The Heaven and Hell of Bessy Higgins. Unitarian and Universalist Concepts of Afterlife in Elisabeth Gaskell's "North and South"

Term Paper, 2015

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Unitarianism and Afterlife

3. Universalism and Afterlife

4. Analysis of Heaven and Hell in Bessy’s Life
4.1. Hell
4.2. Heaven

4. Conclusion

5. Sources

1. Introduction

„I never doubt when I’m waking, and in my senses, of all the glory I’m to come to” (Gaskell 102). These are words Elizabeth Gaskell puts in the mouth of the character Bessy Higgins, an eighteen-year-old girl who is bound to die by a fatal lung condition. Diseases like hers caused by terrible working conditions are a common theme in the Victorian novel and especially in the Victorian social problem novel. This ‘Hell on Earth’ was a session’s theme in the seminar “(In)Justice and (Dis)Belief: Social Abysses in the Victorian Novel” in the context of which this paper is written. In the discussed novels, the Christian concept of Hell and eternal suffering seems to be immanently located in the world of Victorian fiction. But what is about Heaven and its eternal bliss? The quote from North and South clearly draws a positive picture of death: It implies death releases Bessy of worldly suffering and that she is able to console herself with the Christian hope for reconciliation with God in the afterlife. This belief is related to two religious denominations which were popular during the Victorian Era. The first one is the Unitarian Church whose member the author Elizabeth Gaskell was and the second one is universalism which was promoted by Fredric William Farrar in the 1870s. In this paper, the term universalism is restricted to Christian universalism in the sense of an apocatastasis (i.e. ‘reconstitution’ or ‘restoration’) with focus on the aspect of reconciliation (which is what Bessy repeatedly mentions when she talks of afterlife). The research question is whether the ideas and concepts the character of Bessy Higgins states about life after death are closer to the Unitarian or Universalist belief. This paper will analyse the character’s comments and how Heaven and Hell in Bessy’s understanding work. The statements will be compared to both religious persuasions and thereby draw the close relation between these two beliefs but also point out their differences.

2. Unitarianism and Afterlife

As often suggested, a Unitarian interpretation of religious themes and statements in Elizabeth Gaskell’s work seems to suggest itself because of the author’s personal involvement in the Manchester Unitarian Church (Hotz 165). Her husband, William Gaskell, was a clergyman of this church and she was an active member of the community. Though Unitarianism is never explicitly named or mentioned in Gaskell’s works of fiction (Chapple 165), in North and South there are text passages with ideas which clearly match the Unitarian spirit. To prove this, the following quote is often consulted by scholars: “Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm” (Gaskell 230). The quote emphasises the tolerant and inclusive nature of Unitarianism, which Hotz calls “optimistic” Unitarianism (Hotz 165). The belief behind this is that believers and God trust in the natural goodness of humans and, therefore, have no need to quarrel about the correctness of one’s belief. This lays the foundation for the connecting an analysis of North and South with Unitarianism. But in which way does Unitarianism differ from other Christian denominations?

To put it in a nutshell, Unitarianism rejects the belief in a trinity of Father, Son and the Holy Ghost as equal entities. This rejection originates in the 4th century A.D. when Arius, an ancient priest, questioned the concept of trinity by stating that Christ was less powerful or essential than God himself (Harris 478). These ideas lived on to the 18th century when the first Unitarian church was founded in London by the theologian Theophilus Lindsey. The church’s belief was spread to America through priests like Joseph Priestley (Harris 479). As Gaskell herself stated in a letter, she believed that Jesus was not equal to God (Chapple 173) but agrees with the Unitarians that he had a divine mission (Priestley 3). In the Victorian Era, Unitarians “flourished” (Chapple 167), even though they were marginalised in society (ibid. 171) as a dissenting minority. The conflict between Unitarians and Trinitarians was complicated but Unitarians remained socially inclusive (Chapple 169) and maintained their high involvement in charity and their common interest in literary and philosophical societies.

Gaskell’s productive period and Unitarianism coincide in the Victorian Era, a century when untimely death and, as a consequence, the question whether there is an afterlife and what it does look like, seemed to be more presented than ever and were explored by the arts. In Unitarianism, the Christian dialectical world view (namely the belief in a Heaven or Hell option in afterlife) is rejected. Unitarists do not believe in Hell and the Last Judgement (Wheeler 111) or eternal punishment (Hotz 168) but instead in reconciliation with God through Christ’s sacrifice for humankind (Hotz 166). Afterlife is not about being sorted into either Heaven or Hell by one’s deeds during life on earth. Priestley explains it like this: Heaven is promised to good men (Priestley 30f); punishment and fear of Hell should not be the most essential part of Christianity (Priestley 22), but there might be punishment in afterlife to redeem and cleanse sinners (Hotz 166). Sin will not only be forgiven by God just if there is satisfaction, but through God’s merciful nature itself (Priestley 18f). After all, how could it be just to punish a mortal human being in all eternity for something that they did it their finite life? “How could a human do something so bad?” Priestley (28) asks rightfully. By posing this question, he provides the general explanation of Unitarianism for the rejection of Hell and enables the hope for reconciliation with God. This hope is an important concept of Universalism as well, whose borders with Unitarianism became blurred in the next decades.

3. Universalism and Afterlife

Universalism is the second concept this paper will explore in terms of afterlife. The Anglican cleric Frederic William Farrar, a contemporary of Gaskell, defined Universalism as follows: “the opinion that all men will be ultimately saved” (preface xiii). Everyone will be (sooner or later) reconciled with God. In Christian Universalism, this reconciliation – or apocatastasis – is possible through the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross (Talbott 446). The parallel delineation to Unitarianism is obvious, but the reason behind this hopeful outlook towards afterlife is more clearly stated by Farrar than by Priestley. He is convinced that God wants humans to feel love towards him, not fear (Farrar 120f). This matches with the Christian belief in a loving (new testamentary) instead of a wrathful (old testamentary) God (Harris 495).

Afterlife is, therefore, portrayed and characterised by conclusions drawn from these assumptions. A Universalist will rely on God and a future reconciliation with him, and not fear the end and dying, as Talbott suggests (447). He further explains that if it is in God’s nature to want to save every human being (and that is what God’s love presupposes) he will not fail to achieve it and as a result there will be salvation for everyone (ibid. 448). As a consequence, it could be assumed that Hell is redundant because God gives us a ‘blank cheque’ for sin. But Farrar clearly states that there will be punishment for sin (Farrar 134) though it might not be eternal, it is meant to change, cleanse and better sinners. “Heaven is a place where sin is not” (Farrar 17) is his description of what is to come after death. Sinners will be forgiven and get to Heaven, but they need to change internally during their stay in Hell. Otherwise, they make Heaven Hell, by bringing sin with them (Farrar 23). This implies that there is a Hell, but it is not a place of eternal torment: Instead, Hell exists within humans, on Earth and during life. But what does an Universalist Heaven look like? Farrar (understandably) cannot say, but he takes up a symbolic reading of the Bible: he interprets the apocalypse and the heavenly Jerusalem not as literal descriptions of the afterlife but as symbols (Farrar 14), and comes to the conclusion: “We know not – but we believe” (Farrar 10). To find out what the promised Jerusalem is actually like makes “death […] worth dying” (Farrar 48), which is close to Bessy Higgins repeated statements, when she hopes for a better life after death.

4. Analysis of Heaven and Hell in Bessy’s Life

4.1. Hell

Although the character of Bessy Higgins almost exclusively talks of Heaven, Hell seems to be more present in her life. It is immanent in the industrial town of Milton, right there where the people live. The only escape from what the poet William Blake described as “Satanic mills” already in his hymn in the early 1800s, it is death and hope for Heaven. Wheeler explains the two sides of this ‘Hell on earth’ in Victorian literature: Firstly, there is the downside of the industrial revolution often portrayed in social problem novels (Wheeler 196): Disease, inhumane living and working conditions and general misery are reoccurring motifs in Victorian fiction and apply to Gaskell’s North and South. The second way in which Hell is immanent is the ‘poena damni’, a concept of pain of the soul in contrast to the pain of the body, ‘poena sensus’ (ibid.). While the pain of the body seems to be limited to the working classes in the Victorian novel, the pain of the soul crosses the class borders. It is the pain of loss or lack, e.g. of love or of loved ones which the novel’s main character, Margaret Hale, experiences herself. This, of course, picks up on the concepts of Hell explained before. Hell is where sin is, therefore, Hell is on earth with us. Only by reaching Heaven, humanity can finally escape it.

For Bessy, these two sides of Hell on Earth can clearly be distinguished. After all, Hell is easier to find on earth than Heaven is to be found anywhere (Wheeler 183). The ‘poena damni’ in Bessy’s life can be summarised as follows: the loss of loved ones and loss of her own life (just to name the most prevalent of her innumberable fears and worries). These are both consequences of the industrial Hell the people of Milton are put through but they are also a Hell of their own. After Bessy and her sister Mary had to cope with the death of their mother at an early age, Bessy herself fell ill (Gaskell 102). Though a connection is not explicitly named it can be assumed that the loss of a parental figure had negative influence on Bessy and weakened her so much that the disease spread more easily because she had to work in the household and at the factory from an early age on. But the ‘poena damni’ is even more present to Bessy. She is afraid of what will happen to her family she will leave behind when she dies. In one scene she asks Margaret to look out for her younger sister when she is gone (Gaskell 103) and later she worries about her father who is repeatedly said to be an infidel (this will be explored in chapter 4.2.). The worst ‘poena damni’ in Bessy’s life is the certainty of her own death. Compared to the worry about her family, it might appear selfish to think of oneself as pitiable but Bessy has already accepted her fate. When she meets Margaret for the first time, Bessy says that she “never will be” (Gaskell 73) very strong and knows that she will die eventually. For an eighteen-year-old (as Gaskell states her age on page 103), this is a hard truth to bear. The sympathy for Bessy’s suffering increases when it is revealed that she never had “a day of doing nothing” (Gaskell 101) in her whole life but now almost wishes to die to end the “idleness” she has grown “weary” of (ibid.) This discomfort on earth supports the Hell on earth concept: There is no or nearly none good for her in life and the fact that she knows that leads to the “utter hopelessness” (Gaskell 74) her character is introduced with.

The pain of the body, i.e. ‘poena sensus’, seems to be of minor significant compared to the pain Bessy’s soul is already going through. But a closer look shows how the two aspects of pain are connected. As mentioned before, one is a consequence of the other: the lack is a result of the surrounding Hell embodied in the industrial town of Milton. Hell is traditionally connected to imagery of fire and its accompanying symptoms of heat and smoke which the factories of Milton are reminiscent of. In addition, Margaret’s perception of the town contrasts with the South she knew: The town is gloomy and shrouded in smoke, opposing the rural and green south of England. When visiting Bessy, Margaret comes into a room which “feel[s] like an oven” (Gaskell 100), which is also a reference to Hell as a place on earth. Matus points out that the deaths in North and South are all somehow connected to the living conditions of industrial Milton (Matus 36) and Bessy makes no exception. She says that she feels like “all I’ve been born for is just to work my heart and my life away” (Gaskell 101). This is exactly what she eventually did. She worked her life away: The working conditions of the cotton factory made her ill and ultimately result in her untimely death. A vicious circle has its beginning and ending here: if she never went to work, she would have been poor and maybe starved to death; now that she worked for her living, she will die because of it and never have a life and grow old. Not only this fact but also the way the disease affects her makes her life Hell. She is “coughing and spitting blood” (Gaskell 102) and often cannot sleep because of it (Gaskell 90). Death is portrayed as her only chance for rest and final comfort. On top of her own suffering induced by the industrial environment, the situation in Milton becomes tense when a strike by the local workers is planned.

The strike has a huge influence on the town’s working class population because everyone knows that for the duration of the protest, no money is earned and the workers have nothing to do, which is exactly what Bessy fears. She knows that most men go drinking then (Gaskell 136) and it hurts her to think her father might join them. So, every negative aspect of Bessy’s life seems to be connected to the man-made Hell of the Industrial Revolution. Without any perspective, Bessy is bound to the place that kills her and lets others suffer.

This eventually evokes one question: Is death better than life? If Heaven is promised to believers and Hell is on earth, why does one not happily await death? In North and South death is more present than in any other novel by Gaskell (Matus 35) and thereby becomes a central theme. Wheeler remarks that death bed scenes were common in Victorian literature and became a literary convention (Wheeler 25f). It was part of this convention that the dying ones have a comforting figure on the side of their death bed (Wheeler 31). Though Bessy does not lie on her death bed for most of her appearances in the book, she has Margaret as a comforter to talk to about what is to come. “I’ll go to bed, – it’s the best place” (Gaskell 92) Bessy states once and implies sleep or eternal sleep – death – to be a soothing state of existence. The symbolism of the bed is closely connected to the grave as a place of last rest in one’s life. The grave is the last bed and the first stop to afterlife. Bessy obviously agrees when she wants to have a “good sleep in the grave” (Gaskell 101) before she moves on to Heaven because she feels too worn out to “enjoy heaven without a piece of rest first” (ibid.). For Bessy, life is so exhausting that she even asks, after explaining her condition to Margaret, “Do you think such a life is worth caring for?” (Gaskell 91). The Universalist Farrar has a clear answer to this question. Death is worth dying for, he suggests (Farrar 48) because only then a human is reconciled with God. The Unitarian Priestley remarks that the Bible is full of mentions of everlasting punishment (Priestley 21f) but he rejects that torment after life is just. Parallely Farrar states that “life is infinitely worth living” (Farrar 48) and it is not supposed to be lived in fear, if one believes in a loving God and his “eternal love” (Farrar 72). Bessy’s “utter hopelessness” (Gaskell 74) is not a religious doubt about afterlife but a human and realistic sentiment.

Bessy repeatedly quotes the Bible, mostly the Book of Revelation, namely the apocalypse and finds consolation in it. This unusual approach is scolded by Margaret when she says Bessy should “read the clearer parts of the Bible” (Gaskell 137). However, Bessy’s reading habits may be a result of what Wheeler calls a “contemporary taste for the apocalyptic” (Wheeler 84). His assumption seems to be obvious: Hell on earth causes a somewhat transient atmosphere that is reminiscent of the last days of earth. However, Bessy maintains her opinion that she “cannot give up Revelations” (Gaskell 137) which she read so often she “know[s] it off by heart” (Gaskell 102). Her intensive Bible studies show that her method to learn to cope with her mortality has been successful. She has made up her own mind and found comfort in the scripture. Because of this reflection, she is able to explain her obsession with Revelations: “One can bear pain and sorrow better if one thinks it has been prophesied long before one, then it seems as if my pain was needed for the fulfilment; otherways it seems all sent for nothing” (Gaskell 137). Death as being part of a greater plan which is yet unknown to humans, is what Farrar means by “worth dying” for (Farrar 48). Bessy finds her comfort there in this promise of “all the glory [she is] to come to” (Gaskell 102). But what does this glory look like?

Before analysing Bessy’s understanding of Heaven, Bessy’s Hell needs to be summarised. Her Hell is in life, on earth, and it is mostly an industrial one used by Gaskell for this social problem novel. Hell does not come after death nor does Bessy fear punishment, which is both the Unitarian and Universalist point of view. Both faiths reject an eternal Hell or eternal torment, but they agree that sin somehow must be punished otherwise there would be no Heaven. Since Hell usually is the place for cleansing, Hell on earth makes earth the place for the purge. The pain Bessy is going through in her life qualifies her for Heaven. She is dying as a believer even though her father is not religious. Her suffering on earth is able to make her absolutely certain that Heaven is to follow life.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Heaven and Hell of Bessy Higgins. Unitarian and Universalist Concepts of Afterlife in Elisabeth Gaskell's "North and South"
University of Heidelberg  (Neuphilologisches Institut)
Proseminar (In)Justice and Social Abysses in the Victorian Novel
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Victorian Novel, North and South, Elisabeth Gaskell, Universalism, Unitarianism, Afterlife, Social Problem Novel
Quote paper
Almut Amberg (Author), 2015, The Heaven and Hell of Bessy Higgins. Unitarian and Universalist Concepts of Afterlife in Elisabeth Gaskell's "North and South", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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