This book is on the 19th Century Novel reading list this term and when reading it, I had mixed feelings about it. It discusses several relevant topics of the Nineteenth Century such as the role of women, industrialisation and the role of the class system. Although Gaskell considers and juxtaposes the reinterpreted role of women with the old societal one, I do not think that Gaskell has quite managed to achieve a complete suggestion of social reform and within this post I will attempt to explain why.
The novel starts quite slowly and talks of Mr Hale’s place in religion and his changing feelings towards it. Due to these, he decides to move the family to Milton, an industrial town, and they start a new life there. It is this move that allows Gaskell to begin instrumenting her ideas of this new role in society for women through the protagonist of Margaret Hale. She sets this character up for great things compared to some of the other female characters in this book and it is Margaret’s removal of her social status that begins the reinterpretation of how women could be viewed in society. By helping and befriending Nicholas and Bessie Higgins, Margaret is able to redefine her qualities, something that a character like Mrs Shaw is shown as being not able to do. It is fair to suggest that Margaret adopts several qualities that would be viewed as ‘masculine’ in this novel and maybe it is because she is forced to do so by the events that unfold. With the death of her mother and the position that her brother is in, Margaret has to protect her family, plan her Mother’s funeral and look after her Dad. By rejecting two marriage proposals and inheriting wealth, property and land the reader is able to begin to view Margaret differently to the rest of the female characters.
However, at the end of the book it appears that although Margaret sort of marries for love as the new role of women would do, she kind of reverts back to how women are seen as she gives in to the pressure of society because she does marry the man whose proposal that she rejects. Most people would argue that she does marry for love entirely and so Gaskell’s closing statement reinforces her idea of this new, reinterpreted view of women but to me it seems as if here, the book takes a backward step. For those of you who prefer the happy ending like my friend on my English course, then you probably view the ending rather differently than how I do. For me, if she had chosen to leave Margaret as Thornton’s landlady then Margaret would appear to have greater control over him and more authority herself, presenting this new woman as powerful, strong and equal. By allowing Margaret and Thornton to confess their love for each other, it seems that Gaskell is letting Margaret give away all that she has been building through the novel and it is this that frustrates me with the ending of this novel. Rather than reforming the whole function of how women are viewed, Gaskell just takes a small step in creating a new way of visioning women in society.
This book has the potential for great change however it would seem to halt its own progress. Therefore this book scores an average 6/10 as aspects of the book, particularly the relations between the classes are very well constructed and the style of some elements of the writing is also particularly pleasing for the reader. If you are interested in the developing industry and the role of women in the 19th Century then it is worth a read so enjoy!