Reconstructing the Gentleman Ideal in Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. Introduction

2. The Gentleman Ideal
2.1. The Traditional Ideal before the 19th Century
2.2. The Changed Ideal of the 19th Century

3. Representation of the Gentleman Ideal in Gaskell’s North and South
3.1. The Ideal represented by Henry Lennox
3.2. The Ideal represented by John Thornton
3.3. The Ideal represented by Nicholas Higgins

4. Conclusion

5. Works cited

1. Introduction

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South the author presents the reader with the world of Victorian England during the industrialisation, a time at which change was a daily occurrence. With the rise of the middle-class society changed and therefore it is not surprising that even a well established social factor as the gentleman ideal changed during that period of time. This paper will look at the gentleman ideal from two perspectives: the ‘old’ ideal before the Victorian Age and the Victorian ideal of a gentleman. The following chapter will provide these ideals by reconstructing them with the help of texts that look at them from a retrospect and also, in case of the Victorian gentleman ideal, by looking at a frequently quoted contemporary work: Samuel Smiles’ Self Help. Afterwards the findings will be used to analyse the gentleman ideal that is represented by three different male characters of Gaskell’s novel: the London lawyer Henry Lennox, the Milton factory owner John Thornton and the Milton factory worker Nicholas Higgins, in order to find out which ideal these three male characters display. So that at the end it becomes clear which ideal is represented in North and South.

2. The Gentleman Ideal

The following chapters will deal with the reconstruction of the gentleman ideal in Britain, starting with the traditional ideal before the Victorian Age and subsequently the changed ideal of the 19th century.

2.1. The Traditional Ideal before the 19th Century

The traditional gentleman ideal was well established within the aristocratic society. So well established that in interaction with a man considered to be a gentleman everyone knew what to expect of him (cf. Platz 151). With being a gentleman one “enjoyed the privilege of unquestioned social prestige and authority” (Platz 151). But what was it to be a gentleman in the traditional sense?

The ideal was based most upon birth because “[...],the so-called gentlemanly code of conduct, which demanded from aspirants moral excellence, strict etiquette and proper education, created an impression of distinction available only to the men capable of meeting the high expectations” (Marciniak 62). This also included the perception that a man from humble homes could not be considered a gentleman, even though he might have acted in a way that was required from the aristocratic men, since he did not meet all the expectations that society had towards a gentleman. A gentleman was expected to be of the “human race of noble birth” (Platz 150), he needed to be educated in the aristocratic manner (cf. Platz 150) and was, as well, supposed to have “moral merit” (Platz 150).

This concept of a gentleman made it impossible for every man, who did not possess the rank, the class, or the education due to the state he was born in, to be attributed with the gentleman ideal due to fact that the traditional idea of the gentleman was most concerned with the external attributes a person possessed rather than with the internal values of a person (cf. Marciniak 62). This perception changed, however, with the rise of the middle-class in the Victorian Age (cf. Marciniak 61), and the next chapter will outline the changed gentleman ideal of the 19th century.

2.2. The Changed Ideal of the 19th Century

As already mentioned in the introduction, the Victorian Age in Britain brought many changes upon the British society and due to those changing conditions Victorians had to renegotiate their traditional social concepts, one of which being the gentleman ideal (cf. MacDonald 10), leading to a “[...] more democratic and character-based conception of gentlemanliness” (Antinucci 134). According to the change in the ideal a man no longer had to be of noble birth to be considered a gentleman, but whoever proved “that he behaved according to the gentleman code in his moral and social bearing was to be called a gentleman” (Platz 153). Therefore it is necessary to outline what the “gentleman code” implied.

In 1863 the Scottish author Samuel Smiles constructed what it meant to be a gentleman in the Victorian sense and defined which character traits were most important to be considered a gentleman on the foundation of character. In Self-Help he states that character is not something that is defined by nature, but something that can be formed by oneself (cf. Smiles 193). In Accordance to this view a man had the possibility to develop and to acquire the essential values of a manly character, which were “truthfulness, integrity, and goodness” (Smiles 193). A man had to show “truthfulness in action as well as in words” (Smiles 195) to show his good character and “be what he seems or purposes to be” (Smiles 195). He also showed his good character in behaving graceful towards superiors, inferiors, as well as, equals (cf. Smiles 196) and “proceed[ed] politeness and forbearance, kindness and charity” (Smiles 200). A gentleman considered another person’s opinion (cf. Smiles 198) and their feelings (cf. Smiles 204) and a true gentleman, in Smiles view, could as well have been a poor man because in his life he was “honest, truthful, upright, polite, temperate, courageous, self-respecting, and self-helping” (Smiles 201).

With Smiles’ idea of a gentleman in mind one can say that in the Victorian Age people gradually began to see the difference between a man who possessed the title gentleman because of his birth and a man who earned it by “honourable conduct and moral integrity” (Marciniak 64). Because of this shifted focus on a person’s character it became possible for even the humblest men to be considered a gentleman. This was also supported by another contemporary writer, John Ruskin. In his book Pre-Raphaelitism he states that courtesy, gravity, sympathy with the feelings of others, courage, truth, piety and whatever else makes up a gentleman’s character can be found everywhere (cf. Ruskin 9). Another point of a manly character that he stresses is that he is “always trying lower instead of trying higher until [he] find[s] bottom” (Ruskin 8).

A further point that should be mentioned according to this ideal is the relationship the “new gentleman” seeks with a woman. In such relationships men “value[d] friendship and intellectual exchange” (MacDonald 3), what makes those relationships more equal than former relationships between traditional gentlemen and women. Therefore one could say that what distinguishes the gentleman ideal of the Victorian Age from the traditional ideal is a general sense of equality. Equality between humble men and noble men, and equality between men and women.

3. Representation of the Gentleman Ideal in Gaskell’s North and South

After having established the two gentleman ideals that will be used for the analyses of the three male characters that were introduced before the following chapters will now deal with these. The first character that will be analysed is that of the London lawyer Henry Lennox, following the paper will look at the Milton factory owner John Thornton, before turning to the Milton factory worker Nicholas Higgins in the last chapter.

3.1. The Ideal represented by Henry Lennox

Henry Lennox is a lawyer in London belonging to Margaret’s connections to the south of Britain. The reader first encounters Mr. Henry Lennox in the first chapter of Volume I. In this the female characters are engaged in looking at fine shawls while the bride to be, Edith, is sleeping. When Mr. Lennox is announced the ladies immediately stop their occupations “as if half-ashamed of their feminine interest in dress” (Gaskell 11) and Edith awakes from her sleep as if “she had instinctively felt that a Lennox was worth rousing herself for” (Gaskell 11). These reactions to the entering of Henry Lennox show the social status he has simply by his name. He is a Lennox and therefore worth interrupting any occupation for just because of the name he received at birth and that despite the fact that he has not much to offer himself (cf. Gaskell 28).

The fact that he is a lawyer, however, shows that he is well educated and also shows that his family was wealthy enough to enable him to become a lawyer, even if he is not “as rich and prosperous as he believe[s] he should be some day” (Gaskell 348). But he is not only educated as a lawyer, he is also educated in aristocratic manners which becomes most clear with the visit he pays Margaret in Helstone. On this visit he expects an invitation from the Hales to spend the day at their home that he accepts with “a glad readiness” (Gaskell 24). This shows that he knows the aristocratic ways well enough to already lay out an answer to a question that has not yet been asked. Because of his rank and the social structure Henry Lennox knows what to expect of people and he knows what they expect of him.

He is as well a man of his word. Before Margaret leaves for Helstone, he says to her that he would pay her a visit (cf. Gaskell 14) and he stays true to his words by visiting (cf. Gaskell 22). Another instance where one can see his truthfulness in action and words (cf. Smiles 195) is his promise in “tak[ing] every pains” (Gaskell 260) to help find witnesses that could aid Margaret’s brother Frederick in a trial. Even if his actions do not end in a positive way, he at least holds his promise in trying everything in his power. This can be seen on page 347 of North and South, where Mr. Lennox explains to Margaret and Mr. Bell in detail the paths he went down in order to find the witnesses that could have set Frederick free.

Henry Lennox also has an intuition for the feelings of others. This can be seen best in two moments he shares with Margaret. The first situation happens while his visit at Helstone where he stops his marriage proposal because he sees that Margaret’s “lips quiver[ed] almost as if she were going to cry” (Gaskell 28). The other instance is his conversation with Mr. Bell and Margaret where he explains his search for witnesses. There he spares Margaret with the juristic details as he senses that they trouble Margaret too much and “[e]ven [his] well-regulated professional voice [takes] a softer, tenderer tone, as he [draws] near to the extinction of the last hope” (Gaskell 347 f.). These situations display very well that Henry Lennox has sensitiveness and observes the person he is talking to while they talk to each other. He considers the feelings of other people and reacts in an appropriate manner.

In spite of these good moral qualities, Henry Lennox also has character traits that make the reader doubt his character. He observes, for example, everything Margaret and Edith do sarcastically (cf. Gaskell 15) as if not taking the women’s business seriously and seeing himself superior to their doings. He is also described as choosing his connections on the basis of “profound calculation[s]” (Gaskell 369) about the benefit of the relation and in thus being “keen-sighted, far-seeing, intelligent, sarcastic, and proud” (Gaskell 369). This paints a picture of a man of rank who does not seem to find it worthwhile to interact with a person he could make no use of. Both descriptions make Mr. Henry Lennox appear somewhat morally dubious and make his character to a great extent questionable. However, due to his social status, no character in the book really tackles his status as a traditional gentleman.

Furthermore his attitude towards Margaret in a more or less romantic aspect leads the reader to suspect that Henry Lennox is not such a good catch after all. An instance contributing to this would be the representation of his thoughts when he visits Helstone. There he compliments her and as Margaret does not react in the way he expected her to he reflects on it as follows: “‘A regular London girl would understand the implied meaning of that speech [...] But I don’t believe Margaret, [...]” In this scene one can see that Henry Lennox does have some difficulties with Margaret’s behaviour as it is not the behaviour of the common London girl that he would prefer, as it seems. He does not want an individual with an own mind and this becomes even more clear towards the end of the novel. After Margaret looses both her parents and becomes the heir of Mr. Bell she spends a lot of time with Henry Lennox, who becomes her lawyer in business matters. He does not talk of romantic issues but he still thinks that he could win her and what is even more he thinks that he could influence her mind without much effort in such a way that she would share all what he likes (cf. Gaskell 376). This thinking suggests that Mr. Lennox sees himself superior to Margaret and that he prospers in knowing more about the law than she does (cf. Gaskell 374) makes that even more obvious. For him, Margaret has no potential of becoming a partner in life and he seems to not even want that. He looks for a willing vessel he could influence and shape as he pleases it to.

After having analysed the character of Henry Lennox it can be noted that if one wants to call him a gentleman this could only be justifiable, if the traditional gentleman ideal is used. Henry Lennox has a social status because of his family name and rank, he is well educated in law and aristocratic manners, and does have a morally good behaviour to a certain degree. However, he does not possess all the qualities that define the gentleman ideal based on character and therefore can in this sense not be seen as an example of gentlemanliness. This is also due to the perception of a woman “as a charming object to flaunt and as a dependent creature dwelling in the domestic space” (Antinucci 139).

3.2. The Ideal represented by John Thornton

John Thornton is a Milton manufacturer. He lives close to his manufactory and belongs to the middle-class. Thornton can be seen as a self-made man as he worked himself up from an employee in a draper’s shop (cf. Gaskell 78) to a factory owner. His “gentlemanliness is shown in its development” (Antinucci 132) and therefore John Thornton’s character will be analysed chronologically from the beginning of the novel to its end.

After Margaret’s first encounter with the Milton manufacturer John Thornton she tells her parents that he is “not quite a gentleman” (Gaskell 60) which means that he does not meet her “somewhat out-dated ideal of a gentleman” (Wootton 26). The traditional gentleman ideal cannot be applied to Thornton due to the fact that he does not fulfil the requirements of that ideal. He was born into a humble family and had to take over the responsibilities of the provider after his father died (cf. Gaskell 78) and because of that possesses no aristocratic rank. He is not educated in the fields that are necessary for a gentleman. He had to leave school in order to work (cf. Gaskell 78) and so could not get a proper education that would qualify him for another work than manufacturing (cf. Gaskell 70). On these grounds it comes as no surprise that he is as well not educated in “the classics, or literature, or the accomplishments of a gentleman” (Gaskell 36), which are necessary for the traditional gentleman ideal.

Despite the fact that he could never meet the expectations of the traditional gentleman ideal John Thornton in the beginning tries to follow at least the aristocratic manners. For instance he does not want to offend Mr. Hale by being unpunctual (cf. Gaskell 73), although it could be suggested that in the middle-class punctuality might not have been of such a high value as work could always be somewhat unpredictable. He also involves his mother by persuading her to call on the Hale’s and trying to befriend them because they have no friends in Milton (cf. Gaskell 86). As he is not described interacting with any other “friends” in the whole novel, it can be questioned whether this request to his mother comes from any other impulse than wanting to adapt to the Hale’s that are more used to the southern way of living. He succeeds in that way but what makes Margaret rethink her picture of him according to his gentlemanliness is his character:

“I fancied you meant some one of a different class, not a gentleman; somebody come on an errand.” “He looked like some one of that kind,” said Frederick carelessly. “I took him for a shopman, and he turns out a manufacturer.” Margaret was silent. She remembered how at first, before she knew his character, she had spoken and thought of him just as Frederick was doing. (Gaskell 235)

It is Thornton’s great strength of character that Margaret sees as one of the few advantages he has (cf. Gaskell 152) and this implicates that what makes John Thornton a gentleman is his character and thus one has to apply the Victorian ideal of the gentleman to his person.

Mr. Thornton highly values the opinion of other people, such as Margaret’s. For instance her request to meet the enraged crowd that gathered around his house after he hired Irish workers because the Milton workers were on strike. He does not seem to think a second about that suggestion and just assents in doing what Margaret plead him to do (cf. Gaskell 161). Another point emphasising this character trait would be his address to Nicholas Higgins concerning his idea of building a dining-room in the mill. Thornton first turns to Higgins for advice and when he finds the plan to be of fault; John Thornton drops it (cf. Gaskell 328 f.). That Mr. Thornton listens to the advice of Margaret and Higgins also shows that he sees no distinction between him and both of them. Not between him a man and Margaret a woman, and not between him a master and Higgins one of his employees. Also representing in this the sense of equality that the changed gentleman ideal implies.

He as well has integrity what he displays most by paying the dying Mrs. Hale several visits always bringing fruits with him (cf. Gaskell 217). Another point contributing to this trait is his attendance of Mrs. Hale’s funeral. He goes there but does not interrupt the mourning Margaret or Mr. Hale so that Margaret never comes to know that John Thornton attended the funeral of her mother (cf. Gaskell 246 f.). This also shows his consideration of and sympathy with other people’s feelings. He knows that the bereaved are troubled enough without having to socialise with him and so he decides to just quietly leave them alone. Not having to make his appearance known as he evidently did not attend the funeral for his sake.

John Thornton, too, represents the character that Ruskin describes in his work: “trying lower instead of trying higher, until they find bottom” (Ruskin 8). When at the end his business goes down, he does not want to aim high and rebuild his wealth by means of other people’s money, he rather starts new from the bottom (cf. Gaskell 384). Displaying with that also his self-respect and his respect for others.

In developing his gentlemanliness, John Thornton likewise develops in becoming the different kind of master that he presents himself to be from the very beginning (cf. Knežević 88) and in thus he gradually comes up to what Smiles describes as being what he purposes to be (cf. Smiles 195). At the beginning it seems like Mr. Thornton is different from other mill owners, given that he lives next to the mill (cf. Gaskell 102). Yet he at first acts no different from any other mill owner in Milton. While the Milton manufactory workers are on strike, he sends for Irish workers so that they would do the work that was neglected (cf. Gaskell 134). He even goes as far as comparing his employees to servants when Margaret suggests that in order to avert the strike Thornton could just explain the matter to them (cf. Gaskell 108). Showing in this that even though he wants to be a different master he not yet sees the workers as partners. This changes, however, in interaction with Nicholas Higgins. After Higgins waited hours in front of Thornton’s mill to ask him for a job Thornton investigates in the matter, although he already turned the request down, and goes to see Nicholas in his home. There he offers Higgins a job and also apologises for not believing in the truth of Higgins’ words (cf. Gaskell 296). That he apologises shows that Thornton does not regard himself superior to Higgins and in thus begins to become the master he desires to be. Despite the fact that Higgins was part of the Union that caused the strike Thornton begins to turn to him for advice, as already mentioned before in this chapter, and according to this interaction comes into contact with the living conditions of “the hands” (Gaskell 328), as he calls them. That is why he comes up with the plan of building a dining-room for his employees, but he does not force this upon them. He backs off when Higgins criticises the plan and then takes the part that they assign to him when Higgins comes to him with the same plan (cf. Gaskell 328 f.). Because of that the workers invite Thornton every now and then to dine with them and they start to talk freely to each other (cf. Gaskell 329 f.). In all that Gaskell shows Thornton’s change in perception of “capital/labor relations” (Knežević 88) from initially regarding it as battle to seeing the requirement of cooperation (cf. Knežević 88) what brings him closer to the different kind of master that he presents himself to be.


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Reconstructing the Gentleman Ideal in Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South"
University of Wuppertal
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