Themes and Characters
Shadow in the North has a large cast of characters, some of whom play briefly prominent roles and then fade into the background. Theater stagehands, street urchins, and titled members of British society intermingle freely with the main characters, each adding some color to the story and filling in another piece of the puzzle. The main players in the story remain the focal point, however.
Most prominent in Shadow in the North is Sally Lockhart, a forthright young woman with a background in "firearms and finance," but not possessing the skills to "make small talk, dance gracefully, [and] flirt with a stranger at dinner while unerringly picking up the right knife and fork." Sally insists on being in the center of the action, but she would rather not rush into a situation blindly. Before confronting Axel Bellmann, she researches his firm and puts together her own conclusions from the information gathered. In many ways, Sally is a modern character, possessing a keen sense of right and wrong that does not fit with her society's views but strong enough to defend her beliefs and fight for them when necessary.
Frederick Garland alternately loves Sally and feels infuriated by her. Honest, moral, and resourceful, Fred is always ready to take on a challenge. While investigating Nellie Budd, he enters into an assumed role as a professor studying spiritualistic phenomena, but he just as easily becomes her friend and then her avenger when Bellmann's hired thugs attack her. While averse to violence—he tells Mackinnon at one point that he will investigate Bellmann, but won't be "body-guarding you . . . I've had my fill of brawling"—he will fight when necessary. Overall, Fred is a good and decent man, courageous and self-sacrificing to the end.
Perhaps the most interesting and realistic of the main characters is Jim Taylor, Sally and Fred's best friend. Coming from London's working classes, he can get access to some places and information that the others cannot. His network of acquaintances includes barmaids, stagehands, jockeys, pick pockets, and a myriad of others. Through this network, he locates Alistair Mackinnon in a seedy section of London and, in a humorous scene, verbally spars with the landlady's young daughter for the information he needs. Clever, intelligent, friendly, and protective, Jim is completely faithful to his friends. When he learns of Fred's death, he cries unabashedly, "Men didn't cry in the fiction Jim read and wrote, but they did in real life . . . Jim's father had cried when consumption had carried off his wife . . . when Jim was ten . . . There was no shame in it. There was honesty." Then knowing Sally will be hurting more, he seeks her out, despite his own emotional and physical pain.
Lady Mary Wytham and Isabel Meredith are two versions of the same person. Both love Mackinnon, protecting and hiding him from Bellmann, and both are connected with beauty in some way. Pullman describes Lady Mary as "a wild bird or young animal . . . all delicacy and shy fire" in her etherealness, while Isabel creates delicately beautiful garments with her needle. Neither enjoys "doing things," as Lady Mary tells Jim while they walk in the park. Isabel refuses to save herself or Fred from the house fire, preferring to let him die with her than to take any action with her own life. Lady Mary chooses a similar course of action in regards to her family. Although she knows that publicly acknowledging her marriage to Mackinnon would save him and her family from Bellmann's control, she finds it easier to agree to marry Bellmann and accept the consequences of her inaction.
In many ways, Alistair Mackinnon and Axel Bellmann are the two most complex characters. Each has an abhorrent aspect to his personality; Mackinnon is a womanizing coward with little respect for honesty, and Bellmann commits ruthless acts of murder for what he believes is the greater good. Both also appear to be two separate people. On stage Mackinnon mesmerizes people with his powerful personality and control, but Jim finds him weak and indecisive, preferring to let others fight his battles. Bellmann, on the other hand, is a powerful man, but his callousness towards people who stand in his way contrasts sharply with his compassion for those who suffer—both Sally in her grief for Fred and the multitudes of people around the world who live in poverty. In the end, however, Mackinnon redeems himself by giving himself to the others while Bellmann, who can only think of himself, must be destroyed.
The main theme of the novel is that in the struggle of good against evil, good does not always win an absolute victory. While Sally does defeat Bellmann and rids the world of his death-machine, it costs her happiness and love. Sally is seen as being much stronger than Bellmann in her suffering. For Bellmann, most things seem to fall into place with very little prodding—he manages to escape the controversy surrounding his match factory with little damage to his reputation as a businessman, he effortlessly ruins his shipping company, and he cows Lord Wytham in agreeing to all his demands. Sally must struggle for everything she has, her reputation, her work, and her place in society. Pullman makes the point that the hard-working moral aspects of society will defeat the evil ones not without sacrifice. In this case, Fred is the sacrifice, for his death prompts Sally to act as a decoy to lull Bellmann into a false sense of winning before she repudiates him. Pullman also shows the resultant good that comes from these actions, that part of Fred will live on in his child.