I’m not going to lie. I don’t only read 19th century literature. I read a lot of fiction penned in the present day (but nearly always set in the past). And a lot of it is not sex-free. However, I honestly think nothing I have read is hotter than this scene by Elizabeth Gaskell from 1855.
Her voice had cleared itself and become more steady. Mr. Thornton did not speak, and she went on looking for some paper on which were written down the proposals for security; for she was most anxious to have it all looked upon in the light of a mere business arrangement, in which the principal advantage would be on her side. While she sought for this paper, her very heart-pulse was arrested by the tone in which Mr. Thornton spoke. His voice was hoarse, and trembling with tender passion, as he said:—
For an instant she looked up; and then sought to veil her luminous eyes by dropping her forehead on her hands. Again, stepping nearer, he besought her with another tremulous eager call upon her name.
Still lower went the head; more closely hidden was the face, almost resting on the table before her. He came close to her. He knelt by her side, to bring his face to a level with her ear; and whispered-panted out the words:—
‘Take care.—If you do not speak—I shall claim you as my own in some strange presumptuous way.—Send me away at once, if I must go;—Margaret!—’
At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence. At length she murmured in a broken voice:
‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’
‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’
After a minute or two, he gently disengaged her hands from her face, and laid her arms as they had once before been placed to protect him from the rioters.
‘Do you remember, love?’ he murmured.
Sigh. I mean I’m an old married lady with two kids and well-acquainted with bedroom activities and I’m seriously turning into a puddle of need over this. It’s not just that I can feel the chemistry between them. It’s full of actual love, not just lust. It’s the longing and fear. The acknowledgment of pain and desperation. The timid hope, the feeling of complete awe at your good fortune.
Romance authors need to take a serious number from Gaskell’s tactic here. Love is hotter than lust any day of the week. I don’t really have a lot of deep observations here. I’ll leave you with the best on-screen kiss ever which I think perfectly captures the sentiment of this scene. While it takes place in a train station, which would be beyond the pale of Victorian propriety I not only like the full circle of all the train images and the closure to the pain Thornton felt seeing Margaret with Frederick at the station, but Edith’s drawing room is only just barely more private.
If you haven’t seen this adaptation, you must and let me treat you to the best 90 seconds ever to be filmed. You’re welcome.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a friend on Instagram about our boys getting so old. My son is eight and he loves math. He has started doing math in every day situations. Such as, “In ten years, I’ll be eighteen, Mom!” That’s enough to freeze any mother’s heart. Then he did this: “And you’ll be forty-three! I know because you are thirty-three now and when I add ten, that’s the answer!”
Thinking of my son as an adult, makes me feel old. Thinking of him being an adult while I am only forty-three makes me feel too young. I got married at nineteen! I didn’t have children for several years, but I could have. What if I’m a grandmother by then?!! Lord, help me!
A few days after the Instagram conversation and the math problems, someone in a Facebook group I follow about the 2004 production of North and South commented about how she feels for Mrs. Thornton wanting to protect her son.
Oh, how I can agree there. You come near my son, and you’re going to have bruises. My Mama Bear claws are sharp and at the ready. My son has autism and it’s been a journey to get the diagnosis, keep him feeling safe during all of our moves, to advocate for him with every new school, etc. I’m very proficient at pouncing and defending now. I can almost feel sorry for the girls he will one day bring home. Almost. Really though, he’s an amazing boy and will grow to be an awesome man and whoever his future wife is should certainly thank me.
There are other things in life, though, that Mama Bear can help with even less once he’s grown. Things like work failures.
I don’t talk about this a lot. Just after my son was born, my husband and I had to declare bankruptcy. We lost our house and our car. We had to move in with family and hitch rides for a few weeks before we could even buy a junky vehicle. It felt as all security we had evaporated into thin air and all with an infant.
It was a confluence of things but my husband being let go from a job really was the straw that broke the camel’s back. My husband’s self-esteem was entirely obliterated. I wish I could say that I was super supportive during all that. I wasn’t. I tried to be, but he talked so seldom about what he was feeling and I had my own baggage from the situation. For a year, my husband was underemployed. I had to go to work part-time and even though I made more per hour than him, I worked fewer hours. It was a catch-22 for his ego. If I could find a full-time position with similar pay, I would earn more than him.
We desperately needed the money, so my husband would have swallowed the bitter pill. On the other hand, there was a very human part of him, that had felt he should provide for us. Not because of gender roles but because that was our plan. Our plan that was destroyed by things mostly out of our control and we were clinging to any ability to control things. Additionally, while we had no idea at the time that our son had special needs…he wasn’t exactly average. He hardly ever slept. I was exhausted. Our son truly needed me. He wouldn’t connect well with other people. He didn’t handle daycare well at all. He would hardly let my husband or mother touch him. He got overstimulated if we were out of the house for more than a half an hour including driving time. It was in many ways, a living nightmare and it did reside far more on my shoulders than anyone else’s. Having me work full-time would have probably torn my family apart and the idea that my son would have just adjusted, we have since learned, probably never would have happened. My husband was aware of all that and it weighed on him even more.
As it happened, I couldn’t find full-time work and it soon became clear that after babysitting costs, I only added about $20 a month to our income. We decided to try and cut back in a few areas. Just as we decided that, an opportunity presented itself in which I could babysit a child from home while caring for my own (this also allowed my JAFF obsession to begin). A few months later, my husband was blessed with a position in the industry he had spent the previous eight years of his life working and amassing skills. It included a significant pay raise and benefits.
Just the other night, we were talking about this dark time and my husband was open to explaining his feelings in a way that he wasn’t when it was occurring. It reminded me all too much of John Thornton and his attempt to be honorable and keep a positive attitude while the world crumbled around him and all his hard work was falling. The greatest turmoil to my husband’s peace of mind was not because it hurt his pride to make less money or let our possessions go. It hurt his mind because he wanted to take care of the people he loved and because he felt he had failed in a responsibility to people.
I think it is this attitude more than anything else, that makes me love John Thornton so much. And when I think about if my son should ever have to go through such a time, well, I feel very Mrs. Thornton about it. To have him anything other than his proper position of loved and respected by all would break my heart.
Here is an excerpt from the scene in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South:
‘Mother! why are not you in bed?’
‘Son John,’ said she, ‘do you think I can sleep with an easy mind, while you keep awake full of care? You have not told me what your trouble is; but sore trouble you have had these many days past.’
‘Trade is bad.’
‘And you dread—’
‘I dread nothing,’ replied he, drawing up his head, and holding it erect. ‘I know now that no man will suffer by me. That was my anxiety.’
‘But how do you stand? Shall you—will it be a failure?’ her steady voice trembling in an unwonted manner.
‘Not a failure. I must give up business, but I pay all men. I might redeem myself—I am sorely tempted—’
‘How? Oh, John! keep up your name—try all risks for that. How redeem it?’
‘By a speculation offered to me, full of risk; but, if successful, placing me high above water mark, so that no one need ever know the strait I am in. Still, if it fails—’
‘And if it fails,’ said she, advancing, and laying her hand on his arm, her eyes full of eager light. She held her breath to hear the end of his speech.
‘Honest men are ruined by a rogue,’ said he gloomily. ‘As I stand now, my creditors, money is safe—every farthing of it; but I don’t know where to find my own—it may be all gone, and I penniless at this moment. Therefore, it is my creditors’ money that I should risk.’
‘But if it succeeded, they need never know. Is it so desperate a speculation? I am sure it is not, or you would never have thought of it. If it succeeded—’
‘I should be a rich man, and my peace of conscience would be gone!’
‘Why! You would have injured no one.’
‘No; but I should have run the risk of ruining many for my own paltry aggrandisement. Mother, I have decided! You won’t much grieve over our leaving this house, shall you, dear mother?’
‘No! but to have you other than what you are will break my heart. What can you do?’
‘Be always the same John Thornton in whatever circumstances; endeavouring to do right, and making great blunders; and then trying to be brave in setting to afresh. But it is hard, mother. I have so worked and planned. I have discovered new powers in my situation too late—and now all is over. I am too old to begin again with the same heart. It is hard, mother.’
He turned away from her, and covered his face with his hands.
I’ve recently fell down the North and South fan fiction rabbit hole. I lost many hours of sleep due to Trudy Brasure’s A Heart for Milton and In Consequence last weekend. This week, I started Nicole Clarkston’s Nowhere but North, but am pacing myself more. I’ve also reread North and South this week. This time, the riot scene struck me.
There is much to talk about in this scene but I’d like to consider Mr. Thornton’s actions under this pressure.
‘Who is Boucher?’ asked Mr. Thornton, coolly, and coming close to the window to discover the man in whom Margaret took such an interest. As soon as they saw Mr. Thornton, they set up a yell,—to call it not human is nothing,—it was as the demoniac desire of some terrible wild beast for the food that is withheld from his ravening. Even he drew back for a moment, dismayed at the intensity of hatred he had provoked.
At first, he approaches without fear–and this is after apologizing to Margaret for the timing of her visit. Then, he does draw away for a moment, but not out of fear. He can hardly fathom the anger his image provokes.
‘Let them yell!’ said he. ‘In five minutes more—. I only hope my poor Irishmen are not terrified out of their wits by such a fiendlike noise. Keep up your courage for five minutes, Miss Hale.’
His first thought is for his Irishmen–even before he thinks of Margaret. However, he does not worry about the safety of the Irish. Why?
‘Don’t be afraid for me,’ she said hastily. ‘But what in five minutes? Can you do nothing to soothe these poor creatures? It is awful to see them.’
‘The soldiers will be here directly, and that will bring them to reason.’
‘To reason!’ said Margaret, quickly. ‘What kind of reason?’
‘The only reason that does with men that make themselves into wild beasts. By heaven! they’ve turned to the mill door!’
His first words seem to denote security in thought because of the soldiers and yet he’s surprised and alarmed when they turn on the mill.
‘Mr. Thornton,’ said Margaret, shaking all over with her passion, ‘go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man. Save these poor strangers, whom you have decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor creatures who are driven mad. I see one there who is. If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man.’
He turned and looked at her while she spoke. A dark cloud came over his face while he listened. He set his teeth as he heard her words. ‘I will go. Perhaps I may ask you to accompany me downstairs, and bar the door behind me; my mother and sister will need that protection.’
‘Oh! Mr. Thornton! I do not know—I may be wrong—only—’ But he was gone; he was downstairs in the hall; he had unbarred the front door; all she could do, was to follow him quickly, and fasten it behind him, and clamber up the stairs again with a sick heart and a dizzy head.
Would he be willing to go and potentially face death simply because he wanted to impress Margaret? No! He went because he saw the justice of her words. Granted, she’s rather naive, but she has a point about talking to them like human equals.
During his proposal the following day, Thornton says so.
I ought rather,’ said she, hastily, ‘to apologize to you, for having said thoughtless words which sent you down into the danger.’
‘It was not your words; it was the truth they conveyed, pungently as it was expressed.’
Thornton is downstairs, willing to sacrifice himself to try and convince his workers to go home lest they do something stupid and deserve the wrath of soldiers. Margaret is also downstairs and has urged them to leave as Thornton has yet to speak. I don’t think the book ever says it, but I assume he was trying to find the right words. Margaret rushed down the stairs when she saw people take up their heavy wood clogs to use as projectiles. Rather than listen to Margaret’s well-said reason, the workers remain rooted and implacable in their hatred. One speaks up.
‘Shall them Irish blackguards be packed back again?’ asked one from out the crowd, with fierce threatening in his voice.
‘Never, for your bidding!’ exclaimed Mr. Thornton. And instantly the storm broke. The hootings rose and filled the air,—
How reasonable was this of Thornton? Could he have foreseen it would infuriate them so? Even if he could have guessed it, should he have lied to placate them? Dishonesty in business tactics and worker relations is a consistent issue Thornton faces. His desire for honesty contrasts him with the other masters of the area.
Despite Margaret’s best efforts, the crowd does intend to assault Thornton. However, she tries to shield him and they miss their target, hurting her instead.
‘You do well!’ said he. ‘You come to oust the innocent stranger. You fall—you hundreds—on one man; and when a woman comes before you, to ask you for your own sakes to be reasonable creatures, your cowardly wrath falls upon her! You do well!’ They were silent while he spoke. They were watching, open-eyed and open-mouthed, the thread of dark-red blood which wakened them up from their trance of passion. Those nearest the gate stole out ashamed; there was a movement through all the crowd—a retreating movement.
Only one voice cried out: ‘Th’ stone were meant for thee; but thou wert sheltered behind a woman!’
Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood flowing had made Margaret conscious—dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her gently on the doorstep, her head leaning against the frame.
‘Can you rest there?’ he asked. But without waiting for her answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of the crowd. ‘Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death—you will never move me from what I have determined upon—not you!’ He stood amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same attitude as he had been in on the steps.
Now, Thornton acts the hero. Yet, he doesn’t charge senselessly into the crowd. He stands his ground and is ready to face the consequences of his actions–right or wrong. At this moment, he’s the most mature person in the story. The workers certainly aren’t ready for the consequences of a strike or violence. Margaret immediately regretted the consequences of sending Thornton down to the workers and later will regret her shielding him. Mrs. Hale has period of regret over her marriage, Mr. Hale regrets leaving the church and moving to Milton. Soon in the book we meet Margaret’s brother, Frederick, who certainly has his own regrets in the mutiny he caused. This a theme I could talk on for a long time. However, it is Thornton who Margaret has always viewed as oppressive and honorless who proves his integrity in this scene, even if she is slow to recognize it.
The moment that retreat had changed into a flight (as it was sure from its very character to do), he darted up the steps to Margaret. She tried to rise without his help.
‘It is nothing,’ she said, with a sickly smile. ‘The skin is grazed, and I was stunned at the moment. Oh, I am so thankful they are gone!’ And she cried without restraint.
He could not sympathize with her. His anger had not abated; it was rather rising the more as his sense of immediate danger was passing away. The distant clank of the soldiers was heard just five minutes too late to make this vanished mob feel the power of authority and order. He hoped they would see the troops, and be quelled by the thought of their narrow escape.
Even after their assault of Margaret, he does not wish true violence upon the people. He simply wants them to realize it could have been much worse.
He bore her into the dining room, and laid her on the sofa there; laid her down softly, and looking on her pure white face, the sense of what she was to him came upon him so keenly that he spoke it out in his pain:
‘Oh, my Margaret—my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to me! Dead—cold as you lie there, you are the only woman I ever loved! Oh, Margaret—Margaret!’ Inarticulately as he spoke, kneeling by her, and rather moaning than saying the words, he started up, ashamed of himself, as his mother came in.
When Margaret collapses again, he brings her into his house to tend to her. Suddenly, he realizes his love for her–something he had resisted for so long. I honor him all the more for not being consumed with it when he had to focus instead on the riot.
He went away as if weights were tied to every limb that bore him from her. He called Jane; he called his sister. She should have all womanly care, all gentle tendance. But every pulse beat in him as he remembered how she had come down and placed herself in foremost danger,—could it be to save him? At the time, he had pushed her aside, and spoken gruffly; he had seen nothing but the unnecessary danger she had placed herself in. He went to his Irish people, with every nerve in his body thrilling at the thought of her, and found it difficult to understand enough of what they were saying to soothe and comfort away their fears. There, they declared, they would not stop; they claimed to be sent back. And so he had to think, and talk, and reason.
Once more, Thornton must make hard choices and deal with the repurcussions. He would rather stay with Margaret but he has other responsibilities. What will Margaret think of him leaving? As much as he loves her, there is a great pull on him–that of duty. He owes the Irishmen his attention. He meets them They are innocent in all of this, and he knows it. If only Margaret could see that while he might need to learn to communicate with his workers better, to try and understand their grievances more, he’s not brutish to those he can see are victims of circumstance. The riot at Marlborough Mills proves Mr. Thornton’s true worth and his real integrity.
In the wake of the BBC’s outstounding production of North and South starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe, it’s easy to forget that Margaret Gaskell wrote the story about an industrial town and about an industry that was still new.
Here, we have Mr. Thornton educating Mr. Hale a bit on the topic of the cotton trade.
‘You seem to have a strong objection to acts of parliament and all legislation affecting your mode of management down here at Milton,’ said Mr. Hale.
‘Yes, I have; and many others have as well. And with justice, I think. The whole machinery—I don’t mean the wood and iron machinery now—of the cotton trade is so new that it is no wonder if it does not work well in every part all at once. Seventy years ago what was it? And now what is it not? Raw, crude materials came together; men of the same level, as regarded education and station, took suddenly the different positions of masters and men, owing to the mother wit, as regarded opportunities and probabilities, which distinguished some, and made them far-seeing as to what great future lay concealed in that rude model of Sir Richard Arkwright’s. The rapid development of what might be called a new trade, gave those early masters enormous power of wealth and command. I don’t mean merely over the workmen; I mean over purchasers—over the whole world’s market. Why, I may give you, as an instance, an advertisement, inserted not fifty years ago in a Milton paper, that so-and-so (one of the half-dozen calico printers of the time) would close his warehouse at noon each day; therefore, that all purchasers must come before that hour. Fancy a man dictating in this manner the time when he would sell and when he would not sell. Now, I believe, if a good customer chose to come at midnight, I should get up, and stand hat in hand to receive his orders.’
Margaret’s lip curled, but somehow she was compelled to listen; she could no longer abstract herself in her own thoughts.
‘I only name such things to show what almost unlimited power the manufacturers had about the beginning of this century. The men were rendered dizzy by it. Because a man was successful in his ventures, there was no reason that in all other things his mind should be well-balanced. On the contrary, his sense of justice, and his simplicity, were often utterly smothered under the glut of wealth that came down upon him; and they tell strange tales of the wild extravagance of living indulged in on gala days by those early cotton lords. There can be no doubt, too, of the tyranny they exercised over their work people. You know the proverb, Mr. Hale, “Set a beggar on horseback, and he’ll ride to the devil,”—well, some of these early manufacturers did ride to the devil in a magnificent style—crushing human bone and flesh under their horses’ hoofs without remorse. But by-and-by came a reaction, there were more factories, more masters; more men were wanted. The power of masters and men became more evenly balanced; and now the battle is pretty fairly waged between us. We will hardly submit to the decision of an umpire, much less to the interference of a meddler with only a smattering of the knowledge of the real facts of the case, even though that meddler be called the High Court of Parliament.
There are a few things happening here at once. In the middle, we have Margaret inferring that because Thornton is serious about his business, he must have no care for anything else. More importantly to the subject I will be discussing is the brief history of the Industrial Revolution (IR). Notice Thornton does not give the evolution in the machinery but rather the relationships between masters and laborers.
The very first masters of the new machinery developed during the IR were the inventors of the machines. Unlike today where there are think tanks which hire people to invent new products and create ideas, these inventors were simply workers. Farmers would sheer sheep and spin the wool. They were the ones intimately acquainted with the process and they were the ones who saw the need for innovation. A few handy ones began making equipment. This process was repeated in similar fabric manufacturing trades, such as linen and cotton.
Above: On the left is a traditional spindle and on the right is a Spinning Jenny which can produce much more and much faster. Arkwright’s invention of using a water frame (below) made the produced thread stronger and more durable.
The goal, at first, was simply to lighten their own load. However, word soon got around and neighbors also wanted to use the machines. Creating them, however, was expensive and time consuming. Additionally, the machines grew ever larger so they could process more at once. So, some enterprising sorts asked various merchants for help investing to come up with the money for housing the equipment and the laborers who were now leaving the firesides of their farms. Typically, the inventor would remain overseer of the facility and the first “master.”
These were not men who were trained or educated in business in anyway. They did not know how to lead men and, oftentimes, had been poor tenant farmers under potentially harsh masters themselves. Perhaps they copied the only example they knew. They also became insanely wealthy–far more than they ever would have dreamed possible as a tenant farmer. The adage of absolute power corrupts absolutely is always true. Eventually, workers pushed back for fairer treatment–sometimes caught up in the parallel movement of the Luddites at the close of the Napoleonic Wars some twenty or thirty years after it began. Reports of cruel masters abound during that time and it was an enterprise almost entirely unchecked by the government.
One of the great equalizers, however, was that not all the inventors could successfully gain patents. Many plans were copied or outright stolen by men who had a keen eye for business but not much knowledge of manufacturing. Others were simply improved upon–even Sir Richard Arkwright who is usually given credit for inventing the first water frame and creating the factory system built upon the success of other men. As more and more machinery became available, the position of master became less god-like. They were beholden to more standards as they had more colleagues and employees. Instead of there being one mill in a town, entire towns were built around a variety of mills. We see this in North and South with Mr. Thornton’s relationship with other nearby mill owners.
In the above passage, Thornton argues that however flawed the masters of Milton currently are, they’re better than they had been and that’s a context a man like Mr. Hale–or Parliament–can’t understand.
Let’s hear how Margaret first describes Mr. Thornton, shall we?
‘And what is your correspondent, Mr. Thornton, like?’
‘Ask Margaret,’ said her husband. ‘She and he had a long attempt at conversation, while I was away speaking to the landlord.’
‘Oh! I hardly know what he is like,’ said Margaret, lazily; too tired to tax her powers of description much. And then rousing herself, she said, ‘He is a tall, broad-shouldered man, about—how old, papa?’
‘I should guess about thirty.’ ‘
About thirty—with a face that is neither exactly plain, nor yet handsome, nothing remarkable—not quite a gentleman; but that was hardly to be expected.’
‘Not vulgar, or common though,’ put in her father, rather jealous of any disparagement of the sole friend he had in Milton.
‘Oh no!’ said Margaret. ‘With such an expression of resolution and power, no face, however plain in feature, could be either vulgar or common. I should not like to have to bargain with him; he looks very inflexible. Altogether a man who seems made for his niche, mamma; sagacious, and strong, as becomes a great tradesman.’