Melanie's Musings
February 22, 2012

The Two Women in Mr. Thornton’s Heart

Maria Grazia is the blogger behind Fly High! and a teacher. I’m very excited to have her guest post, as she actually uses North and South as part of her curriculum.  With an academic view of things, here is Maria Grazia:

When Margaret Hale finally decides to marry John Thornton, she must have thought about the risks she was running competing with his proud mother, Mrs Hannah Thornton, in his heart.

Re-reading the book or watching the TV series adaptation, I can never avoid figuring out the dreaded event, pushing myself a step ahead the words “the end .”   By dreaded event, I mean the meeting between Margaret Hale and Hannah Thornton as John’s wife-to-be and mother-in-law to be. Not an enthusiastic one, I guess, with poor embarassed John between them hoping they could get on well together somehow for his sake.

Mrs Gaskell herself decided to close her narration with Margaret joking about Mrs Thornton’s reaction to the news of her engagement with John:

“Hush!”, said Margaret, “or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”

A bit of anxiety, but no fear, it seems, in those words. Margaret has never been afraid of Mrs Thornton. They are both stubborn , proud, passionate, strong-willed, brave women. Will they ever get on?

Mrs. Thornton is described by Gaskell as “strong and massive…[a] firm, severe, dignified woman” (p. 77). Before she has even met Margaret, Mrs. Thornton dislikes her. She is extremely protective of her son and is deeply offended that “a renegade clergyman’s daughter” dared to treat her son “with a haughty civility which had a strong flavour of contempt in it” (p. 78).

After meeting Margaret, Mrs. Thornton still does not like her, but does appreciate Margaret’s occasional frankness and vitality. Of course, Mrs. Thornton represents old-fashioned values and is challenged by Margaret who is the embodiment of the new and independent woman but part of the reason why Mrs. Thornton dislikes Margaret is that they have similar characters.

The parallelism between the two women is brought about by the author herself when she introduces a flashback of Mrs Thornton’s past experience: a violent attack to a mill, in which she found herself involved in the defence of the mill owner against the rage of his workers. This episode in chapter XV, Masters and Men, anticipates what will happen to Margaret at Marlborough Mill.

‘A strike!’ asked Margaret. ‘What for? What are they going to strike for?’

‘For the mastership and ownership of other people’s property,’ said Mrs. Thornton, with a fierce snort. ‘That is what they always strike for. If my son’s work-people strike, I will only say they are a pack of ungrateful hounds. But I have no doubt they will.’
(…)

‘Does it not make the town very rough?’ asked Margaret.

‘Of course it does. But surely you are not a coward, are you? Milton is not the place for cowards. I have known the time when I have had to thread my way through a crowd of white, angry men, all swearing they would have Makinson’s blood as soon as he ventured to show his nose out of his factory; and he, knowing nothing of it, some one had to go and tell him, or he was a dead man, and it needed to be a woman,–so I went. And when I had got in, I could not get out. It was as much as my life was worth. So I went up to the roof, where there were stones piled ready to drop on the heads of the crowd, if they tried to force the factory doors. And I would have lifted those heavy stones, and dropped them with as good an aim as the best man there, but that I fainted with the heat I had gone through. If you live in Milton, you must learn to have a brave heart, Miss Hale.’

‘I would do my best,’ said Margaret rather pale. ‘I do not know whether I am brave or not till I am tried; but I am afraid I should be a coward.’ (p.116)

She will soon prove herself brave – but also impulsive, imprudent and prejudiced – in the episode of the attack to Marlborough Mill when she will finally shield Mr Thornton against the fury of the mob with her own body (chapter XXII, A Blow and its Consequences)


On that very occasion both Margaret and Mrs Thornton are entrapped in the house and hear the fury of the crowd of workers approaching the mill, but both refuse to find a refuge upstairs, both firmly reject the invitation to protect themselves and show a similar temper while facing danger.

Mrs Thornton has been embittered by the tragic events in her life (her husband killed himself leaving her and two young children face the consequences of his bankruptcy) .

Margaret Hale is an inspirational example of bravery, determination, and selflessness. She loses everything that she loves, yet she clings to her duty, to her faith in God, to hope. Margaret is not one to shirk responsability. She’s the strongest in her family and she bears and faces pain and sorrow without ever complaining :

“They could not understand how her heart was aching all the time, with a heavy pressure that no sighs could lift off or relieve, and how constant exertion for her perceptive faculties was the only way to keep herself from crying out with pain. Moreover, if she gave way, who would act” (p. 54)?

Later on, she will suffer silently Mr Thornton’s blame and despise in order to protect her brother Frederick’s secret, she will endure incredible loss (Bessy’s, her mother’s and her father’s deaths) with great dignity. Her journey through the story is incredibly tragic but she never loses her faith nor stops fighting for what she believes in. She won’t be stopped by any stern look from Mrs Thornton in her passionate love for John, don’t you believe so?

In a Freudian, psychoanalytical reading of the story, it is obvious that John has chosen a partner so very similar to his mother, which shows he could be mother-fixated (Oedipus complex) . But that makes everything so terribly sad and unromantic!

Do you think John falls for Margaret because she reminds him his mother?And most of all, do you think Margaret Hale and Mrs Thornton get along well in the end?

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Posted by Melanie at 9:00 am - Comments (13)
Categories: themed week

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  • February 22nd 2012
    Gina said:

    Alas, I’m afraid I’m at a disadvantage to answer this one….never watched it I’m afraid…HOWEVER, what a great idea to share a “classroom” perspective on it! Definitely opens up the floor to even more discussion….

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  • February 22nd 2012

    Well, I didn’t want to sound academic at all in this little post. I just wanted to suggest a reflection about the two Mrs Thornton, the old one and the young one. Do you think they’ll to get on, once Margaret marries John and they all live together at Marlborough Mill?

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  • February 22nd 2012

    Several months ago, I watched North and South for the first time. It quickly became my favorite period drama due to the beautiful costumes and the exquisite acting by Richard Armitage, Daniela Denby-Ashe, Sinead Cusack & Brendan Coyle. I had to read the book to learn how it matched up to the series.

    Margaret and Hannah are both very strong women, and I agree that John is drawn to Margaret because her strength reminds him of his mother. Hannah has been John’s model of womanhood all these years, and it is only natural that he should base his views of women on her. However, John is also intrigued by Margaret’s charming personality. Margaret has a warmth about her that Hannah does not. I feel that, although he highly regards his mother, John was searching for this personality trait in his prospective mate.

    In my version of North and South, John and Margaret returned to his home to share the news of their impending nuptials with Hannah. Hannah grudgingly accepted the news, sad to “lose” her son to another woman. However, she wasn’t surprised, as Margaret seemed to have continually been thrown into John’s path by fate. She had also seen him saddened over the last few months by Margaret’s departure. Although there were occasional clashes between the two women, they respected each other and lived peacefully together.

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  • February 22nd 2012

    As a mother of three sons, I’ve had to face an unhappy truth: I will one day be eclipsed by their brides. Oh, I was each boy’s “first love” as Mom, but only for a very brief time! The best I can hope is that one of my daughters-in-law will enjoy my company. :)

    At this point, none are married, and only the youngest is dating. It’s been interesting to consider his choice: an intelligent, athletic, hardworking, and talented girl–a blonde like my Ben, and so beautiful! They’re like Barbie and Ken, this pair. They’ve been sweethearts since high school and now commute to university together.

    They say a son chooses a wife similar to his mother, and I’ve seen this proven out among my friends’ children. Yet when I look for similarities between myself and Jessica, I am stumped. She is so beautiful, and artistic, and capable–much more so than I. And yet with so much going for her, she lacks confidence and leans on Ben for companionship and support.

    It took a while for the truth to hit me. Jessica is me all over again. Capable and yet self-critical. Having it all, she doubts herself and is easily discouraged. Poor darling, how well I understand.

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  • February 22nd 2012

    John admires Margaret for her bold strength and determination, traits his mother also exemplifies. But he’s also attracted to the soft feminine side of Margaret – her grace, compassion, and gentleness, qualities his mother rather sadly lacks.

    I can’t imagine him falling for a frail or frivolous girl. He needs a woman of fortitude to stand by his side.

    Although it may take some time for Hannah to let go of her grudge against Margaret, I think she would learn to appreciate her daughter-in-law once she witnessed for herself how much she adored and esteemed her son.

    She will come to realize that the southern girl makes a hearty Milton lass after all!

    – Trudy

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  • February 23rd 2012

    The discussion here is turning quite interesting! Thanks Viki, Laura and Trudy for contributing your very personal visions of Margaret, Mrs Thornton and their relationship.

    I particurly appreciate the possibility of comparing impressions on reading (and watching!) the same story. That really makes me grow as a reader, a watcher and a woman.

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  • February 23rd 2012

    Ive often wondered about that and think custom would dictate that Johns mom still has seniority over Margaret in the household. Wouldn’t that satisfy her pride? I have total confidence that Margaret has the patience like she showed with her father and Dixon to get along with Mrs. Thornton – no doubt there will be differences of opinion particularly when it comes to raising the children … I suspect Mr.Thornton will have to prove himself a good negotiator :)

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  • February 23rd 2012
    JaneGS said:

    To answer the last question, not exactly. He falls in love with the whole package that is Margaret, not just the parts similar to his mother. Her soft southern appearance and manners do captivate him, and he strength secures him.

    I actually don’t see Mr. T as being shyly awkward between the two strong women meeting as he is a tower of strength himself. I remember loving how Gaskell had John stand up for Margaret to his mother and Fanny repeatedly–not embarrassed by his feelings, but fully acknowledging them. I think he would make it clear that he expected his mother to make room for Margaret, period. And she would. She would do anything to remain part of his life.

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  • February 23rd 2012

    How interesting! It’s so thrilling to see each of us perceives the same characters and their relationships in slightly or very different ways and with different expectations. This is probably due to our different real life experiences and reading backgrounds. However, I insist. Comparing views and opinions makes reading an even more enriching experience.
    To @Fanny: I’m sure Margaret will have the strength and skill to cope with Mrs Thornton and to @JaneGS: no doubt John knows his mother very well and he’s the only one who can lead her to love Margaret. Mrs T. would do anything for her son, even love that girl from the South ;-)

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  • February 23rd 2012

    What a great conversation! I was just thinking about this the other day!
    I have to have hope that they eventually get along. In the novel, Mrs. Thornton is mostly prejudiced against Margaret for snubbing and rejecting her son. Even so, she can see Margaret’s good qualities, especially in the face of adversity & affliction–grudgingly, perhaps. The last time we see them together in the novel, she does soften a *bit* at Margaret’s apology, so I must imagine that once everything was explained and sorted out, Hannah would eventually welcome Margaret into the family. She does dread losing her son, but throughout the novel when she reflects on Margaret, she compares her to her own daughter Fanny, and as she secretly dislikes Fanny’s weaknesses, she also secretly admires Margaret’s strength.
    As Margaret no longer has family of her own, and her dying mother specifically requested that Mrs. Thornton be a friend to Margaret, I think the time will come when they two may even be able to have an amiable, mother-daughter kind of relationship. You know, down the road. :) At least, that’s how I like to imagine it.

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  • February 23rd 2012

    Thanks @J.M. I agree with you. It won’t be smooth and easy, but I’m sure the two women in Mr Thornton’s heart will appreciate each other in time.

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    J. M. Richards Reply:

    I sincerely hope so! :)
    Out of curiosity, what age group do you teach, and how do they receive North & South? I have only recently read it, and though I love it, I’m in my 30’s and am a life-long reader.
    I also work with kids (elementary age), and frequently have to try to convince them that books are well worth reading even if you’ve seen the movie, and that books in fact are usually BETTER than the movie. It’s made me wonder if younger generations will be able to appreciate the classics! This is one in particular it seems a shame to miss out on, so kudos on passing it on to others!

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  • February 23rd 2012

    My students are 18/19 J.M. They are in their last year of high school, preparing to go to university. English is a foreign language to them, but they have been studying it for years now. We just read few pages from the novel and saw scenes from the series. We are working on the industrial novel in the Victorian Age, so we read pages from Mary Barton, Shirley, Hard Times and North and South.
    They think it is quite complicated, they are interested in the social issues analyzed … few girls surfed the Net in search for more info about the series and usually giggle when I mention Mr Thornton or I propose them tasks like: “Compare Mr Thornton in N&S and Mr Moore in Shirley” (or similar)

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