North and South Summary
by Elizabeth Gaskell

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North and South Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Margaret Hale is living with her aunt Shaw and her cousin, Edith, in London. The Shaws move in upper-class society, as does Captain Lennox, Edith’s fiancé, and Henry Lennox, his brother, an attorney. After Edith’s wedding, Margaret returns to her parents’ sheltered home, the vicarage of Helstone, a small village in the south of England. She is surprised by two events: the visit of Henry Lennox to propose marriage and the resignation of her father from the Church of England because of theological doubts. She refuses Lennox, however good his prospects, because she hardly knows him. The resignation means the family will have to move. Mr. Hale was offered a tutoring job in Milton Northern by Mr. Bell, his former Oxford professor, who owns property there. They have never lived in the north of England, let alone in an industrial city. Mr. Hale asks Margaret to break the news to her mother, who is distraught.

With the family servant, Dixon, they move to a rented house and meet John Thornton, a factory owner and leaseholder of Mr. Bell. Thornton is to be one of Margaret’s father’s students. She is offended by his brusque manner and cannot understand why a self-made industrialist should want to study classical languages. Margaret manages to adapt to a city life very different from that of London, as does Dixon. Her mother, however, withdraws into herself, finally suffering a breakdown. Margaret gets to know Bessie Higgins, a factory worker, and through her Nicholas Higgins, her father. She visits their home and tries to support Bessie, ill with an industrial disease of the lungs. Bessie is fearful her father either will become an alcoholic or get overinvolved in trade union agitation. Margaret introduces Nicholas to her father and the two men discuss both industrial and religious matters, coming to like each other.

Margaret is also introduced to the Thornton household, an austere family ruled over by Mrs. Thornton. Her weak daughter, Fanny, stands in great contrast to John, whose tough-minded dealings with his workers bring him into conflict with Margaret. Mr. Hale, as an outsider, could see both sides in the impending industrial dispute. When this dispute breaks out, Margaret finds herself physically between the two parties, protecting John Thornton when strikers threaten him. John feels she compromised her honor in doing this and so believes he ought to propose marriage. Margaret angrily rejects him; the feelings of both to each other are very ambivalent at this stage, ranging from admiration to bitterness. Mrs. Thornton is angry over Margaret’s rejection.

Both Bessie and Maria Hale die soon after. Margaret is persuaded to send for her brother, Frederick, who had previously fled to Spain after a naval mutiny. He manages to return secretly just before his mother dies, but in escaping Milton Northern, he is spotted with Margaret by a railway worker. A scuffle ensues in which the worker is accidentally killed. John Thornton, as local magistrate, investigates the death. When asking Margaret for evidence, he is met with less than the truth. He believes Margaret has a lover and yet finds it difficult to credit her...

(The entire section is 797 words.)