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Literature in the nineteenth century was a discourse in which the representation of death was enormously popular. One need only remember that Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), in which we read about little Nell's death, sold 100,000 copies on its first appearance.(1) Elizabeth Gaskell also wrote about death just at the moment when the burial reform debate reached its height in mid-nineteenth-century England.(2) In North and South (1854-1855),(3) Gaskell assuages the threat of death proposed by contemporary burial reform discourse-especially as Edwin Chadwick, Secretary to the New Poor Law Commission from 1834-1842 and Commissioner for the Board of Health from 1848-1852, framed and articulated the debate.(4) Gaskell advocated a very different sort of interaction among labor relations, death and domesticity that she believed would transform mid-Victorian society, especially when effected through the agency of women.


To better understand how Gaskell negotiates this relationship between classes and individuals within them and how exactly this relationship intersects with her representation of death in North and South, we first need to consider her relationship to Manchester Unitarianism and to Chadwick's proposals for burial reform legislation. In particular, Gaskell's belief in the Christian impulse to ameliorate social evil not only underwrites her novel but differs significantly from Edwin Chadwick's idea that only national mechanisms can solve social problems. The version of Unitarianism Elizabeth Gaskell and her husband, William, espoused was essentially optimistic.(5) They believed in a God who is merciful and trusted in the innate goodness of human nature, even though human actions might become warped by material, emotional or spiritual deprivation. According to Jenny Uglow, "it was against social evil, not original sin or the works of the devil, that the Gaskells took their stand. If such evil was humanly created, it must, they felt, be open to human remedy through practical measures and through the power of the Word to awaken conscience and modify behavior."(6) Given this belief in the merciful nature of God and the power of human beings to counteract evil in the world, Unitarians rejected the concept of everlasting punishment in favor of a future afterlife where there is discipline for the soul, where even the guiltiest may be redeemed and the stained spirit may be cleansed by fire. Reconciliation with God occurs through Christ, who offers a system of ethics on which everyday morality should be based. Charity toward others becomes the outward mark of the true Christian. Within the world of North and South, then, as Michael Wheeler suggests, "images of hell on earth are consistent with a Unitarian theology that denies everlasting punishment, and with a Unitarian tradition of visiting the poor, getting to know them individually, trying to improve their appalling lot in the slums of industrial cities."(7)

The Unitarian espousal of freedom, reason, tolerance and an essentially optimistic outlook on life and the afterlife motivated small Unitarian communities like the Cross Street Chapel congregation in Manchester to contribute to social progress.(8) For example, Unitarians advocated parliamentary reform from the turn of the century. The Anti-Corn Law League was initiated and supported by Manchester Unitarians like Robert Hyde Greg, elected MP for Manchester in 1839, and the most aggressive agitator against the Corn Laws. Further, the Municipal Reform Act enabled Unitarians to participate more fully in local government. Thomas Potter, a warehouse owner and member of the Cross Street Chapel, headed the movement for Manchester to become a corporation, which occurred in 1838.(9)

In addition to parliamentary reform, Manchester Unitarians became involved in sanitary reform as well, since they discounted a belief in divine retribution which absolved society of any responsibilities in times of epidemics. Rather, they stressed that such conditions were caused by the filth and overcrowding in the cities. For example, James P. Kay, a Unitarian doctor who took the post of medical officer at the New Ardwick and Ancoats dispensary--particularly afflicted sections of Manchester--engaged in sanitary reform work. In 1832 he published the highly influential The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacturers of Manchester, which was underwritten by the assumption that since epidemics were aggravated by men, they could also be eradicated, or at least ameliorated, by human endeavors. This attitude led Kay, along with the brothers Samuel and William Rathbone Greg and Benjamin Haywood, to found the Manchester Statistical Society in 1833, a society designed to gather information that would eventually engender reform. All four men were connected with the Cross Street Chapel and were well-known to the Gaskells, as were Edwin Chadwick and Thomas Southwood Smith, who succeeded Chadwick at the Board of Health.(10)

These ideals of service played a dominant role in Unitarian thinking. Unitarians became champions of the oppressed, advocates for education, religious tolerance and women's rights. But, as Donald Stone so succinctly states, "accompanying this reformist strain was an impulse that favored economic individualism, that saw in the industrialists--many of whom were Unitarians--a power and a right deriving from natural law that was not to be interfered with."(11) A look at the composition of the Cross Street Chapel will confirm Stone's assessment, for Cross Street was where the bourgeois of Manchester worshiped. Valentine Cunningham claims that "the trustees and members were the millocracy, the benefactors, the leaders of Manchester society: corn millers, silk manufacturers, calico painters, patent-reed makers, engineers, bankers and barristers; founders of hospitals, libraries, educational institutions, charitable funds and missions to the poor."(12) The congregation, needless to say, did not take kindly to criticism of the laissez-faire economy. Promoting an ideal of individualism rather than equality, the ethic of the free market as well as the Gospel, Unitarian MPs spoke vehemently against government intervention in factory hours and conditions.(13)

Elizabeth Gaskell participated in a religion that espoused the responsibilities of the individual on behalf of local society: Unitarian chapels were full of proponents of contemporary political economy and model self-employers who believed, essentially, that self-help was the key to reform and that the government should not intervene in the "natural" rhythms of the market economy, especially with regard to free trade and tariff reform. Yet she could see for herself that all was not well with the liberal-bourgeois-dissenting millocracy. It failed to feed, clothe, and house adequately the poor of Manchester in the 1840s. In other words, Gaskell faced two contending groups: Unitarian political economists in concert with model employers versus distressed employees. Specifically, Gaskell, through representations of death, negotiates these pressures by depicting in North and South individuals acting according to the spirit of Christ rather than to the rules of the state as the regulating law between the middle and working classes. For example, Gaskell moves away from what I perceive as Chadwickean proposals for impersonal state legislation and toward a voluntary cooperation among individuals within a local rather than a national context in North and South. The informed Thornton suggests that "intercourse" between the classes "is the very breath of life" (p. 432). He articulates an "evolution of understanding" one another based on common interests "which invariably makes people find means and ways of seeing each other, and becoming acquainted with each others' characters and persons, and even tricks of temper and modes of speech. We should understand each other."

The Unitarian rejection of everlasting punishment emphasized, in earthly life, the need for social progress advanced by individual initiative. This emphasis accounts, in part, for the fact that Gaskell, in representing death, articulated specific cultural attitudes about socio-political life in midnineteenth-century England. But Gaskell's strategy of relying on the individual Christian impulse to ameliorate the living conditions of the poor differs significantly from Chadwick's idea that only national mechanisms can solve their problems. Gaskell's emphasis on the individual addresses distinctions in the assignation of power by the middle class at a time when it was solidifying its own enfranchisement and defining itself in relation to national bureaucratic structures. In the texts by Gaskell and Chadwick, the status of the working-class corpse and the representation of peoples' reactions to it form different and conflicting strategies for middle-class survival and power over the working class. In The Supplementary Report, Chadwick, by depicting the working-class corpse as an agent of contagious disease and a lag on economic productivity, implies a need for separating, confining, and ultimately neutralizing its threat to survivors through sanitary measures. Such a construct serves to define the middle class as survivors--as opposed to the sick and dead poor--and justifies state apparatuses to police the working-class corpse and the family and community to which it belonged. The state evacuates the meaning of death and displaces the function of family and community by the efficient removal of the corpse from the home by an officer of the state and by the replacement of communal rituals with standardized procedures for burial. Both the corpse and the survivors in the working-class community become nuisances to be contained and controlled by centralized measures that limited what the working-class people could do for themselves. In effect, Chadwick limits their power of association and seeks to depoliticize even as he secularizes their activity by removing any possibility for reflection on the causes of death among the poor because he believed that the social order depended upon what Herbert Marcuse has described as the working class's "unfreedom, toil, hard work and resignation in the face of death."(14) To secure this social stability, then, only the middle class had the power to assign meaning to the working-class experience of death. The effect of Chadwick's strategy, I believe, was to deny the existence of unique local communities and to define people according to their labor functions.

Gaskell, while very much concerned with the same social conditions that preoccupied Chadwick, considers the working-class corpse to be an opportunity for the masters to understand the motivations of men. The corpse becomes an occasion to fathom the causes of death among the poor, to seek remedies for their cure, and to affirm local kinship networks and communities as entities that negotiate class collaboration. Thus, the corpse draws a community of mourners from all ranks and provides an instance in which individuals may be transformed to act in the best interests of society. Gaskell neutralizes the threat of the working-class death by arguing for its transformative potential to improve life for everyone. Individual contact with death engenders an understanding of the human condition that transcends class boundaries and provokes action to improve that human condition so threatened by England's industrialization. Only by standing in the presence of working-class death, represented by the corpse and the activities of the mourners, will the middle class be able to protect its interests through the collaboration--not conflict--with the working class. But Gaskell's emphasis on the individual's ethical behavior also depoliticizes--as did Chadwick's the working class by qualifying or removing the possibility for collective political or economic associations which might emerge as a result of death or reflection on the particular causes of death.

These two different and conflicting approaches to the problem of death and burial turn out to be a problem about the poor, how the middle class will relate to them, and how they will be allowed to relate to themselves. From Chadwick's perspective, given the enormous scale of the public health problem--which, he claims, the working-class corpse embodies--individual efforts could never be enough; only centralized measures could solve the problem. From Gaskell's point of view, since the state can only be counted on to protect laissez-faire liberalism, the middle-class individual must attend to the needs of society. It is the middle-class individual, especially the individual female, who must not only sustain a balance of interests between the two classes but render the economy more productive. Through her characterization of Margaret Hale, Gaskell seeks to reconstitute the working-class connection between life and death to produce meaningful social reform at home. In particular, Margaret intervenes in the strike scene to argue for a more comprehensive, public role for middle-class women in Victorian society and to stand in the place of working-class bodies-those bodies, both dead and alive, which have become such problems to Gaskell's middle-class readers. According to Gaskell, this kind of heroine transforms the economy and bridges the gap between England's "two nations." However, as we will see, Margaret's relationship to power is quite ambivalent. She produces social reform by identifying with the working class but without sacrificing her position in the social formation.


The distinction between the public world of politics and market activity and the private world of domestic activity, morality and emotion became ever more crucial in mid-Victorian England.(15) But these divisions were by no means fixed, although increasingly they were solidified in rules for social interaction. Over time, separation between the public and the private widened; it had become, by 1850, identified with gender. As Davidoff and Hall argue, "a masculine penumbra surrounded that which was defined as public while women were increasingly engulfed by the private realm, bounded by physical, social and psychic partitions."(16) Men, because of their privileged status, could move easily between both realms; women, however, were increasingly confined to the private.

But none of these divisions were so set as not to be open to contestation and negotiation. In this mercurial space, Gaskell wrote North and South to suggest that feminine identity is as much determined by public political action as by private, interior moral development. She strikes an essential balance between the two forces by focusing her attention on the responses and rituals surrounding death because it was a crucial site where women's restriction to the private could be affirmed. While large funerals were increasingly used to demonstrate public status, records show that women had begun to stay away from funeral and burial services because it was becoming unacceptable for daughters or widows to display their grief in public. Instead, the more genteel woman moved away from a potentially undifferentiated public gathered for a funeral and was drawn toward a more private experience of emotion in her own home.(17)

However, Gaskell believed that women's identity depends upon the renegotiation of traditional concepts and exercises of authority, and that her capacity for reflection should lead her to an ever-widening idea of her traffic in the world beyond the front door of the home. For Margaret to fulfill her obligations to reform society, she must learn to appreciate the continuity between life and death and reject certain religious and social structures which seek to confine women to restricting domestic roles.

In the first several chapters of the novel, narrow definitions of the home (as Mr. Hale and his position in the patriarchal order of the Church defined it) and Margaret's place in it begin to fall away for the heroine: "The one staid foundation of her home, her idea of her beloved father seemed reeling and rocking. What could she say? What was to be done?" (p. 34). Mr. Hale's decision to leave the Church forces her into action. She must make arrangements for the family's move to Milton, pack the furniture and locate decent housing in their new city. As the authority of the father breaks down in the face of his own uncertainty and inability to live beyond his initial decision, Margaret faces the challenge of developing her own authority to act in the world. This empowerment depends upon her relinquishing the sleepy life in London, rejecting Mr. Lennox, who, in Margaret's dream, falls from a tree to his death as he tries to reach for Margaret's bonnet (symbol of a conventional life as a Victorian woman), and exercising her capacity to read and interpret her new surroundings in Milton. Mr. Hale asks that she think of his situation in terms of the early martyrs, for "the early martyrs suffered for the truth" (p. 35). The early martyrs also crossed conventional boundaries, walked into the desert alone there to shape prophetic roles for Christians in the future. But, Gaskell suggests, Margaret must walk the same path. Gaskell deploys the analogy with some precision here as she qualifies Mr. Hale's theoretical self-sacrifice. She, too, must step outside the home and into the public arena, though she will need time and space to reflect on the world before her first. This move to contemplation, and the developing capacity to integrate risk in one's life, serves to shape the prophetic role women are to have in society.

A limited sense of continuity between mother and daughter determines the prophetic role Gaskell envisions for women because the strength of the heroine is conditioned in large measure by her capacity to be influenced by her mother as well as her ability to do what her mother could not do.(18) Margaret must reject her mother's shallow attraction to the accouterments of wealth and status in favor of reflection and action in the world "outdoors," in the world of Milton's industrial economy. Margaret's behavior toward her dying mother must be considered in broader terms than conventional domestic ones which posit the heroine as primary caretaker and nurturer. Each contact with death propels Margaret into the grimy world of Milton-Northern where she begins to take notice of the loiterers in the street, her first recognition that the economic depression affected not just a faceless mass of people but individuals. Moreover, Gaskell defines a middle-class woman's domestic activities as work and equates that work to men's work in the mill. Describing to her father her experience at Thornton's party, Margaret admits she "`felt like a great hypocrite to-night, sitting there in my white silk gown, with my idle hands before me, when I remembered all the good, thorough, house-work they had done to-day. They took me for a fine lady, I'm sure'" (p. 167). The experience with her dying mother forces Margaret to become "a hand" herself as she must stand in the kitchen and do the ironing, and provides the opportunity for her to wake up to the working world of Milton and move outside of herself, taking notice of the consequences of economic depression.

But Gaskell qualifies this move by suggesting that a woman's position in the world also demands reflection upon its exigencies. Underwriting Gaskell's vision of a woman's place in the world is her Unitarian belief that action in the world is necessarily informed by Gospel values clarified by contemplation. Death provides occasions for this contemplation. In facing the deaths of her mother, her working-class friend Bessy, her father, and finally her guardian, Margaret learns what her mother could not learn--the need to adapt to constantly changing environments and, therefore, the need to enter into a dynamic tension between prayer and action. In a thoughtful moment at the end of the novel, Margaret realizes "she had learnt that not only to will, but also to pray, was a necessary condition in the truly heroic" (p. 412). Gaskell argues that women bring particular strength and stability to a society under stress at mid-century because their contribution consists of the power to discern the proper course of action amid deep change and to act from the strength of that discernment, not by rigid adherence to inflexible, gendered cultural precepts.

This dynamic between action and reflection, as Gaskell articulates it first in her description of Mrs. Hale's funeral and Margaret's participation in it, also shares the terms but revises the conclusions of Edwin Chadwick's attempts to articulate relations of gender, class and power over the space of the grave. First, Margaret insists, over her father's objections, that she attend the funeral with him because his closest friend, Mr. Bell, could not come. To her father's objection that women do not generally go to funerals, Margaret responds: "`No: because they can't control themselves. Women of our class don't go, because they have no power over their emotions, and yet are ashamed of showing them. Poor women go, and don't care if they are seen overwhelmed with grief'" (pp. 266-67). This quotation suggests that emotionality is coded both as lower class and female. That is, self-control is valued especially by middle-class men and is a power attributed both by and to them in a greater degree than to working-class men or women of any class. Margaret marks her desire to embrace the value of self-control for herself, thus identifying herself with the middle classes and with masculine power. By contrast, Mr. Hale cannot control his emotions in this situation, thus femininizing himself, but not presumably calling his class location into question.

Gaskell is careful to portray the positive effects of a middle-class woman's entry into the public territory of Mrs. Hale's burial site. Also attending the funeral is Nicholas Higgins, the working-class man whose daughter Margaret has befriended:
   Margaret's fortitude nearly gave way as Dixon, with a slight motion of her
   hand, directed her notice to Nicholas Higgins and his daughter, standing a
   little aloof, but deeply attentive to the ceremonial. Nicholas wore his
   usual fustian clothes, but had a bit of black stuff sewn round his hat--a
   mark of mourning which he had never shown to his daughter Bessy's memory.
   (P. 269)

Higgins's "mark of mourning," which is a decidedly middle-class practice at this point in nineteenth-century England, differentiates him from the working class and suggests his adoption of middle-class values and sensibility. The gesture indicates Margaret's capacity to influence members of the working class as she leaves her home to seek contact with them.

Gaskell fashions a middle-class woman able eventually to influence the local economy through her marriage to the industrialist Thornton, but only after she has developed her courage through exposure to the dying. Margaret's experience of caring for the dying Bessy and her dying mother prepares her to intervene in the strike at Thornton's mill, Marlborough. Margaret shuttles between her aristocratic mother and Bessy, who represents a deferential order in which the working classes pay tribute to the upper classes in return for personal care and benevolence. But Margaret becomes increasingly aware of a new industrial order represented by the strike. Neither her mother's retreat to an older aristocratic past nor Bessy's deference can meet the demands of the present industrial crisis. The unbending attitudes of masters like Thornton are equally ineffective. Instead, Gaskell argues, a woman like Margaret must intervene in the cycle of violence between masters and men because she sees what Thornton cannot see and her mother and Bessy do not have the will to change: the face of Boucher "with starving children at home ... and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irish men were to be brought into rob [his] little ones of bread" (p. 177).

In the novel's juxtaposition of Margaret with Bessy, Gaskell unsettles, through the depiction of feminine influence and action, conventional redemptive paradigms available to the poor, namely apocalyptic solutions to specifically temporal problems. Margaret's zeal for reform provides a striking contrast to Bessy, who has no strength or spirit for life because she cannot adjust to the demands of the work situation. She tells Margaret she "`began to work in a carding-room soon after, and the fluff got into [her] lungs and poisoned [her]'" (p. 102). Certainly I think Gaskell means to portray Bessy's hardship in an effort to disclose what measures are necessary to improve working conditions, in much the same way she did in Mary Barton. But here she is also interested in the way that Bessy's piety--her emotional anticipation of relief in the afterlife--may keep her from struggling against these hardships. Bessy dies not only because she cannot manage the work physically, but because she cannot understand the problems in the industrial economy or find their solutions in human terms. Similarly, in Mary Barton, even though John understood the dynamic of market capitalism and its oppressive effect on laborers, he could only see violence as the solution to the problem. Not surprisingly, then, he too died while Mr. Carson lived to improve employment conditions for workers. In both instances, Gaskell seeks to apply the spiritual benefits of contact with the dead, which the working class had traditionally reaped, to the preoccupying problems of the middle-class temporal and material world of industrial England.

North and South offers Margaret and Higgins as models who together form the solution for a new industrial order. They also reject Bessy's tendency to rely upon religion to provide consolation in another world for the social problems of this one. From their perspective, this kind of continuity between life and death is excessive and ineffective. Bessy's desire, which is characterized as weariness, is to move to some place Edenic: "the land of Beulah"; the country with trees; the south of England where there are no strikes. Bessy longs to die, especially at times when her father speaks of the need to strike: "`What he says at times make me long to die more than ever, for I want to know so many things, and am so tossed about wi' wonder'" (p. 91). Nicholas resists Bessy's apocalyptic solutions by arguing that the answers to industrial problems are to be found in this world, not the next. "`Hoo's so full of th' life to come, hoo cannot think of th' present'" (p. 132). Further, Higgins claims northerners-except Bessy, who longs to retreat to the south to avoid the strike and have peace and quiet at any price-have "too much blood" to stand the injustice imposed by the masters. To Margaret's assertion that southerners have too much sense to strike, Higgins claims "`they've too little spirit'" (p. 133).

Margaret, on the other hand, responds to Bessy from a religious model that emphasizes society's improvement through practical human solutions. To Bessy's allusions to the Book of Revelation, Margaret replies: "`Don't dwell so much on the prophecies, but read the clearer parts of the Bible'" (p. 137). Rejecting Bessy's philosophy of death as an escape, for she "shrank from death herself, with all the clinging to life so natural to the young and healthy" (p. 89), Margaret presses her to dwell on aspects of life on this earth: "`Don't let us talk of what fancies come into your head when you are feverish. I would rather hear something about what you used to do when you were well'" (p. 102). For Margaret and Higgins, social evil, since humanly created, must be open to human remedy through practical measures and the power of the Gospel to modify behavior--which means that social evil must first of all be seen and assessed by a middle-class woman.

Gaskell takes up the representation of death, where the rituals surrounding it were being plotted and codified according to gender, to suggest that contact with it strengthens a woman's resolve to spur social reform. The effect of Margaret's experience with Bessy is a positive one, one I claim impels her to intervene in the strike. She feels her intensified interest in the crowded narrow streets "by the simple fact of her having learnt to care for a dweller in them" (p. 99), and she feels stronger for having visited Bessy, for having heard how much Bessy has had to bear through the years. After Bessy dies, her corpse provides Margaret with yet another opportunity to develop her courage: Mary Higgins, Bessy's sister, asks Margaret if she would like to view Bessy, a gesture of respect for the departed that the Hale servant Dixon must interpret for Margaret. Initially, Margaret rejects the idea but immediately changes her mind. "`No ... I will go'... and for fear of her own cowardice, she went away, in order to take from herself any chance of changing her determination" (p. 217). Margaret's initial fear of the corpse indicates the middle-class preference for avoiding contact with the dead body and curtailing social interactions in its presence. Her decision to offer this mark of respect affirms her other actions that will further the social union and rejuvenation Gaskell envisions for England. As Margaret's courage to act in the social sphere increases, so do other people's willingness to relinquish their power to her. In anticipation of Nicholas's adoption of a middle-class practice at Mrs. Hale's funeral, he acquiesces to Margaret's power over him when she suggests that he come to her house to visit with Mr. Hale and to keep him from drinking. "Margaret felt that he acknowledged her power" (p. 220). Bessy, too, acknowledges Margaret's power over her. As Dixon reports to Margaret about Bessy, "`It seems, the young woman who died had a fancy for being buried in something of yours'" (p. 216).

Gaskell attempts to found social power in women--or justify it--on the personal ties they establish through their treatment of others, a duty which emerges directly from the New Testament, as Bessy's allusion to the crucifixion of Christ reveals. By asking for a bit of Margaret's clothing, Bessy reveals how much Margaret has earned her authority over Bessy, even to her grave. Despite Bessy's belief that "`[s]ome's pre-elected to sumptuous feasts, and purple and fine linen, ... [o]thers toil and moil all their lives long'" (p. 150), she protested to Margaret that "`if yo' ask me to cool yo'r tongue wi' th' tip of my finger, I'll come across the great gulf to yo' just for th' thought o' what you've been to me here.'" Bessy perceives Margaret as a savior and compels her to reach across the class divide. But Gaskell alludes to this defining moment in the New Testament to suggest that a middle-class woman's experience with the dying poor, based as it is on personal relationship, not only earns their loyalty, but creates in such women the responsibility to act for reform.

Deeply ambivalent about violent trade union activity and working-class dismissal of the self-help philosophy, Gaskell concludes that female authority is critical to resuscitating the self-help philosophy in the working-class home. The Boucher suicide episode, which occurs after the strike scene, serves to endorse Gaskell's belief in the necessary exercise of female authority. John Boucher commits suicide by lying face down in a shallow, dye-filled stream after being unable to find work because of his violent participation in union activity. The chapter in which we read of the body's discovery is entitled "Union Not Always Strength" to suggest Gaskell's anxiety about groups of male laborers engaged in trade union activity as opposed to her support of local community. Higgins had just complained to Margaret and her father that "`we had public opinion on our side, till he and his sort began rioting and breaking laws'" (p. 293). By pointing out that Boucher's violent behavior stemmed from being forced into the union by Higgins, "`driving him into the Union against his will--without his heart going with it. You've made him what he is!'" (p. 294), Margaret questions the coercive nature of union activity. By contrast, Gaskell suggests, individual middle-class influence breeds more responsible communal activity. Margaret's regular visits to the Higgins's home, where her influence has been appreciated by Nicholas, Bessy, and Mary, foster Higgins's sense of responsibility to the Boucher family, whose dire circumstances motivate him to seek work. "`I set him off o' th' road, and so I mun answer for him'" (p. 305). Eventually, the evidence that he believes in self-help persuades Margaret to use her influence to bring together Thornton and Higgins.

But Margaret seems significantly unsuccessful with Mrs. Boucher, not only because of the nature of Boucher's union activity, but because of Margaret's necessary rejection of those who do not subscribe to the self-help philosophy--particularly as it applies in the working-class home--and the sense of reciprocity that her understanding of personal obligation demands. Margaret describes the Boucher household in middle-class stereotypic terms about the poor: the children are "ill-ordered" and the house "looked as if [it] had been untouched for days by any effort at cleanliness" (p. 295). Even though Margaret had some experience with the dead and dying among the working class, here she seems particularly eager to escape from the house. When a neighbor woman arrives to help with the arrangements for the funeral, Margaret feels great relief, thinking "that it would be better, perhaps, to set an example of clearing the house, which was filled with idle, if sympathising gazers" (p. 297; my emphasis). Finally, Mrs. Boucher's reaction to her husband's suicide proves unacceptable to Margaret and Mr. Hale: "Still it was unsatisfactory to see how completely her thoughts were turned upon herself and her own position, and this selfishness extended even to her relations with her children, whom she considered as incumbrances, even in the very midst of her somewhat animal affection for them" (p. 300). Denied the luxury of considering her own desperate state as a result of her husband's shameful death, Mrs. Boucher resembles an animal barely deserving Margaret's attention. Even as Mr. Hale tries to rouse Mrs. Boucher into some sympathy for her husband and what he might have felt at the moment of his death, Mrs. Boucher looked upon all--the masters, the union, the children--as one great army of personal enemies "whose fault it was that she was now a helpless widow" (p. 301). Margaret, for her part, "had heard enough of this unreasonableness."

In contrast to Gaskell's description of the Davenports in Mary Barton, where a visit to their home in times of death prompts John Barton and Mr. Wilson to act for the sake of the working-class community, a visit to the Bouchers only reinforces the notion that those poor people who refuse influence from the middle class are bitterly resented by them. Nonetheless, the scene must have been reassuring to middle-class readers because Margaret gains the perspective proper to her station and gendered position in life. Gaskell places Margaret in the home of very poor and marginal people to show just how in need they are of local middle-class influence and just how hopeless they have become by rejecting it. But, as we will see in the next section, Gaskell also insists that Margaret's process of individuation depends upon her ability to cross conventional domestic boundaries in order to solve class conflict through direct participation in the industrial world.


When, in the strike scene, Margaret positions herself between the laborers and Thornton, Gaskell suggests that a woman's sympathy for others marks her development and compels her to redefine herself bodily, rejecting the conventional Victorian placement of women only in the home. Gaskell restructures women's identity by depicting Margaret's "intense sympathy" (p. 175) for the workers and her use of bodily power to enter the public arena and contribute to new definitions of class relations. When she first arrives at Thornton's home, she is instructed to remain indoors and shut down the windows. She cannot remain inside for long, as her mother and Bessy must, but begins to move outdoors. The first indication of this movement occurs when she "threw the window wide open," "tore off her bonnet and bent forward to hear" the exchange between Thornton and the workers below (pp. 177, 178). Her initial excursion into the public arena is to draw attention to the difference she sees in others. She pleads with Thornton to treat the strikers like human beings, not the "demoniac mob" that yells "fiendlike noises," as Thornton characterizes them (pp. 176, 177). Finally, she rushed downstairs, "lifted the great iron bar with an imperious force--had thrown the door open wide--and was there, in the face of that angry sea of men ... [standing] between them and their enemy" (p. 178).

The struggle for position in mediating class relations manifests itself here in a very physical way: "Mr. Thornton stood a little on one side; he had moved away from behind her, as if jealous of anything that should come between him and danger" (p. 178). Margaret speaks first, although she must hold her arms out until she recovers her breath. She argues against the use of violence but fails to pacify the workers. With Thornton's refusal to back down on the use of Irish scabs, the "storm broke" and Margaret, sensing an attack on Thornton, "threw her arms around him and she made her body a shield from the fierce people beyond" (p. 179). Thornton insists this arena is no place for a woman, but Margaret claims otherwise. Her move outdoors and her position between the strikers and Thornton suggest that she believes herself to be empowered to influence shifting labor relations, a position that has been anticipated by Margaret's growing consciousness of the world of Milton. The scene further suggests that Margaret associates power with her body, an intriguing move because she has just been shuttling between her dying mother and the consumptive Bessy. Both Mrs. Hale and Bessy have not only taught Margaret to become aware of her external surroundings, but they have taught her, by default, that the body instantiates the lineaments of power and gender.

Barbara Leah Harman argues that Margaret "overestimates her power as maiden to deflect assault," for as the narrator remarks, "if she thought her sex would be a protection ... she was wrong."(19) In one respect, Gaskell's description of Margaret, once pummeled with a stone, as "one dead," "cold," "look[ing] like a corpse," underscores Harman's point that Margaret overestimated her power and failed (pp. 179, 181, 183). To rehearse Harman's argument for a moment, even as Margaret enters the outdoor world, her capacity to act in the public sphere as a woman is limited, which would explain her figurative death. She fails to break up the riot with the rhetoric of political economy, but she succeeds by becoming a woman assaulted. Even though she had done woman's work, recognizing Thornton's unfairness and the mob's potential to do violence to him, she fails ultimately because she falls into the Victorian gendered position which figures women as victims, nearly lifeless and passive. Along these lines, then, the strike scene suggests that a woman's appearance in the public sphere is complicated by the notion that these scenes cannot be represented without becoming even more complicated by sexuality. By figuring Margaret as dead and a passive object of Thornton's affection in a context in which she has been removed from competition with him, Gaskell circumscribes Margaret's power to influence economy. She cannot achieve success by direct intervention but must wait for the more conventional avenue of marriage.

But another turn of the kaleidoscope brings into view a startling emphasis on the thanatological and the possibility that Margaret's "failure" to influence the economy may be considered more successful than Harman admits. Since the scene devolves into Margaret's symbolic death, Gaskell contests in explicit terms a key principle of political economy instantiated by representations of death: the division of the world into public and private spheres. Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Hale, Bessy, and John Boucher, Margaret is only figured as dead so that she can associate herself with working-class interests without losing her position in the social formation. This move allows her to sympathize with the workers, escape the confines of the purely domestic, and cross its boundaries to effect social change. Margaret's deathlike disposition provokes Thornton's spontaneous expression of love for her and anticipates not only the conventional marriage, but a renewed industrial economy as well. Now, according to Gaskell, women's "work" means using one's own body as a means to enter the public and political arena. As Margaret remarks to Thornton, hers was not "a personal act between you and me," but an act natural to her womanly instinct: "`It was only a natural instinct; any woman would have done just the same. We all feel the sanctity of our sex as a high privilege when we see danger'" (pp. 195, 194). Because Margaret rejects the act as personal, she makes it a political one of class and gender action.

Gaskell extends the reach of Margaret's political action and deepens her personal authority when she has Margaret flatly deny to the policeman, an official regulator of working-class bodies, her presence at the railway station the night of Leonard's death. He has threatened to reveal her brother's presence in England to the authorities who have unjustly condemned him for supporting his men in a mutiny against a tyrannical captain. Gaskell figures the consequences of Margaret's actions as deathly, just as she did in the strike scene. When the policeman left the house, "she went into the study, paused--tottered forward--paused again--swayed for an instant where she stood, and fell prone on the floor in a dead swoon" (p. 275; my emphasis). She lay still, "white as death," and when she awoke she could not remember the details "which had thrown her into such deadly fright" (pp. 276, 277). In fact, Dixon observes that she is "`more dead than alive'" (p. 281). At first glance it would appear again that the consequences of stepping outside the defined limits of influence--the domestic sphere for the mid-Victorian woman--leads to an experience of death and degradation. Indeed, Margaret's faith in conventional rules for the exercise of authority has given way (p. 276).

But Gaskell's strategy here resembles her work in the strike scene. Borrowing from thanatological discourse, Gaskell again associates Margaret with death and recalcitrance, which connects her to those corpses provoking the mid-Victorian power struggle between the middle and working classes. And indeed, her lie "to save the son" (p. 284) leaves her dependent upon Thornton and ultimately opens the way for their psychological and economic reconciliation to take place, a reconciliation that has practical benefits for the working class. Further, it is no accident that as Margaret recovers from her grief over the loss of her innocence in the strike scene, her father's health worsens: "And almost in proportion to her re-establishment in health, was her father's relapse into his abstracted musing upon the wife he had lost, and the past era in his life that was closed to him for ever" (p. 289). Margaret's lie and recovery from the shock of it strengthen her capacity to claim her own authority. Gaskell's description of her as if dead reinforces the idea that Gaskell understood the debate raging at mid-century but with a singular twist that serves, in part, to undermine Chadwick: real working-class corpses were pivots for social and economic debate; but figurative, middle-class corpses became links to working-class interests without sacrificing the power invested in them as members of the middle class.

Gaskell's depiction of Margaret's metaphoric death is significant because it has class implications. When Gaskell envisions workers gathering at Thornton's mill and the Irish scabs cowering in a small room at the head of a back flight of stairs, she imagines them as material, embodied creatures and "amenable to aggregation," as individuals personally known to her, yet nonetheless as a group of particular persons rather than the inchoate mass or mob.(20) At the same time, however, Gaskell conceptualizes Margaret Hale as an active participant in the process of redefining social relations. In the strike, improved social relations depend upon her sympathy and oneness with the working class and, paradoxically, their being clearly different from her. For working-class conditions to improve along with the industrial health of the nation, workers have to be treated differently by being known at work and at home by middle-class persons who will actively gather that knowledge. Margaret's figurative's death satisfies this necessary paradox because Gaskell depicts Margaret momentarily as a body like those of the working-class crowd for whom she has just pleaded to Thornton. Still, her figurative death at their hands clearly distinguishes her from the crowd, eventually reinforcing her growing sense of her social responsibilities as a middle-class individual, not as part of the working-class crowd.

Gaskell draws on the discourse of death to construct a version of individuation that seems both to affirm and subvert gender and class positions. Even as she depicts Margaret's transgressions of gender and class lines to enter Milton's industrial complex, Gaskell seems unable to relinquish the concept that a woman must enact some obedience to authority. In one sense, Margaret seems to fulfill the messianic potential Bessy perceived in her: a woman crucified for her public infringements. She secures a woman's position of influence in the public arena by foregrounding individual human qualities in the industrial context, seemingly diminishing the importance of class and gender to effect social change. But Gaskell writes the novel to solve a problem framed by class and gender. Gaskell asks the most challenging question for middle-class women of her time: "[H]ow much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working" (p. 416).

The problem--how much to be merged with authority and how much to be set apart--Gaskell again wrestles with in thanatological terms in the last sections of the novel. When Margaret's father dies Gaskell describes her, not as a corpse as in previous moments when she confronts traditional authority and her own position in it, but as "an altar-tomb, and she the stone statue on it" (p. 354) because she is so devastated by the death of the father and the end of patriarchal influence. Her father's death throws Margaret into a struggle between her aunt Shaw's desire to restore her to the aristocratic Beresford family of her mother and her guardian Mr. Bell's desire to underwrite her in a life of private charity at Oxford. The death of Mr. Hale turns Margaret into an object; in the first instance, the text represents her as a monument, a tribute to history and the power of lineage so obviously suggested by the Beresford line. In the second instance, Mr. Bell claims that Margaret, with no personal authority (outside of his influence), should accept his help to avoid becoming an accouterment in the Shaw household and retreat to a different kind of private life.

However, Gaskell prepares us for Margaret's resistance to the passivity, objectification and "obedience to authority" of both choices in a way that emphasizes her particular association of death with the necessary power to resist confining Victorian ideologies. Before Margaret leaves Milton, she requests from the Higginses a memento of Bessy's, which Mary Higgins supplies by giving Bessy's drinking cup to Margaret. The cup, reminiscent of Christ's acceptance of his ultimate mission in the garden at Gethsemane, serves to remind Margaret of her own capacity to work, which means she must cross the divide separating the private domestic sphere from the public political one, and resist the temptation to "become sleepily deadened into forgetfulness of anything beyond the life which was lapping her round with luxury" (p. 373). Choosing the Beresford line, the ambition to sleep in luxury, means death in this novel, death to women and to the progress of society. To resist this choice Margaret must face change squarely in her former home, the village of Helstone, geographic symbol of England's former rural order. She observes in her promenades and conversations with Helstone residents that "here and there old trees had been felled"; decaying cottages had disappeared as had roots of trees where she talked with Mr. Lennox; the old man and inhabitant of the ruinous cottage had died; and even the language system had changed-the indefinite article had become the absolute adjective (pp. 387, 388, 394). While Margaret grieves over these changes "like old friends" (p. 388), she prepares herself to confess her lie to Mr. Bell. She stands poised between her former life, dying before her eyes, and her commitment to an unpredictable future. In this moment she feels "a sense of change, of individual nothingness, of perplexity and disappointment" (p. 400). The disillusionment, begun so intensely with her father's death, comes to fruition at Helstone. The emptiness she feels, while painful, allows room for the present time to live in her. Because of her shifts in perspective, Margaret recognizes the need for perpetual change: "`now this, now that--now disappointed and peevish because all is not exactly as [she] had pictured it, and now suddenly discovering that the reality is far more beautiful than [she] had imagined it'" (p. 401).

The death of Mr. Bell, the last of the six characters to die in the novel, brings Margaret to the moment of self-understanding: "Now that she was afresh taught by death what life should be ... she prayed that she might have strength to speak and act the truth for evermore" (p. 412), not as maid and Lady Bountiful living in Oxford, as Mr. Bell once suggested to Mr. Hale, but as a woman who struggles for her place of influence in England's economy. She resolves to take her life into her own hands, to answer for herself and to negotiate with Thornton her position somewhere between "obedience to authority" and "freedom in working."


Elizabeth Gaskell's careful attention to death and burial as it was and could be--the participation of a kinship network, the Unitarian framework to initiate collaboration, as well as the powerful effect death has on the development of a woman's identity--are used to imagine the positive and powerful experiences in middle- and working-class individuals. In calling attention to these realities, however, she makes her own middle-class desires to reform class relations that much more visible. Gaskell's middle-class appropriations of working-class practices and beliefs concerning death become effective links to working-class interests without the middle class relinquishing the power invested in them by virtue of their being members of the middle class.

Nonetheless, because of Gaskell's investment in discussions of political economy, class relations and death as a woman, author and resident of Manchester, she was not limited by a narrow bureaucratic perspective. Instead, she was able to relate the facts, which saturate a report like Chadwick's, to the experiences of differentiated individuals of both the working and middle classes. In doing so, she reverses the emphasis, so as to give value and dignity to the lives of the poor and to suggest that a powerful machine like England's economy may be successfully operated by the hands of concerned working-class and middle-class men and women.



(1) W. L. G. James, "The Portrayal of Death and `Substance of Life': Aspects of the Modern Reader's Response to `Victorianism,'" in Reading the Victorian Novel: Detail Into Form, ed. Ian Gregor (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1980), p. 227.

(2) Death was no stranger to Elizabeth Gaskell. Her brother, John Stevenson, mysteriously vanished at sea on a voyage to India in 1828; her mother died when she was eleven months old; she gave birth to a stillborn child in 1833; and her son, Willie, died of scarlet fever in 1845.

(3) Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (Oxford Univ. Press, 1973). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

(4) To answer mid-Victorian society's growing concern about overcrowded churchyards and cemeteries in urban areas, Edwin Chadwick wrote A Supplementary Report on the Results of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns (London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1843). The report consists of statistical tables, diagrams of mortuary houses, numerous eyewitness accounts and scientific theories concerning the dangers of miasma, and administrative recommendations for burial reform. Chadwick calls for the speedy removal of the corpse from the home, a ban on all intramural interments, both in churchyards and privately operated cemeteries, and the creation of national cemeteries managed by qualified personnel appointed by the state. For a more detailed analysis of Chadwick's report, see Mary Elizabeth Hotz, "Down Among the Dead: Edwin Chadwick's Burial Reform Discourse in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England," Victorian Literature and Culture, forthcoming.

(5) Elizabeth Gaskell's husband, William, was a Unitarian minister at the Cross Street Chapel in Manchester from 1828 until his death in 1884. According to Monica Fryckstedt, Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton and Ruth: A Challenge to Christian England (Stockholm: Uppsala, 1982), pp. 64-65, there were two wings of Unitarianism active at mid-century. The liberal wing, led by James Martineau and others, contended that the seat of authority lies in reason, a test even Scripture must submit to. The conservative wing, which included Elizabeth and William Gaskell and John Robberds at the Cross Street Chapel, Joseph Ashton at the Brook Street Chapel in Knutsford and William Turner, whom Elizabeth visited at Newcastle as a young woman, believed that authority is derived from Scripture rather than reason.

(6) Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993), p. 73.

(7) Michael Wheeler, "Elizabeth Gaskell and Unitarianism," Gaskell Society Journal 6 (1992): 32, 34.

(8) Raymond V. Holt, The Unitarian Contribution to Social Progress in England (London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1938), p. 277.

(9) Fryckstedt, p. 67.

(10) Uglow, p. 89. In fact, Ross D. Waller, ed., "Letters Addressed to Mrs. Gaskell by Celebrated Contemporaries Now in the Possession of the John Rylands Library," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 19 (1935): 165, shows that Edwin Chadwick corresponded with Elizabeth Gaskell on October 3, 1851. Chadwick offered to show the Swedish novelist, Fredricka Bremer, new model houses in London. Included with the letter was a copy of a recent report on the origin and spread of cholera.

(11) Donald Stone, The Romantic Impulse in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), p. 40.

(12) Valentine Cunningham, Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 132.

(13) Uglow, p. 75; Cunningham, pp.133-34.

(14) Herbert Marcuse, "The Ideology of Death," in The Meaning of Death, ed. Herman Feifel (New York: The McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1959), p. 74.

(15) I am indebted to Lenore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 32-34, 319, 419-4% for their discussions of what constituted the public and the private at mid-century.

(16) Ibid., p. 319.

(17) Ibid., pp. 408-09. To recall the Ogdens from Mary Barton, neither the widow nor the daughters attended Mr. Ogden's funeral or burial.

(18) Deanna L. Davis, "Feminist Critics and Literary Mothers: Daughters Reading Elizabeth Gaskell," Signs 17 (1992): 507-32, contends that "the complicated interrelatedness of motherhood and daughterhood have shaped the way feminist critics analyze both the mother/daughter relationship and Gaskell's presentation of feminine nurturance" (p. 509).

(19) See Barbara Leah Harman, "In Promiscuous Company: Female Public Appearance in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South," Victorian Studies 31 (1988): 367.

(20) Mary Poovey, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 32-37, delineates this paradox and its relation to abstract space in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. I find her analysis of Smith's work particularly helpful to my own analysis of Margaret's position in the strike scene and the paradox of her metaphorical death.

MARY ELIZABETH HOTZ, RSCJ, Assistant Professor of English at the University of San Diego, received her Ph.D. from The University of Chicago in 1997. She is currently working on a study of Victorian representations of death and burial.
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Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Critical Essay
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Date:Jun 22, 2000

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