- "Mere Outward Appearances"?:Household Taste and Social Perception in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South
Many twentieth-century readers have critiqued Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1854-5) for its apparent conventionality. Raymond Williams complains that the novel follows a typical Victorian pattern in solving class conflicts with money. Sally Shuttleworth argues that the novel's ending "in the safe surroundings of a middle-class drawing-room" (xxxiv) implies an ultimate avoidance of political problems. While recognizing in North and South the importance of private life in the public realm, Catherine Gallagher nevertheless concludes that the text's families are ultimately separate "from the larger society" (148). As Deidre d'Albertis, Hilary Schor, and other critics have more recently shown, such readings assume that Gaskell was more interested in household details than in political change.1 For Susan Johnston, the critique of Gaskell as primarily a domestic novelist relies on the erroneous idea that domestic and public life were distinct in the nineteenth century. While some prominent Victorian writers hoped to institute this separation, domestic and public life were in fact intimately connected throughout the period. As a result, claims Johnston, even "avowedly political fiction ... [like North and South] depends on the originary and intimate space of the household in order to make its claims" (103). In ways that even recent criticism has only begun to understand, Gaskell uses household details in her novels to effect profound political statements.
In tracing Gaskell's argument for political change through the domestic, this essay examines North and South in the context of mid-Victorian writings on household taste. Class conflicts in North and South, I assert, are substantially addressed through the development of perceptive household taste by some middle-class characters. Though Gaskell treats problems of industrialization and the working class in all her novels, and though the link between taste and morality is a central concern elsewhere as well (as it was for many nineteenth-century novelists), North and South is the only novel in which Gaskell demonstrates how a master can learn to confront social problems through sensitivity to the domestic. Patsy Stoneman perceptively notices that "North and South focuses on mill-owner rather than worker [as in Mary Barton] precisely because Elizabeth [End Page 190] Gaskell has recognized the workers' impotence to control the terms of the class struggle" (83). While many studies of North and South focus solely on the heroine Margaret Hale, I follow Stoneman in considering the intertwined development of both Margaret and the mill owner, John Thornton.
An example will suggest the prominent way in which Gaskell symbolizes Thornton's evolving taste. At the novel's close, Thornton "draw[s] out his pocket-book, in which were treasured up some dead flowers" (436), and presents the dried roses to his lover, Margaret.2 The roses may seem an unlikely indication of Gaskell's ability to think beyond the mere preservation of middle-class domestic spaces, a preservation which Shuttleworth and others view as the primary aim of the conclusion. The roses, however, indicate Thornton's newfound ability to see people in both his public and private life—especially Margaret and the mill hands—as more than mere stereotypes. At first, Thornton sees Margaret as primarily an aesthetic object, much as Margaret's first suitor, the superficial Henry Lennox, fetishizes Margaret by describing her "eyes so lustrous and yet so soft ... lips so ripe and red" (415).3 North and South states explicitly that Margaret is not comparable to a hothouse flower. In the second chapter, the narrator notes that "her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a 'yes' and 'no,' and 'an't please you, sir'" (17). In chapter 16, Margaret remarks that she does not want to be "one of those poor sickly women who likes to lie on rose leaves, and be fanned all day" (128). Indeed, Margaret's inherited money and her active care for workers as individuals make possible the plan for productive dialogue between masters and men at the end of the novel (Stoneman 79). Though Henry objectifies Margaret throughout the novel, Thornton begins to see her...