- Margaret Hale’s Books and Flowers:North and South’s Paratextual Dialogues with Felicia Hemans
Come, let me make a sunny realm around thee,Of thought and beauty! Here are books and flowers,With spells to loose the fetter which hath bound thee,The ravelled coil of this world’s feverish hours.—“Books and Flowers,” Felicia Hemans (1832)
In 1855, when Elizabeth Gaskell revised North and South in for publication in its two-volume form, she elaborated portions of the novel which, as she notes in her prefatory words to the first edition, had previously been “obliged to conform to the conditions imposed by the requirements of … weekly publication” in Charles Dickens’s Household Words, where North and South had first appeared between September 1854 and January 1855 (Gaskell 3). Scholars have explicated the extent and considered the results of these revisions, arguing, in particular, that the changes signal the fruition of Gaskell’s autonomous creative vision as a novelist, freed from the purview of Dickens’s rigid editorial control over Household Words (Hughes and Lund 103, 115–17; Uffelman 1; Jackson 62). Gaskell’s revisions also extended to the paratextual spaces of her novel when she chose to append epigraphs, the majority excerpted from the works of canonical and contemporaneous British poets, to all fifty-two chapters. Two of these epigraphs are drawn from the voluminous oeuvre of Felicia Hemans, one of the most popular and celebrated women writers of the early nineteenth century and a cultural paragon of domestic virtue and British patriotism. Although Hemans is one of many poets quoted in epigraphs in North and South, the force of her reputation and poetry as emblems of nineteenth-century domesticity and affective patriotism offers particularly suggestive parallels with and, indeed, dissonances in the context of heroine Margaret Hale’s narrative of development. Even while Gaskell’s heroine constructs her own gendered identity in relation to the exempla offered by Hemans’s characteristically fearless, self-sacrificing heroines, she challenges the model of recessive, sentimental, and conflicted middle-class Victorian femininity enshrined by Hemans’s critics and biographers and, indeed, used by Hemans herself in constructing and promoting her own authorial persona as a national “poetess” (Colby 48; Kelly 59). If, as Susan Wolfson has argued, [End Page 197] “Hemans’s poetry of ‘Woman’ traces its feminine ideal on a fabric of dark contradictions” (Borderlines 47), Margaret perceives these contradictions as a reader of her culture and seeks to reconcile her own sense of purpose in civic and national life with her affective attachments and desires, thus defining “her own ideas of duty” as a mature subject (Gaskell 417).
Jeffrey E. Jackson and Larry K. Uffelman have suggested that Gaskell’s decision to include epigraphs serves to generically destabilize North and South in its revised form, introducing contradictory perspectives that subvert the novel’s industrial realism as much as its pastoral romanticism, and inviting recursive, non-linear modes of reading that undermine the narrative telos. Whereas in Household Words, North and South had remained incomplete, “flat & grey” in its creator’s eyes (Chapple and Pollard 282), in novel form it acquired a new degree of self-consciousness as a cultural object circulating among and mediating among other print forms consumed by the Victorian middle classes. Hemans’s paratextual presence in North and South contributes to this self-consciousness in the metafictional relation that the novel creates between the epigraph by the accomplished, “afflicted and conflicted” woman writer and the constitution of its heroine (Kelly 54), a young woman, as Hilary M. Schor has so cogently argued, who is asked to interpret and choose between the cultural narratives available to her as a developing subject (121).
In what is at present the most sustained examination of North and South’s paratextual apparatus, Jackson suggests that Gaskell’s epigraphs “enact the novel’s questioning and investigation of textual authority and representation” and meditate on “the shortcomings and limits of pre-existent, textual forms” available to Gaskell as a novelist (57–58, 58). Read through the theories of Gérard Genette, Gaskell’s epigraphs help to constitute the liminal “thresholds” of the printed text that “mediate between the world...