Margaret Hale in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South exemplifies the new type of woman a mid-nineteenth century woman should emulate. The contemporary woman is capable of balancing being a dutiful, generous, just woman while also satisfying her own passion, intellect, and moral activity. England needs women that can manifest their innate ability to sympathize with a capacity to change and adapt. The progressive world will require the modern woman to redefine the norms of social life.
In the first few chapters Gaskell offers various examples of what the traditional woman of England is like. Margaret’s early descriptions in Chapter 7, characterize the beautiful, gentle femininity so idolized. Margaret is beautiful in her own way, she is very conscious of her surroundings. She is privileged in her own way by being in a respectable position in the tranquil village of Helstone. Throughout the beginning of the novel it is eluded that Margaret has the onset of a mature middle class mentality. During the planning of her beloved cousin Edith Shaw’s wedding, Margaret comments on Edith seemingly oblivious demeanor, as the house is chaos in preparations. Edith tries hard to please expectation of her social class. She is privileged and beautiful; angelic and innocent, she is the perfect idyllic, ignorant child bride, designed to please. For Margaret, “...the prospect of soon losing her companion seemed to give force to every sweet quality and charm which Edith possessed”(Gaskell, 7). It is in this passage that the readers familiarize themselves with Margaret’s keen ability to see and perceive the differences between her and her cousin’s manor. Edith poses the calm demure and angelic tranquility a woman is decreed to posses. Unsurprisingly at the brink of commotion Margaret observes that, “the whispered tone had latterly become more drowsy; and Margaret, after a pause of a few minutes, found, as she fancied, that in spite of the buzz in the next room, Edith had rolled herself up into a soft ball of muslin and ribbon, and silken curls, and gone off into a peaceful little after-dinner nap”(page 7-8). As the house is in turmoil Edith is at peace resting in the breathless delight of her circumstances.
Edith Shaw is a clear reflection of the infringed societal notions of womanhood in Victorian England. This character coincides with Sarah Stickney Ellis’s essay, “The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits”. Sarah Ellis describes the role of woman as one of secret influence and selfless generosity; the women of England are what keep’s England pure. Edith assimilates what Christ recommends from the bible. As a woman,
She is praised for being in general, it is necessary for her to lay aside all her natural caprice, her love of self-indulgence-in short her very self- and assuming a new nature, which nothing less than watchfulness and prayer can enable her constantly to maintain…the happiness of others.
A woman must lay aside herself in...