In the 2004 BBC adaptation of North and South—Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 meditation on the industrial revolution—there’s a scene that hauntingly evokes work in a nineteenth-century cotton mill. As the heroine, Margaret Hale, newly arrived from an Austenite country parsonage to a Dickensian factory town, narrates a horrified letter to her cousin, the camera pans across rows and rows of wide, white-threaded looms and the straight-backed figures manning them, their faces obscured by the feather-like bits of cotton rising into shafts of blue light. Behind the workers, the silhouette of the mill owner paces back and forth, keeping watch. “I believe I’ve seen Hell,” Margaret says. “It’s white; it’s snow white.”
That line isn’t in the book. Because I broke the cardinal rule of bookworms everywhere and saw the miniseries years before I read the novel, I kept waiting for it. It didn’t seem right that the most powerful description in the teleplay of nineteenth-century work came from a twenty-first century mind. But as I grew more and more absorbed in the novel itself, I understood that it had no place in the story Gaskell was actually telling. Because what fascinates Gaskell is the new emerging power of work—destructive, yes, but transformative also. The factory may be purgatory, but it isn’t Hell.
Gaskell wrote North and South a century into England’s industrial revolution, a transformation she witnessed first hand. After growing up in a country town, she fell in love and made her life in Manchester with Unitarian minister William Gaskell. Both the fading, gentile village and the booming manufacturing town obsess her fiction. Her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), dramatizes the struggles of Manchester’s working class, and her most popular, Cranford (1853) eulogizes the “elegant economy” of rural society. But in North and South she bridges the two worlds through the character of Margaret, whose physical journey from the rural, “aristocratic” South to the urban, industrial Milton (a fictionalized Manchester) echoes the nation’s temporal one. It’s a simple but brilliant device because it allows both author and reader to confront and reflect on the change.
At first Margaret doesn’t like what she sees. The town is dirty, the workers wear their suffering on their faces, and her first real friend in her new home, Bessie, is dying of Byssinosis—the fluff that rises so ethereally in the BBC footage has “[wound] round her lungs, and tighten[ed] them up.”
But then Gaskell introduces Margaret to two characters who find in this dangerous work a tool for personal or social change. There’s John Thorton, a stern but honorable mill owner (and the stalking silhouette of the factory scene) who, through thriftiness and hard work, has regained the fortune and good name his father had lost through gambling debts and suicide. Then there’s Bessie’s father Nicholas Higgins, an impassioned trade unionist who speaks rousingly of the power the workers can claim by deciding collectively not to work. Although the two men are on opposite sides of the capitalist class divide, they share a self-determination that contrasts with Margaret’s story. The reason for her move to Milton is that her father, an Anglican priest, has decided to leave the church, and therefore his country living, and work for hire as a private tutor. Margaret travels to Milton because she is her father’s daughter and there comes face to face with people like Thornton and Higgins who believe that you are what you do, or in the case of Margaret’s father, what you don’t do.
While Higgins is enlivened by the struggle of factory work, his daughter Bessie is literally killed by it. But despite the death of her friend, by the end of the novel Margaret decides that “she must one day answer for her own life,” and temper womanly obedience with “freedom in working.” Gaskell doesn’t tell us what work Margaret intends to do, but it is clear that after her exposure to Milton, she is anxious to be defined by her actions rather than her family.
Gaskell succeeds in making Milton a persuasive factory town because she lets it speak in its own voice. Bessie’s description of fluff “tightening up” her lungs doesn’t stick in the mind like the BBC scene, but it is more visceral, and more authentic. Gaskell has a genius for dialogue and a linguist’s ear for dialect. You know that Margaret and John are destined for each other from the energy of their early arguments. And it’s clear that Gaskell’s working class characters speak in dialect because she respects its particular poetry. Gaskell herself once wrote that she could find no better word than the Warwickshire “unked” to “express the exact feeling of strange, unusual, desolate discomfort,” and she gives that sentiment to Margaret. When her mother asks her not to use “vulgar” words like knobstick (slang for strikebreaker), Margaret retorts, “Very well, dearest mother, I won’t. Only I shall have to use a whole explanatory sentence instead.”
It is this faithfulness to the words and thoughts of actual participants in the industrial revolution that makes North and South such a fascinating read today. The story of the satanic mill is, I think, one the developed world likes to tell itself today because it allows us to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come. Politicians may feel they can get away with attacking organized labor because its pre-unionized past has been so hyperbolically mythologized that it feels safely, finally past. (At least in the U.S. and Europe, the satanic third-world factory has also become something of a trope.) North and South makes distance impossible; it displaces us alongside Margaret in a nineteenth-century factory town and forces us to recognize that faith in work’s transformative power can wrap around our hearts with the same hold as the cotton fluff of the factory floor.
More factory work from the issue:
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
1776: Divide and Conquer
Robert Southey, Letters from England
1802: Satanic Mill
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