Margaret Hale as “Social Explorer“ in "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell

Hausarbeit, 2010

11 Seiten, Note: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Social Conditions of the Lower Classes in Nineteenth Century England

3. Margaret Hale as a social explorer
3.1 Definition of a social explorer and how Margaret Hale could be considered as one
3.2 Margaret Hale’s insights and observations in detail

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The condition of the lower classes under the effects of industrialisation is one of the most frequently depicted topics in literary works about nineteenth century England. Elizabeth Gaskell is one of the more prominent novelists who wrote about such conditions by drawing the reader’s attention to the social injustices of her time.

The increased level of literacy in Victorian England contributed to a mass-market for book publishing and its mass audience was mainly made up of middle-class readers (O’Gorman 1). Their attitude towards the poor, the “Other Nation”[1], was fundamentally that of horror and fear of rebellion, the contagion of diseases, disgust and sometimes even pity (Smith 203). They were able to read about the lower classes from a secure distance and either be admonished of the ‘danger’ that they represented or share the writer’s sympathy (ibid).[2]

Elizabeth Gaskell was deeply concerned with the social situation of her time and expressed her attitude towards the social system and the neglected by means of her novels. She used her writing as an instrument of social criticism and to express her overt attitude toward the widespread distress. In order to change the indifference of her target audience mentioned above, she employed the figure of a social explorer. To evoke the reader’s sympathy through pity, she utilised individuals to represent society. This paper concerns with one of her social explorers: the middle class heroine Margaret Hale who was brought up in the South but is forced to leave her home and move to an industrial town in the North.

2. Social Conditions of the Lower Classes in Nineteenth Century England

The Industrial Revolution made Britain the first industrialised country in the world. However, despite the undeniably positive outcomes the industrial revolution entailed, a plethora of negative side effects accompanied this unprecedented progress. Britain became “a country of two nations”, namely the upper and the lower classes. Particularly the lower classes in nineteenth century England were scarred by economic hardship and political turmoil.

Rapid urbanisation and unemployment were but one consequence of industrialisation. It was impossible for adequate housing to be built at the same rate as the population growth. Consequently, many had to endure lives under miserable conditions: flats and streets were crowded and diseases spread easily since the lower classes were more prone to contagion (Haley 8).

Queen Victoria, in accordance with the widespread notions of the middle and upper classes, did not particularly attend to the fate of the poor, as she held the view that the problems would “somehow work themselves out” (Aronson 138). The Poor Law Amendment Act from 1834 was of great significance when it came to the circumstances of the destitute. The law was intended to change the administration of poor relief and it replaced the hitherto valid Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 (Bloy n. pag.), which stated that the parishes should provide a minimum of livelihood for the poor. Under the new law of 1834, the costs for this so-called outdoor relief of the Poor Law of 1601 were then to be reduced by establishing workhouses, where those people who were not able to responsibly support themselves in terms of thriftiness were supposed to go (de Pennington n. pag.).

Elizabeth Gaskell, the author of North and South, was a first-hand witness to the effects of the industrial revolution since she was living in one of the biggest industrial towns of the time: Manchester. “Manchester was the urban phenomenon of the age it exposed the human problems of rapid industrialisation as starkly as it embodied the commercial success of manufacture” (Sanders 416). Gaskell gained insights into the social and living conditions under which the urban poor lived. Seeing this “grim picture of the lower depths of city life” (Uglow 90), motivated her to write her “Condition-of-England” novels. The “events and details in [her] novel[s] clearly mirror the events in Victorian society” (Mendac n. pag.) and her works are nowadays still “generally associated with Manchester by her readers” (Sanders 416). Thus, Gaskell’s writings might be regarded as her “explicit contribution to the discussion of labo[u]r disputes” (Williams Scott 28).

3. Margaret Hale as a social explorer

3.1 Definition of a social explorer and how Margaret Hale could be considered as one

The term social (problem) novel dates back from the 1950s (Guy 3) and is applied to “a body of English fiction written in the late 1840s and 1850s” (ibid.). Generally, these novels dealt with the negative side effects of the Industrial Revolution. Their authors intended to “comment on, and stimulate debate about, matters of general public and political concern” (Guy 4). They had a “didactic function” (ibid.) and attempted to change “the opinions and prejudices of their readers” (ibid.). Authors such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell depicted the miserable living conditions of the poor “[um] die oberen und mittleren Schichten dazu zu bringen, sich für die Verbesserung der Situation der Armen einzusetzen” (Nünning 66) and thus, to abandon the “prevailing laissez-faire attitude of the ruling classes” (Pike 6). Hence, the readership was to be informed and aroused at the same time (ibid.).

The authors of social fiction projected the social problems of Victorian society onto individuals in order to draw attention to them. “Social explorers” were generally employed to discover and explore the social conditions within their own country (Nünning 71). North and South ’s heroine, Margaret Hale, has to discover an “alien environment” (Wright 111) since she was born and raised in England’s South and is then forced by exterior circumstances to move to the “energetic anti-gentlemanly world of self-made manufacturers of the North” (Sanders 417). Several qualities of Margaret’s character contribute to her being the ideal social explorer.

Margaret Hale is presented from the very beginning of the novel as a strong, brave and responsible woman. “She is explicitly contrasted with [her cousin] Edith, who has fallen asleep on the first page” (Stoneman 127): “Edith had rolled herself up into a soft ball of muslin and ribbon, and silken curls, and gone off into a peaceful little after dinner nap” (Gaskell 2). Wright interprets this “comfortable cocoon [as Edith’s] sheltered existence, [which is] untroubled by any problems other than clothing and teething” (105). In contrast to Edith’s lifestyle, Margaret is constantly challenged by immense changes in her life such as living with her aunt in London, returning to her former home Helstone and finally moving to Milton-Northern. For this reason, Margaret is used to accustoming herself to new living situations. Her responsible nature is also evident after her father told her about his plans to move to the North. After Margaret has overcome the shock she “could work, and act, and plan in good earnest” (Gaskell 57). Since she is characterised as being very proud and “queenly” (Gaskell 23), Margaret is not inclined to share her emotions publicly and “would not speak until she could do so with firmness” (Gaskell 62). Furthermore, she is no conventional beauty and has, as Gaskell puts it, no mouth like a “rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a ‘yes’ and ‘no’” (Gaskell 15). This quality of straightforwardness “equips Margaret to urge straight speaking on Thornton and Higgins” (Stoneman 128).

In addition to her independent and wilful behaviour, Margaret is highly perceptive and shows a great deal of sympathy for the suffering of the poor. She regards the people of Helstone as “her people [with whom] [s]he made hearty friends” (Gaskell 16). She “learned and delighted in using their peculiar words; took up her freedom amongst them;. . . ; carried dainty messes to their sick” (ibid.). This shows that Margaret is deeply concerned with her environment and does her very best to improve the living conditions of the poor. Her emotional response to her first visit of the Higginses, who represent the hard-working, suffering labourers of Milton, also proves her highly empathetic nature for she “could [afterwards] hardly smile at [her father’s] little joke, so oppressed was she by her visit” (Gaskell 106).

Another important aspect is that Margaret stems from a rural background and yet belongs to the London upper-class by upbringing. Therefore, she is used to moving between different classes and is able to establish a link between them. Her contact with common people (labourers in Helstone, workmen in Milton) and people from the upper-class (the manufacturer John Thornton) allows her to see both sides of the class conflict. Since she is able to impress and charm people by a certain “glamour” (Gaskell 374), she manages well to incite the interest in others – particularly in men – to explain to her, the stranger, what the political workings of Milton are.

All in all, Margaret proves to be a highly perceptive, strong, independent, empathic heroine, whose interest in her environment is the perfect precondition to explore it. Her concern for the poor results in befriending some of them. The description of their individual sufferings creates a sense of reality and challenges the widespread notion of the readership of “the anonymous poor”.


[1] This term was coined by the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the author of the novel “Sybil, or The Two Nations” (1845).

[2] An anecdote from Friedrich Engels work The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 shows the prevailing indifference of the ruling classes quite impressively: He reports of a conversation he had with a middle-class manufacturer whose only reply to Engels’ concern about the living conditions in Manchester was: “’And yet there is a great deal of money made here. Good morning, Sir.’” (qtd. in Marcus qtd. in Lucas 461).

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Margaret Hale as “Social Explorer“ in "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
Proseminar I - The British Novel in the 18th and 19th Centuries
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
528 KB
Elisabeth Gaskell, North and South, Industrialisation
Arbeit zitieren
B.A. Elisa Valerie Thieme (Autor), 2010, Margaret Hale as “Social Explorer“ in "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell, München, GRIN Verlag,


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