here are numerous similarities in plot between Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856). Both works have heroines who leave sunny southern homes — for Margaret it is the South of England, for Aurora it is Italy — and must adjust to chillier, bleaker conditions in northern climates, fictional Milton in the North of England and "the frosty cliffs" (Book I, line 251) of England respectively. Each woman is initially proud and gradually becomes more humble, as well as humbling the man who is in love with her. Furthermore, Gaskell and Browning both deal with class issues and the relationships that develop between members of different classes.
Margaret scoffs at people whom she views as below her, particularly people in trade. By the novel's end, not only has her friendship with the poor Higgins family warmed her to people below her social station, but she has learned to respect and love Mr. Thornton, a manufacturer. Margaret teaches Thornton to be less tyrannical with his workers, and he ultimately begins providing them with meals to improve their standard of living, thereby moving from a laissez faire system of management to a more paternalistic one. Thornton is also humbled by losing his wealth at the end of the novel.
Aurora's humbling occurs because she initially holds herself aloof from her cousin Romney, even though she loves him, since she is convinced of her great potential as a poet. Although her conviction proves valid in the course of the poem, she holds it too early, and she later owns that she was proud before she was experienced. She says, "If I, that day, and, being the girl I was, / Had shown a gentler spirit, less arrogance, / It had not hurt me"[Book VIII, lines 496-498]. Romney initially denigrates Aurora's position as a woman poet, particularly comparing the uselessness of her poetry in society to the utility of his acts for social good. At the end of the poem, however, he comes to feel the extreme power of her poetry which allows people to discover truths about themselves and therefore has a social benefit much greater than his own attempted good works (which actually lead to the burning of his home by unsatisfied members of his phalansteries). He is also physically humbled by going blind near the poem's end.
But, in this last book,
You showed me something separate from yourself,
Beyond you; and I bore to take it in,
And let it draw me. You have shown me truths
O June-day friend, that help me now at night,
When June is over! truths not yours, indeed,
But set within my reach by means of you:
Presented by your voice and verse the way
To take them clearest. [Book VIII, lines 605-613]
Is Browning making an argument for the greater social potential of poetry over action? While Romney seems convinced of this argument by the end of the poem, does Aurora?
Although the female protagonists and their eventual lovers may be humbled at the close of North and South and Aurora Leigh, the lower class characters are neither significantly humbled nor raised up in society. In some ways, Gaskell and Browning express similar beliefs regarding the poor: they share a worldview that differentiates between the deserving and the undeserving poor — those who are sick, elderly, or abused as opposed to those who are lazy, faithless, or have fallen from grace. Furthermore, both authors, despite the strong relationships that develop between people from different social stratum — the Hales and the Higginses, the Leighs and Marian Erle — ultimately uphold the separations between the classes and do not create miracles of social mobility: Higgins remains a member of the working class; Marian Erle does not continue to live with Aurora or marry Romney Leigh.
However, there are also ways in which Gaskell and Browning depict the poor quite differently. Gaskell's Higgins is an opinionated, determined, outspoken man who actively challenges his social position by being involved in a workers' union as well as by going to request work after he has been fired. He is autonomous while Browning's Marian Erle, on the other hand, is the epitome of a submissive character, even to the point of being compared to a dog.
Forward then she sprang,
And dropping her impassioned spaniel head
With all its brown abandonment of curls
On Romney's feet, we heard the kisses drawn
Through sobs upon the foot, upon the ground —
"O Romney! O my angel! O unchanged,
Though since we've parted, I have past the grave!
But death itself could only better thee,
Not change thee! — Thee I do not thank at all:
I but thank God who made thee what thou art,
So wholly godlike." [lines 276-286]
Browning's language vividly evokes a subservient, groveling dog who obediently worships at the feet of his master. Marian is physically below Romney, as she speaks, and by describing him as "godlike," she raises him up even higher, thereby maintaining her own humble position. Is the acquired humility of Aurora, Romney, Margaret, and Thornton valued more than the natural humility of, for example, Marian and Bessy Higgins?
Despite the fact that Marian continues to adore or worship Romney — she admits that she is not sure which sentiment she feels although it seems to be some combination of both — she nevertheless moves naturally out of the way so that Romney and Aurora may finally be together. What are Browning's motives for Marian's withdrawal of her rightful hold on Romney — which even he acknowledges? Is Marian's departure here purely to make way for Aurora and Romney's love to blossom? Or is Browning also interested in making the argument that people cannot truly fall in love and marry across classes because their inherent differences and ingrained ways of viewing each other make such unions impossible? Could any of these protagonists ever humble themselves enough to unite romantically with people who come from a significantly lower class than they do?
Margaret falls in love with Mr. Thornton, who is in a different class than she is. However, he was not initially from a distinctly lower class: his father speculated unsuccessfully and then killed himself, leaving his family poor and requiring that Thornton work his way up in society. Is it significant that Thornton's family was initially middle class? Does that fact make him a more acceptable choice for a husband for Margaret? Or are Thornton's original class roots less important than the experiences he has had? Is the significant element in Margaret and Thornton's relationship the fact that he is a manufacturer and less educated than she is, but that they are each humbled enough so that they fall in love in spite of these differences?
Last modified 16 October 2003