Victorian England, having built its foundations upon Christianity, cast female identity in the Christian mold of womanhood. Society esteemed "goodness" in women, among other godly characteristics, and in this age of charity, goodness meant sacrificial service to others (Young, Portrait of an Age, 99). In New Testament the apostle Paul asserts that "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13 ). Christianity commanded the submission of women to their husbands even from the beginning in the Garden of Eden: "To the woman he said . . . your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" (Genesis 3:16). Although God commanded both sexes to serve one another, women received the primary load of servitude since they were submissive to men. This Christian concept, then, innocently interwove servitude more with the submissive female identity, limiting a woman's freedom to live for herself.

Like Jane Eyre, Margaret, the Christian heroine of North and South, serves her loved ones out of the goodness of her heart, but their growing dependency burdens her more and more. Although she good-naturedly takes on this heavy load of responsibilities for her father, mother and Bessie Higgins, Margaret inwardly yearns to escape this world peopled solely with provincial minds and weak character. She must stifle this urge to "get high up. . . see far away. . . and take a deep breath of fullness in that air" (Ch. 13) as a sacrifice to those she serves. The passage in the beginning of Chapter 31 reveals Margaret's hidden urge to free herself from the unbearable weight of her responsibilities:

Margaret went languidly about, assisting Dixon in her task of arranging the house. Her eyes were continually blinded by tears, but she had no time to give way to regular crying. The father and brother depended upon her; while they were giving way to grief she must be working, planning, considering. Even the necessary arrangements for the funeral seemed to devolve upon her. Margaret has no time to "give way to crying" because others depend on her to be strong. Her role deprives her of even expressing her heartfelt grief for her dead mother. However, she must continue to relieve her family of responsibilities, "even the necessary funeral arrangements." This necessary responsibility to support her brother and her father, while being in the truest sense Christian servitude, strips her of personal freedom to act as she herself wishes. Unable to escape the bounds of this servitude, Margaret performs her Christian duties less than passionately, even unwillingly and "languidly." Margaret knows her destiny lies beyond the realm of this provincial world. While initially frustrated and restless to move forward, she resigns herself to mechanically performing her duties, realizing the futility in attempting to escape this crystallized self into which Christianity has molded her. Margaret knows no other self other than that which Christianity taught her.


Victorian Web Overview North and South Elizabeth Gaskell

Last modified 1993