me + mr thornton, addendum, or: What does Margaret mean for Mr. Thornton?

[Continued from here (episode 3a), and here (episode 3b), and here (episode 3c). This post responds to a problem with the interpretation raised in a discussion that arose at the end of episode 3c. Previous pieces of the argument: the prologue; here episode one; here episode two. Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous posts. I can’t believe this interruption of the series, which was supposed to be minor, has lasted so long. I apologize. It really is important for me to get this stuff out there before The Hobbit changes everything. ]

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Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale in a publicity shot for North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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I left off arguing that episode 3 of North & South demonstrates the shaking of Thornton’s convictions under the pressure of the failed proposal and the need for investors, as well as his greatest defeat — his abandonment of the principles he uses to navigate his life, as seen in his decision to betray them in order to shield Margaret from further interrogation in the matter of the death of Leonards. We were talking, at the end of my explanation of my identification with Thornton, about the problem of why he makes this decision, and I noted that the answer hinges heavily on what we think Margaret means to him. I advanced a tentative reading that suggested that what attracts him to her is her apparent embrace of principle itself (not the content of the specific principles he suspects she embraces) — for instance, at the dinner party, he admires her for articulating her principle about providing the food for the Bouchers, even though he disagrees with it — and that his rage at the end of episode 3 develops from feelings of betrayal — not romantic betrayal in the sense that he is angry about the identity of the unknown man, but anger that she is not the paragon of principle he thought she was. In other words, his vision of her as a principled, moral actor is what he’s lost at the end of episode 3, not his romantic chances with her. This doesn’t entirely explain why he’d betray his principles, but it does explain his rage, having given up something important for something else that’s turned out to be tawdry.

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Mr. Thornton’s anger, Margaret’s humiliation: Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe in the final scene of episode 3 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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I’m leaving this issue open, still, but I wanted to muse a bit more on what Margaret might mean for Mr. Thornton, just because I see not having thought about this much as a potential deficiency of my own reading. I haven’t been emphasizing this issue, but I can see it looming large in any discussion of episode 4, so I might as well at least put my cursor down first.

I started this series trying to explain why North & South glued me to the screen via my immediate identification with Thornton, and have been discussing it as a drama around work, principle, vocation, and the competing standards for ethical behavior. There’s nothing wrong with that; this is my reading, after all, an attempt to report what drew me in, and I don’t have to account for every piece of the series in my discussion of the series’ appeal for me. My personal reading is allowed to be a faulty one. I don’t identify with Thornton to the extent that I develop an attraction to Margaret as a person, though, and I want to acknowledge that this missed connection probably hinders my reading of her as a symbol as well.

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Care or concession? Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) shakes the hand of Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) in episode 2 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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I think part of the reason I’ve been delaying continuing this series lies in a comment that alerted me to this problem. My failure to look at Margaret from Thornton’s perspective apart from my identification with his embrace of principle was brought home to me by a point that Lina made, which was essentially that Thornton might love or choose to protect Margaret as a person simply because she’s the only person in his world who makes a personal connection with him. In a followup comment to a query of mine, Lina writes:

I was thinking more about just the conversations–partly the filmed “signs” we are given: eye contact, long glances, focus on brushed fingers, “those” looks. But, also it seemed to me that everyone we ever saw speaking to Thornton wanted something from him related to goods and services. The other mill owners, obviously, wanted his cooperation and wanted him to take the lead in certain business matters so they wouldn’t have to. Mr. Hale I see as the most debatable, but I think while he was friend*ly* to him (in the “way of a gentleman”) Thornton was first and foremost a client. Potential investors wanted him to earn them money. Fanny pretty clearly just wanted him to provide her with a certain lifestyle, and Mrs. Thornton struck me as wanting him primarily to make her proud as a prosperous and envied mill owner–the thing her own husband failed at so miserably. But I didn’t see a whole lot of anyone who cared how he felt about anything, as long as he did what his role was to them.

I wouldn’t say Margaret’s motives were completely pure, but, for example, at the dinner party when she “learned Milton ways” enough to shake his hand the second time, I see it as a symbol that his feelings and the offense she gave him earlier actually mattered to her. And her outspokenness on multiple occasions made her seem to be someone who cared to engage with him and discuss ideas, including his and how he felt about them. And when she was “caught” talking to his workers in the mill yard and she was asking him about his role, it seemed to me an illustration that, while she was partly motivated by what she’d been seeing of the mill workers, she actually wanted to know how he saw things and it showed to him that what he thought mattered to her.

And to me, especially in contrast to everyone else in his life, I got the impression that that mattered to him a great deal.

I don’t agree with everything Lina says here. I do think that Thornton saw Mr. Hale as a friend, based not least on his response in episode 4 when he hears of his death and I do take seriously Mrs. Thornton’s comment at the beginning of episode 3 that she would “give her life’s blood” to see her son happy. But to me it seems so obvious from Thornton’s perspective that Margaret disdains him not only as a lover, but also as anything more than someone she has to get along with — I identify that heavily with his statement at the end of episode 2 that he knows she does not care for him — that I hadn’t seriously thought much about the realistic possibility that his statement that he “has to ask” despite his awareness of her attitude means is that he’s hoping against hope for some other reason that his reading of her is incorrect. This “other reason” that makes him hope against hope doesn’t necessarily imply a romantic reading (although it could — and let me stress again that I’m not trying to argue anyone out of romance here, just saying that it’s not my reading). It does get to the issue of her symbolic value to him, however, and so it’s worth thinking further about Lina’s comment.

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Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) asks Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) about his attitude toward surveys of working conditions at Marlborough Mills in episode 2 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Mr. Thornton the character is probably more romantic than Servetus. I am somewhat dull to the whole “stolen glance” theme; I notice this kind of interpersonal interaction in people around me but don’t behave this way myself, and I don’t attribute much meaning to it when others do. I am not a particularly sympathetic audience for most elements of traditional romance. I could argue convincingly that Margaret’s decision to “learn Milton ways” has a lot more to do with the fact that she’s clearly daddy’s girl, a status that she has to redeem after the visit for tea, and which can only intensify her awareness of the terrible faux pas she’s made in terms of Victorian hospitality during Thornton’s visit, as well as her contacts with the Higginses, which probably did more to enamor her to the idea that manners differ in Milton. She is also someone whose sense that she’s done right seems to be particularly important to her — a point underlined by Edith’s letter to her read at the end of episode 2. When Edith reassures Margaret that she “always did the right thing,” it seems to affirm that she holds an attitude that would give her additional motivation (on top of a loneliness only lightly masked by her relentlessly cheery letters) to try to make nice along the lines practiced in Milton. I would also say, based on my reading of episode 2, that if he thinks she’s especially interested in his principles, he’s misreading her. She broaches the conversation by noting Mrs. Thornton’s position that Margaret doesn’t understand Milton; that is, at this point, she’s still trying to be polite and interested either out of principle or because she realizes that she’s unlikely to find friends if she isn’t. I concede that my reaction to her is conditioned by my awareness of the scholarly literature on the social attitudes of children of the clergy in nineteenth-century Europe, as well as years of time spent with the children of the clergy today. I recognize a personality type of those worlds in Margaret.

So while I am not sure I accept Lina’s position, it did stop me short, and it seems like it might be worth backtracking just a little bit to think about Margaret’s symbolic value to Thornton.

I’m not sure we can take much away from their first encounter; to me this scene seems to be about characterizing Thornton to Margaret and we see it mostly from her standpoint. “Get tha’ woman out o’ here!” is all he can manage at the time. However, the encounter must have been significant to him, and one suspects he was thinking of it in the meantime, trying to justify what he would himself see as excessive behavior, given that he must have reasoned that he would eventually meet Mr. Hale’s daughter under other circumstances. (Their next encounter, which seems to reveal this possibility, is probably another one of my favorite scenes in all of Armitage’s oeuvre.)

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Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) meets the “first proper pupil” of Mr. Hale (Tim Pigott-Smith): Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) in episode 1 of North & South.

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I talked about this scene before as a performance of the ways in which Thornton is misunderstood or hindered in his attempt to articulate his principles to Margaret, a specific example of the more general way in which the people around him don’t understand his behavior. Margaret, who objects to violence against the weak, sees him here as not ethical and “not a gentleman,” a statement that plays a prelude to subsequent scenes in which the female Hales make clear (albeit passively) all the ways in which the principles from which Thornton’s worldview proceeds are mistaken. I also pointed out the way that political and class differences set Thornton’s world of principle up as insufficient from the Hales’ perspective. Looking at it from the perspective of what Margaret may symbolize to Thornton, we can see here, again, her potential attraction to him as someone who is just as principled (yes, I admit that I like that reading).

Another suggestion was made in my comments by fitzg, however, that I want to pursue as well. When I mentioned the nagging problem of why Mr. Thornton wants to read classics with Mr. Hale in the first place, given his attitudes toward work and industry as expressed during the scene at tea, I said in the resulting discussion that I prefer a Veblenian reading of this decision. Thorstein Veblen argued in The Theory of the Leisure Class (incidentally the book that my western civ students last year said they felt had the most immediate application to their lives) that the cultivation of certain kinds of knowledge without further apparent practical application served as a signal of the boundaries of the leisure class. Seen from this perspective, the pursuit of “useless knowledge” (as Mrs. Thornton would see it) demonstrates Thornton’s potential entry into the society of gentlemen — interestingly, a point that points out cracks in my reading of him as a classical liberal and proud of it. Thornton wants to be a gentleman even before he meets Margaret, it seems from this perspective.

In line with this possibility, fitzg’s comment, which intrigued me, suggested that there’s something about the Hales that Thornton admires — that he sees them as something better, or an example of gentility worth emulating or a group whose society is worth joining. Two scenes from the first half of the series point in this direction.

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) and his mother (Sinead Cusack) discuss his upcoming appointment to take tea with the Hales, in episode 1 of North & South.

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The clue here to Margaret’s symbolic value lies in Thornton’s justification of why he’s dressing to take tea with the Hales despite their apparent social inutility and unproductiveness (a “old parson … ex-parson” whom Mrs. Thornton later describes as “only fit to play at giving useless lectures to those who do not wish to hear them” and “a renegade clergyman’s daughter”). “Mr. Hale is a gentleman,” Thornton says, in response to his mother’s initial objection, “and his daughter is an accomplished young lady.” I take seriously his statement here that Margaret’s unlikely to consider him a catch, and at least at this point, while he seems to be looking forward to the evening, he hasn’t moved into the level of attraction or species of admiration that he will later signal when Margaret refills his teacup. In this scene, Mr. Thornton doesn’t respond to his mother’s second sally at delegitimating the Hales, which suggests to me that he indeed thinks it worthwhile to change his dress simply because the Hales qualify as somehow more genteel despite her objections (and indeed, despite her apparent attempt to tell him that he’s just as good as anybody else by disdaining Margaret’s social prejudices against him). He doesn’t say why he finds them more genteel, however, beyond noting Mr. Hale’s status as a gentleman.

Interestingly, we see this position replayed in episode 2, when Thornton is discussing dinner invitations with his mother.

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Mrs. Thornton (Sinead Cusack) and Fanny (Jo Joyner) diss the Hales in episode 2 of North & South, despite the attempts by Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) to defend them.

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I always discuss this scene with my students as a reflection of the attempt to negotiate changing class boundaries in developing industrial society, as it so nicely articulates some implicit class lines that students from the U.S. may be unlikely to be familiar with. Fanny reveals that she thinks about the Hales in terms of her own definition of the value of social contacts (“they are probably aware of the very great advantage” of meeting the society at this dinner party, as she says). Thornton rejects explicitly the possibility that the Hales would be moved by social concerns that point at filthy lucre, stating, “I am sure that motive will not influence them, Fanny.” The conversation then takes on additional interest as Fanny, that consummate denizen of nineteenth-century consumerist calculations, implies — in apparent contrast to her brother’s opinion — that the Hales are motivated in just the same ways as anyone else. Mrs. Thornton and Fanny then skewer precisely the things that are supposed to make a social difference between manufacturers and gentry, arguing that the Hales have no reason to think of themselves as better, not being rich (like the better gentry, or like the Thorntons when they’re not struggling) and lacking the sensibility for getting ahead (Mr. Hale and his “fine lady” wife), and, in Margaret’s case, educational accomplishments (something that Margaret has conceded, and which was supposed to differentiate the children of the gentry, another sort of Veblenian conspicuous consumption). Now, the Thorntons are not as free from social concerns about status vis-à-vis their surroundings as the text of their conversation might indicate. Mrs. Thornton and her son play out their own drama of anxiety about demonstrating their status in their discussion of entertaining “properly” (something most would-be brides in my classes understand). Additionally, the theme of music (“she cannot play the piano”) and concerts in the script indeed points rather forcefully at Fanny’s own social anxieties. Will loving music and turning her nose up at the “everyone” that “they” let into public concerts make her more genteel? we wonder on her behalf. In the end, the implication is clear from the female Thorntons’ remarks, the only explanation that Mr. Thornton can have for his request is that he’s “formed an attachment.”

What is indeed interesting, and fitzg’s comment points me to this, is the way that Thornton appears in this scene (as he will later, at the dinner table), as a slight traditionalist who indeed thinks that there’s something more genteel about the Hales. So perhaps Margaret is a symbol of gentility to him, and this gentility is also lost when he finds her implicated in ways he doesn’t understand in Leonards’ death. I still like the “principled” reading, though, which leads me to ask whether he admires the Hales because they are more genteel, and thus not moved by material or social concern, or because they are principled in not being motivated by material or social concern — which makes them worth emulating in his eyes? Which comes first?

I’m swing into the week again, but I’ll be ready to talk about episode 4 as soon as I get past the next patch of work that I do for a salary. 🙂 I am motivated both by material desire and principle, incidentally 🙂

to part 4(a)1.

~ by Servetus on February 20, 2012.

40 Responses to “me + mr thornton, addendum, or: What does Margaret mean for Mr. Thornton?”

  1. England was long a fluid society; the descendent of a humble 15th C sheep farmer was a Duke by the end of the 17th C. The concept of “bettering onself” was a strong one, whether through the spoils of war, the making of filthy lucre, or aping the manners of one’s betters. (Fanny 🙂 ) Even Hannah Thornton was not immune to this. Witness the care that attended the Thornton’s annual dinner party. John Thornton was hardly an unimaginative man; he had a strong sense of inadequacy of the unfinished education, and Mr. Hale represented an opportunity to remedy this. Even putting aside romance or attraction, the Hales represented a potential ideal, and the potential to attain something of a different class. Their gentry status was offset by their living in genteel poverty, which leveled the playing field between them. And Mr. Hale did have to work for a living…(If they hadn’t moved to the North, Margaret would have been forced to become a governess.)

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    • I apologize for pointing this out, but I have to mention in my capacity as a historian, that standard research on the upper classes of Britain emphasizes that after the beginning of the sixteenth century, Britain had the *most* closed and protected upper social ranks (nobility, gentry) of all of western Europe — this bastion is part of why it persisted in its influence for so comparatively long. (The medieval situation up through the Tudors is different and would be better evidence for your argument about fluidity, but this circumstance does not persist.) Although there were occasionally exceptions due to warfare or unusual political circumstances, historians (one thinks of John Cannon, but there are others, including longitudinal studies of the British aristocracy over four centuries) describe the British upper classes as “unabsorptive.” Many of the other European nations (England and France) sold titles of nobility through early modernity in order to fill their exchequers and thus, not unintentionally, fused the lower nobility with the developing aristocracy of money and thus thinned out their most significant influences by the nineteenth century; in contrast, social historians who have studied upper class marriage patterns have shown that the English gentry and nobility practiced unusually strong informal rules against exogamy in comparison to all of their continental counterparts. While the English manufacturers certainly created their own standards of nobility and gentility, and also “aped their betters” in some respects, Thornton and his milieu pursued the elevation of their social status primarily via efforts to expand the franchise — the Reform Act of 1832 stands in the middle-term background of the novel. Part of what’s going on in the novel are the results of this landmark legislation, one of the first big steps toward universal manhood suffrage in England. And the reason why it’s worth teaching Gaskell in the history classroom despite the ridiculously romantic elements of the work, is the unusual acuity with which it reproduces the striking political and social alliances of the post-1832 decades in England, with the gentry (and the nobility) suddenly taking up the case of the poor and rural populations in ways they never had before in the face of what they saw as a new and disturbing challenge of people like Thornton.

      I also have to disagree with the point of view that the Hales’ gentility is offset by their poverty when seen from the internal view of the series. We are inclined to think that because we live in a world in which the Thorntons have triumphed, and so my students often see her refusal to marry Thornton as romantic (refusing to marry money and when she is not in love) when the dialogue in the scene clearly indicates that it’s a class based rejection (Thornton is not a gentleman, and this fact of social status prevents Margaret from even thinking about liking him). That the Hales might have represented an ideal for Thornton is historically likely and not unreasonable as a reading, though it’s not really mine, even if it’s a good entry in the “what does she symbolize for him” question and I like it better than the “respite from work” answer that the end of episode 4 seems to signal. However, I disagree that the Hales’ gentry status is offset by their poverty for anyone except the manufacturers of Milton. That the Hales think their poverty or the fact that Mr. Hale “works” is any reason that they should care about Thornton’s comparative wealth as a basis for social status is unlikely (witness the content Margaret’s speech during the refusal of the proposal — this is so historically right on the mark that it’s another reason to use the series in the classroom), and the Hales look down their noses at him all the way through episode 1 and part of episode 2. Mrs. Hale doesn’t relax her attitude until she’s almost dead; Frederick immediately considers Thornton a tradesman when he sees him; and Margaret’s journey towards realizing that gentility and manufacturing are not mutually exclusive doesn’t start until the meeting at the exhibition at the very earliest. And, as the Henry Lennox plot strand shows, Margaret did have other options. She could have married someone who would support her in her own milieu, not because she had any wealth of her own, but because of her membership in the gentry. Presumably precisely this would have been one of the reasons that the Hales sent her to London to be with her aunt — so that she could be educated in a way that would facilitate her ability to meet and attract appropriate marital partners. Margaret’s implied marriage to Thornton at the end comes not from her recognition or willingness to accept that making things can also be a practice of the genteel, not from a general attitude about the significance of gentility that has changed much. She restarts the mill, in her own terms, because it will accomplish something and because the place is empty — not because she accepts profit in itself as an ideal.

      I’m a bit tense about this comment beecause I am afraid you’ll be overwhelmed but keep in mind that I only argue with whom I know can take it.

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  2. Do not hesitate or apologize! One degree in History and years of undisciplined reading do not an historian make 🙂 One of the reasons for visiting this blog is for enlightenment! I take the point the upper classes per se were unabsorptive, though the middle classes continued to grow, and “middle class” appears to have covered a wide spectrum. The Hales were not land-owners.If there was a point to my rambling, it was to try to find something in addition to romance or principle, to explain the attraction the Hales had for Thornton.

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    • whew.

      we have:

      romance
      principle
      symbol of gentility
      leisure / relief from work
      sex

      on the table so far.

      The whole question of taste is a really interesting one. Thornton makes a fascinating statement about it while he’s at the Hales for tea, for instance. Middle class taste is another really key divide between the Hales and Thorntons. The set decorators get this almost exactly right, but because most viewers today don’t know what to look for they don’t see it exactly.

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  3. Hi there,
    I found your blog interesting as I recently watched North and South and read the book.
    To my mind, I find from a reading of the book that the issue of what Margaret Hale and the entire Hale family represents for Thornton seems to be a different, gentler set of ideals. In the book, the spiritual, intellectual, cultural and gentle aspects of the family are heavily contrasted with the practical considerations of Thornton’s world. To my mind Thornton is attracted to Mr Hale and Margaret in particular, as they represent an aspect of himself that he longs to develop, that he has had little experience with and no opportunity to pursue in his life of struggle.

    To me the most interesting aspect of the relationship is that it only develops once Margaret has herself learnt something of his experience of the world: she has had her own intense pain and suffering, seen struggle and pain, and become broader in her outlook. He in turn has seen that it is possible to face very difficult situations in a more gentle, humble, open way, rather than struggle against them and become harsher and more embittered. So they are then able to meet each other in the middle in some way.

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    • Shauna, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog.

      That’s a way more generous reading of Margaret than I would ever give based on the series, but the point of this post was to leave readings open rather than close them so that the reader can derive her own conclusions from what I’ll say about episode 4 meant to me when I started watching the series obsessively. (Just saying this because I don’t know if you’ve been reading the whole series, which is about the roots of my obsession with this series and hence Richard Armitage.)

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      • Hi Servetus,

        I haven’t read all your comments on the series but am interested to. I do think in general the book is more sympathetic to the characters of the Hales than the series, in which they seem to be sort of weak, out of their depth, with very old fashioned ideals that no longer apply to the society they have entered. In the book, there are many passages that dwell on Thornton’s deep regard for Mr Hale, and his being struck, for example, by the sensuality of their house, the ripe fruit they have, the care they take in their softly furnished rooms, the books they seem to read, in general their humanity and respect for humanity.
        I agree with you about Thornton’s ideals being central. To me this may be exactly what attracts him to Margaret – he is a deeply idealistic person and seems surrounded by those who are not idealistic. The Hales are also idealistic, in a different way to him, but in a way that attracts him nonetheless. He is frustrated at first because Margaret misunderstands him, and can only imagine he is driven by greed or a hunger for power, rather than by his ideals.

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        • really? I think the series makes the Hales and Dixon seem nicer than the book, in which Mr. Hale leaves it to Margaret to enlighten his wife about their move, Margaret refers to people as shoppy, and Mrs. Hale can’t get her mind off her own troubles.

          I tend to read Mr Thornton’s reaction to the Hales in the book in light of class issues — because that’s my training.

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  4. […] to addendum to episode 3: What does Margaret symbolize for Thornton? Share this:DiggFacebookTwitter […]

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  5. One thought I wanted to throw into the discussion is:
    I don’t think, Mr. Thornton wants to continue his studies because he wants to better himself in a way of changing his social status. (Here I fully agree, that society was not mobile enough to allow this.)
    He also starts with his wish right at the first meeting and must have thought about it before or during his first encounter with Mr. Hale. So it is not a reaction of Mr. Thornton to the Hales, but a pre-conceived intention / action out of principle.
    I see it for one, as an effort to help the Hales get started with their new surrounding in Milton and for the other as an open wound for someone as thorough as Mr. Thornton, not to have been able to finish something he started, in that case his school education.
    It also confirms me in reading him as absolutely and uncompromisingly principled.

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    • yes, it’s unclear what studying classics would get him at his age in terms of improving social status. He doesn’t want to enter the clergy, for instance, and it’s unclear what he’d need a university degree for.

      The point about studying classics as an index of principle is an intriguing one that hadn’t occurred to me.

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      • I also read his wish to read classics as his desire to go back to the carefree times of his youth and to things he freely and without responsibility enjoyed. Pupils get the feeling for responsibility and what their learning does to their future only later and he had to learn the consequences the hard way when his father died and he had to grow up and take responsibility for the remaining family immediately as a consequence.
        So in a way, this moment in my view also breaks his principles or confirms them by wanting to escape them for some careless moments.
        I also see his attraction to Margaret Hale as a way to go beyond his obligations and see it confirmed by Margaret’s comment at the exhibition, that he is interested in the world beyond Milton.
        Though I agree that Margaret needs to meet his principles to even be considered a worthy occupation and that both their principles are a crucial point in their relationship.
        I also have the impression, the principles and his desires must be equally balanced to allow him to act on his impulse or what he personally wants, otherwise I think he would suppress his desire for the well being of his work, employees and reputation.

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        • I think my last sentence does not make clear what I mean. German is so much easier to set clear references in a sentence ;o)
          I wanted to say, that Mr. Thornton would suppress his desires, if they were not clearly in favour or supporting his work progress, strengthen his reputation or the well being of his employees. He needs to have a purpose for what he does. (Margaret as well as reading the classics is a bit the exception for him. Both do not meet any clear purpose.)

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          • agree about German.

            I think key to your reading is something I feel very acutely in episode 4, which is that he can’t reembrace his affection for her until he hears that Frederick was her brother. Principle remains important to him, and episode 4 is a reestablishment of that, not a fundamental change. But that’s a matter for episode 4. I’ve gotta get that out soon. F3 be damned …

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  6. Is it possible that mr.Thornton also likes a Girl who read, as mr.Darcy and Mark Gride?;)

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  7. I’ve always seen the Hales as upper-middle-class rather than gentry because of Mr Hale’s profession. As fitzg says, they weren’t landowners.

    Which comes first for Thornton, gentility or principle? It’s a tough one – I’m not sure you can separate social or material concern from gentility. It’s just a question of degree, or emphasis.

    I think for him it’s a bit of both – he admires (envies) Margaret’s self-confidence, taste, social poise, educated mind, all taken utterly for granted by her. But I think Gaskell wants us to see Margaret as rising above the material and social concerns of her genteel background. If this is principle, then Thornton also comes to admire her for this.

    I like the fact that Gaskell shows people who are not quite in their comfort zone, class-wise – like Mrs Hale. She’s moved out of her class to marry for love, and is miserable. She doesn’t have the comfort of principles in the way that her husband, daughter, and perhaps even son, have. Her loss of status and reduced standard of living is a huge thing for her – though she can still console herself with feeling superior to the Thorntons and their ilk.

    Margaret is forced out of her class comfort zone too by her father’s actions. We see her ‘suffering’ – having to iron clothes and hang curtains, doing housemaid’s work – stepping right outside the norms and expectations of women of her class, albeit in private.

    I love the contrast between the Thorntons’ dirty money and the Hales’ slide into worsening genteel poverty. I think Gaskell wants us to see Margaret as being changed by this and her contact with the Higginses. Her experiences of poverty break down her class prejudices enough to widen her horizons and enable her to see Thornton as lovable.

    I suppose Thornton is portrayed as not quite fitting in either – he’s not totally in step with the values of his family, or his class. If principle means being brave enough to challenge conventional thinking then I guess that’s what unites our two misfts.

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    • Class is not related to how much money people have, but to how they get it. Although they are not landowners, the Hales are not middle class. Mr. Hale is a C of E clergy member, so he’s not middle class in any way. He doesn’t work to earn money; he’s subsidized by a “living,” which is an interest income paid to him from the church. His wife was clearly born in the gentry. We don’t get an explanation of where her money might come from in the series. Socially in the countryside the Hales would have been the equals of any local gentry; Mrs. Hale would have been the next in rank after any nobility or gentry.

      I disagree with you about Gaskell. Margaret’s behavior (or her own expectations for her own behavior) is entirely consistent with the self-image of the daughters of the rural clergy in terms of her material concerns for others. Gaskell has a nice touch, though, by painting the Margaret of the book as reluctant to visit Bessy.

      Agree re Gaskell and Mrs. Hale. Also agree that Margaret abandons some of her class prejudices. However, since she maintains social concerns that are consistent with her initial ones (in both the book and the series), it’s not a total transformation in any sense. It’s more that she begins to see what Thornton does as legitimate and his wealth / his factory as a means of achieving ends that she endorses. The fourth episode of the series portrays this particularly well, I think. It’s not that grows to see the getting of profit as legitimate in itself.

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  8. I’m glad you did add this in, as always you put some interesting things to think about out there!

    The “North and South don’t understand each other” theme really does run roughshod over and around these two, doesn’t it? I agree with you that Margaret isn’t all selfless in softening her interactions with Thornton (the Daddy’s girl, etc.), but I think perhaps that’s not how Thornton interprets it. That is, he doesn’t seem to understand the level of self interest in her interest and that’s part of the problem (aka that “problematic innocence”)–I feel like she surprises herself with her own reaction to it, too, that it wasn’t supposed to matter to her and she’s more than a little shocked that it comes to.

    I think I really need to sit down and watch this thing again, try and sort out some of how I’m seeing it and think about some of these other angles!

    I’m about to go on vacation so it’s probably not fair to ask a question and then run, but I’m going to anyway (!) Maybe I missed it, but I think I’m not really following why you think he asked her to marry him, then? Was it only out of principle (to protect her honor after the balcony and because he felt she was principled) and not something more?

    Looking forward to reading your part 4!

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    • Hope you have a good vacation.

      I think he asked her to marry him because (a) he is lonely and (b) she reminds him of his mother. Seriously. He gets his principledness and willingness to be abrasive in service of it from somewhere, and he knows the love that lies behind that in his mother’s case, indeed he speaks of it. I always think that the character of whom Margaret is most reminiscent in the series is Mrs. Thornton.

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  9. I’ve been reading the book (about half way through) and as usual the book puts a totally different spin on the story. The book is all about Margaret. John Thornton seems to be just one of several conduents to Margaret’s transformation. Based on the book, the question would be “What does Thornton mean to Margaret?” And she seems to be oblivious to him other than he is a friend of her father’s that she and her mother believe is beneath their social status — until he proposes. According to the introduction, Elizabeth Gaskell’s title for the book was Margaret Hale and it was Dickens who persuaded her to call it North and South.

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    • yes, the book is really different, and I didn’t read it until I had seen the movie about 21 times or so. This is why I am trying to filter the book out of my account of why I became obsessed. However, the book becomes really important when I teach the series in the classroom.

      Agree that in the book, her initial awareness of his significance is much heightened — and also that he is fully aware of this.

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  10. The book was not a romance, which the film was. The book was much more an exploration of the socio-economic structures. I agree that Mrs. Gaskell told the story from Margaret’s point of view, while the film script was as focused on John. The Thorntons and Higginses emerged the strongest characters in the film, and John was a more dominant character than Margaret – Armitage is a stronger actor than is Ms. Denby-Ashe. Book and film are simply different media and require to be seen as such.

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  11. Sloan, meant to add, “What did Thornton mean to Margaret” is such a good question!

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  12. Ah, yes, it has been confusing going back and forth from series to book! The perpectives of each differ a bit! Mrs. Hale obviously came of “good family” with ties to the landed class. While her family would have been against her marriage to a modest clergyman, one assumes they might have provided her with a tiny income. And a few bits of family silver (the silver receptacle to the tea strainer in the tea scene.) One has to put a good face on things…
    We are diverging from the issue of principle as Thornton’s guiding star and theseeming conflict of his imposing his magistrate’s authority on the police, is not that complex.
    People are complex. Even Thornton is human.

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    • In the book it’s implied or said, I forget which, that the Hales live (apart from the church living) from an annuity of some kind.

      Agree re: complexity. And wish to stress my reading is not the only one.

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  13. […] part, if any. It’s intriguing and forcing me to look at things from a different perspective. Take a couple minutes to read it. Share Tweet Posted by Melanie at 10:42 am – Comments (0) Categories: […]

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  14. Interesting discussion! Who knew there were so many differing perspectives and readings of this one story? I like that everyone can get something a little different out of it.

    Personally, though, i disagree that the novel is ALL about Margaret. It is PRIMARILY about her, but if it were ALL about her, we would not have chapters and passages which centered around the perspectives of Mr. Thornton and his mother. These parts give us insight into their views, opinions, and motivations, which we never could have gotten from Margaret’s, because she completely misunderstands them at first.
    If I read it as romantic, it is partly because of the way Gaskell describes the very chemical and physical responses Thornton and Margaret have to each other. Of course, this can’t be translated into a visual format except through the longing glances and the like that were described earlier in this conversation.

    I don’t know that the series gives a comprehensive explanation of the characters, which is why I felt compelled to seek out and devour the novel (I am now reading it through for the second time in three weeks, hence my interest in anything N&S related…). We are left to guess at many of the underlying principles, attitudes, emotions and motivations, based on whatever lever of understanding we have of society of that time. Thus I find the book enlightening and helpful in developing a more thorough understanding of the characters, particularly Thornton & Margaret.

    I think they are quite complex enough to have a touch of many of the different motivators mentioned, even ones which seem opposing. Even within themselves, Margaret and Thornton are a study of opposites. Neither is as single minded as they might like to believe themselves to be, and one of the great lines about Thornton is just after the failed proposal, explaining why he continues to go and see the Hales: “He thought that he disliked seeing one who had mortified him so keenly; but he was mistaken. It was a stinging pleasure to be in the room with her, and feel her presence. But he was no great analyser of his own motives, and was mistaken as I have said.” (Ch XXIX) If Thornton himself can mistake his motives, than I suppose we can as well–but isn’t it fun to try anyway? 🙂

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    • Just to explain: What I’m writing here is about my obsession with the series, so I don’t feel obligated to give a comprehensive account of it, as I do in the classroom, where I read the series and the book together, and for which I’ve written a 40+ page study guide that illuminates numerous perspectives on this confluence that I might share partially as a scholar, but which are not motivating to me as a simple viewer of the series. This series for me is solely an account of why the series started to fascinate me at a particular point in my life. I’m not especially susceptible to long glances, or at least not as symptomatic of romance. (Sexual desire might be another thing, but again when writing about the Victorians one has to be very precise about what one is saying — I pointed this out on a comment to a different post in this series.)

      Agree that Thornton is complex and also that he realizes aspects of his own insufficiency by episode 3 of the series. (See the three posts on that previous to this one).

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  15. As opposed to you, I strongly identified to Margaret- first in the book, then the mini-series. I see a woman who’s views have been shaped by others entering a world in which she must finally decide what she believes for herself, regardless of what others think.

    I’m curious, since you don’t particularly view N&S as a romance, do you find yourself reading much fanfiction? Most of the stories I’ve read seem to focus on the romantic aspects.

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    • Sorry, your comment somehow ended up in spam. Thanks for making it and welcome to the blog.

      I think many if not most consumers of N&S identify with Margaret. I just don’t. I don’t even really like her very much in the series (and less in the book), although there are points at which I feel a very real sympathy with certain problems she has.

      Also, I don’t want to claim that N&S isn’t a romance. I’m not sure if you went all the way back to the beginning of this series in which this post resides — it’s an attempt to explain why I fixated on the BBC series when I did, which has extremely little to do with romance in my particular case. As the first post tries to make clear, it’s about work. For me N&S is a story about work and principle, which are much bigger issues in my life than romance is ever likely to be. I backtracked into this question about what Margaret means for Thornton because I realized that I have to answer some questions about what I understand her symbolic value to be in order to make my reactions plausible to the reader.

      I read all kinds of fanfic. It’s regularly profiled on this blog, with links to stories I like and interviews with fanfic authors. Fanfic is not really about romance for me, though, although I do enjoy some romantic stories, particularly if they have h/c elements or lots of sex. But my love of fanfic is less about romance and more about exploring different conceptions of the world and experiencing a certain notion of identity that’s impossible for me to experience in other venues. I won’t recapitulate all this here, but there’s a post a ways back on what fanfic means to me: https://meandrichard.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/what-fanfic-means-to-me-an-attempt/

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      • Right, I understand you’re not claiming N&S isn’t a romance, just that the romance isn’t part of its appeal for you. That’s what makes reading these posts so interesting- your viewpoint is unique. The most fascinating aspect of North and South for me were the class differences, although because of my limited exposure to English history I know I’m not getting nearly as much out of it as I should.

        Off to read your post on fanfiction now.

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  16. Still working through my own perceptions of both book and series. So reading all comments is terrific. On the whole, I can’t see either the book or the film version from a single perpective. Romance, principle,class, sex. They seem all to come into play. But, I doubt Thornton could have accepted Margaret whole-heartedly, had it not been demonstrated that the young man at the station was not her “lover”, but her brother. For Thornton, of his time and of his experience, that would have taxed his principles too far.

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  17. […] here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous posts. A short reminder of the way I started […]

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  18. […] here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous posts. A short reminder of the way I started […]

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  19. […] here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous posts. A short reminder of the way I started […]

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  20. […] here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous posts. A short reminder of the way I started […]

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  21. […] here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous posts. A short reminder of the way I started […]

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