Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell were good pals, and it shows. They’re mutually sympathetic toward the poor and oppressed, and their novels never linger on hints or suggestion to put forward a particular view. They’ve both invented towns and counties filled with people from their real-life counterparts, often raging with discontent, and with a marked poverty gap. Dickens’, which is best seen in Hard Times, is the blunt, no-nonsense Coketown, and Gaskell’s is Milton, in the county of Darkshire, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, bodes very ill, and is hilarious.
Margaret Hale is 19 and spends her days doing what any other middle-class 19-year-old does in around 1867: refusing suitors, comparing shawls and sketching lovely pretty things in the garden. Growing up jointly in the safe havens of Hampshire and Harley Street, Margaret is forthright in her desire to keep things just as they are: her own position and that of those around her are important. When her dad tells her he’s going to resign from the clergy, he scuttles off, leaving her to inform her mother. Not only will the social standing of the family change, but Mr Hale is adamant they need to relocate entirely, to hide the shame and make a fresh start.
Milton, like Coketown, is a place of industry. Its people are cotton merchants and workers; its “choking white wreaths of unwholesome mist” threat to engulf it at any moment. “Everything looks more purpose-like up north,” Margaret observes: its houses are functional, its people forthright. Whereas in the south “rich husbands are reckoned prizes”, in Milton Margaret will find no such familiarity, and experiences mild sexual harassment in the streets (of the “cheer up, love” variety mainly). She does a lot of sighing, and tries to keep her prophet-of-doom mother from knowing how miserable they’ve become, surrounded by poor people and with not a single bird to sketch.
This transition period smacks of that universal human truth: that we can think we know the world inside out, particularly at 19, but all we really know is our own world. And thinking yourself to be one thing, and then finding – not through choice but circumstance – that you are now expected to be quite another, is complicated and difficult. The interlude where Margaret’s hellbent on shutting herself out from the town she has to call home reminded me of an ex-boyfriend’s mum, who almost fainted clean away when I told her my dad was off to flog some stuff at a car-boot sale the next day. “A car boot sale!” said she. “But it’ll be full of useless tat no one really needs… and, you know, poor people.” Funnily enough, I was 19 then too, and comments like these had a big effect on me. Being so clueless – wilfully clueless – seemed bizarre. I made it a personal quest to deliberately mispronounce things like foie gras, Wagner (pronounce the W, it drives posh people mad), anything I could not-so-casually slip into conversation. “He is my first olive,” says Margaret of the esteemed John Thornton, a wealthy merchant in the town, “let me make a face while I swallow it.” Which seems fair enough statement on the nature of gradual acceptance, really.
In Milton, the men who work the great whirring machines are “hands”, they exist as a body, ever-producing, ever expendable. What Margaret is lucky enough to witness first hand is the struggles between masters and men to “become more evenly balanced,” that is, the strikes. “On the very face of it, I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own; I never lived in a place before where there were two sets of people always running each other down”. What troubles Margaret most is the conflict, because she isn’t used to it, but of course the only reason it’s there is because life is presented as more tonal in the north. There are more people creating necessary machines, more minds thinking, more hands working: there is simply more to fight for. The southern attitude is presented as one of blissful ignorance (the old ‘why can’t they all just get along?’) – no doubt voiced from people totally unaware of the implications of working a 15-hour day for less than minimum pay. “One has need to learn a different language and measure by a different standard, up here in Milton.”
Over time, Margaret comes not just to understand the struggles of the people she encounters but to sympathise with them. Spending time with the Higgins family, whose daughter Margaret befriends, is one of her most significant turning points. The energy and gumption of the strikes, and the demand for better working and living standards, has John’s mother tell Margaret: “south country people are often frightened by what our Darkshire men and women only call living and struggling”, and her son adds “I would rather be a man toiling, suffering – nay, failing and successless – here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease. One may be clogged with honey, and unable to rise and fly.” This is a powerful, angry novel with as much, if not more, resonance today as in 1854.
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