But Elizabeth Gaskell, a Victorian novelist, saw a different war waging in England between the aristocratic “old money” of the south and the working class “new money” of the north. In her novel North and South, Gaskell seeks to find a way to bring together old and new; rich and poor. Gaskell has an optimistic hope for mankind: a hope that we can just “get along.”
To portray this idealistic vision of England, Gaskell follows the life of young Margaret Hale. Like many heroines of the Victorian novel, Margaret cares for the poor, has hope for social reform, and is guided by moral principles. Unfortunately, Margaret’s perfectionism leads her into a kind of snobbery, and threatens the fulfillment of true intimacy. When she and her family relocate from the comfortable south to the industrial north, Margaret must readjust her thinking about what it means to be a proper human being.
England was in the throes of the industrial revolution when Gaskell wrote North and South. The French and American revolutions were still on the minds of all; the need to reconcile the classes was a theme present in much literature of all cultures. The fight for the abolition of slavery was waging. Philosophy and religion were pushing boundaries. Culture was shifting.
Margaret found a way to reconcile two very different worldviews. She found this reconciliation through the development of relationships. She learned to look into the heart and minds of individuals rather than institutions.
We need to learn something about reconciliation from Margaret. As I write this, I’m listening to my children play “nerf-gun war” with new Christmas toys in the next room. Bullets are flying. There is laughing. There are shrieks of frustration and shrieks of joy. They’re waging a pretty good war, because like all human beings, they love to fight. I’m the mom, so it’s no surprise that I’m the one who insisted upon goggles for the fray, and I step in when things get out of control. But who steps in for us when institutions wage war? It’s up to us as individuals to build relationships.
In North and South, Margaret does something completely uncharacteristic of a Victorian lady. She steps in between John Thornton and an angry mob. She shields him, and is bloodied and bruised as a result. But her bloodshed is an essential part of restoration.
I think that reconciliation often involves a fight. Sometimes we’d rather remain comfortably distant, shooting our nerf-gun arrows at one another. They usually don’t hurt, but we can’t be reconciled to each other as long as we’re shooting. The right thing to do is to shield each other from the melee.
Margaret didn’t shield John Thornton because he was her lover. In fact, they were rather at odds. That’s what makes her sacrifice that much more heroic. It’s easy to fight for those we love. It’s harder to fight for those whose opinions, philosophies, or religious beliefs differ from ours.
I find Margaret’s example rather inspiring. I have my own set of prejudices. I think if we’re all honest, we’ll find that we all struggle with some preconceived notions about others. It’s not enough, however, to know in our heart that our desire to disdain is wrong. I think we need to actually step into the battle and take a shot for the enemy.
It’s the right thing to do.
North and South: you deserve a place in my musty study.