The Billfold Book Club: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ (Chapters 26–52)

Reader, she married him.

But we all knew that was coming.

Let’s talk about the economics.

Earlier this week, Ester wrote about the windfall theory of personal finance, and you can see why this theory is persuasive, because it’s how Gaskell brings her book to its end. All seems lost? BAM! Rich person dies, leaves you all his money. Your mill is failing? BOOM! The woman you’ve been pining for offers to solve your problems with the money she got from the dead rich guy.

(I’d be more respectful towards Mr. Bell, because he seems like a stand-up gentleman, but his entire purpose in the story is to show up, make a few tasteful comments about how rich he is, and then die.)

What is simultaneously interesting and frustrating about North and South is the way that, despite the windfall, none of the problems are properly solved. Yes, Mr. Thornton starts paying more attention to his workers’ needs, but, like many corporate CEOs, he goes the way of giving them free food instead of increasing their pay. (Many a worker has been made temporarily happy by a free lunch.) He also notes that someday, they’re probably going to strike again, because the central problem of one man making a profit off another man’s labor has not been solved.

And, perhaps most disconcertingly, he still believes in “the power, which he believed that commerce gave to every brave, honest, and persevering man, to raise himself to a level from which he might see and read the great game of worldly success, and honestly, by such far-sightedness, command more power and influence than in any other mode of life.”

There’s a lot to like about Mr. Thornton. He is open to change, he would rather be a middle-class manager who treats his workers well than a rich man who treats them poorly, and he is ready to do what he can to make his mill a better place for his staff. (And, of course, he looks a bit like Richard Armitage.)

But does he truly get why all of his workers, even though they may like him better than they did, will always distrust and fear him just a little? Does he get why it might be a little bit socially distancing for him to throw his sister an enormous wedding while his workers sit at home with nothing to do but spin pennies for entertainment? How much more does Mr. Thornton earn than his lowest-paid mill worker? Has he ever taken the time to figure that out?

Also, he apparently ran that mill into the ground. At the end of the book he gets a new influx of cash from his beloved Margaret, but who’s to say that he won’t lose it all in another five years?

And now to Margaret. It is telling that the money she gives Mr. Thornton is a loan, not a gift, and that she expects him to repay her loan with interest. One of my favorite parts of North and South is how Margaret is very clearly her own person, working to wrap her head around the same big questions that women still face today:

But she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.

She doesn’t solve this problem, either; instead, it is interrupted by marriage. Her own little windfall of domestic happiness might temporarily distract her from the rest of her life, but — as lottery winners well know — good fortune does not make problems go away. It would be fascinating to see Margaret and Mr. Thornton five years after the story ends. Would they have lost all of Margaret’s fortune? Would Margaret be pressing her husband to let her work as a teacher, and would he be pushing back that her place was in the home with their children? Would they be happy?

There’s one other problem left unsolved: Margaret’s brother Frederick is never exonerated. The novel leaves him in Cadiz with his wife, permanently exiled. As a reader I found this delightful. Tightly-tied ends are rarely interesting. Loose ends are much more realistic, and North and South leaves us with plenty of them.

What about you? What did you think of the book? Do you like Mr. Thornton as a business owner? Do you think the economic issues presented in the book have any real solution?

And are you excited to watch the BBC miniseries? I’ll be setting up a Miniseries Discussion Date soon. Probably mid-December, though let me know if it’s going to be too busy during the holiday season.

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