not exactly a dying breed of despotic men, but certainly one waning with the democratizing social upheavals from industrialization.

Dixon, the domestic, is also interesting, a symbol of the many ways in which lower-class Victorian women injected themselves into the upper level. In so doing, she blurs the separation between upper and lower social rungs. In Gaskell’s novel, she already knows what life is like among the gentleman class, despite the want of money. Wealth was needed for the Hales to enjoy the full privileges of the lifestyle expected of their class.

When Margaret inherits money and marries a man ascending to the upper-class, Dixon finally lives an upstairs lifestyle while she serves her “masters.” The change she goes through has been longed for. It rewards her with her mistress’s genuine affection and acceptance for her faithful service. Dixon mellows and survives in content, no longer quite so fixed on status.

Catherine, my new character, is Irish and catholic. Relatively poor, she has to earn a living. But she is free from a lot of the constraints on Victorian women except the freedom to go after the man she first falls for. In a way, she is a shadow of Margaret who might have shared Catherine’s fate had she not been English, lovelier, and richer.

The last glimpse is on Elise, the natural progression of a young woman emancipated from Victorian traditions.

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