Two articles from the 1857 Illustrated London News, written a year after Gaskell wrote North and South, reveal the accuracy of her presentation of the tension between workmen and master and propose the same solution to problems it created for Victorian society.Gaskell sets her novel against the background of the master-workman relationship, with characters such as Higgins, the workman, and Thornton, the master.
The antagonism growing between workmen the master stems from the stubborn unwillingness of both sides to communicate. Because each side is ignorant of the motives and opinions of the other, their hatred and bitterness grow to a pitch. The factory owner Thornton, in Chapter 15 of North and South, when questioned "why could you not explain what good reason you have for expecting a bad trade [and thus having to lower the already low wages of the workmen]?", answers simply that "Do you give your servants reasons for your expenditure, or your economy in the use of your own money? We, the owners of capital, have a right to choose what we will do with it. . . I will not be forced to give my reasons" (164). Even though he in this way advocates the ignorance of the workmen, it is precisely this ignorance that embitters him; an exasperated Thornton says of the workmen, "and these were the men who thought themselves fitted to direct the masters in the disposal of their capital!" (196).
This lack of communication resulted into heightened anger until a workmen's strike could release it. The futility of the strike only embitters the master and especially the workmen more. However, Mr. Hale reveals the elementary means of alleviating friction between master and workmen — communication: "I wish some of the kindest and wisest of masters would meet some of you [work]men and have a good talk on these things; It would, surely, be the best way of getting over your difficulties" (293). Only in this way can the ignorance barriers fall to promote a healthy relationship.
Turning to the contemporary press, one learns that on April 28, 1856, workmen instigated the "Scotch Colliers' Strike." These workmen, striking against the master's insistence of lower wages — the same reason given in North and South — were ignorant of why the masters had to tighten their incomes, and the masters were ignorant of, or rather indifferent to, the repercussions this reduction had on the poor workmen. Anger mounted, and while
hitherto the men have, generally speaking, conducted themselves in an orderly manner. . . it is needless to dispute that such a large body of men, ranging over the country, and assembling daily in masses of from 200 to 12,000, is likely to lead to mischief, and calculated at least to excite great uneasiness" (Illustrated London News, April 28, 1856).
Margaret and the Victorian media both understood that any alternative besides violence would best resolve the problems that distanced the workmen and the masters further from each other and that communication would best serve all sides. On February 23, 1856, an article appeared sikmilarly presenting communication as the solution to the master-workmen antagonism:
Mr. Mackinson moved for a Select Committee to consider the inconvenience now felt in the country from the want of equitable tribunals, by whose means any difference between masters and operatives might be satisfactorily adjusted . . . The gentleman referred to the satisfactory manner in which the French system had resulted, by having a tribunal composed of delegates from both employers and the employed . . . and he urged the adoption of such a scheme for this country.
A year after Gaskell's novel, then, Victorian England stumbled upon the discovery that only communication would alleviate the mounting friction between master and workman. By creating a tribunal with representatives from both the workmen and the masters, ignorant opinions and unfounded anger would subside, and the two classes would live in harmony, as they did in North and South.
[Follow for another contemporary view.]
Created October 1992; last modified: 26 March 2000