One of the more powerful scenes in North and South takes place when Nicolas Higgins, the textile worker, visits Mr. Hale after Higgins' daughter, Bessie, dies of consumption, which various forms of air and industrial pollution have induced. Although Higgins admits that he still believes in God, he makes a powerful indictment of established religion, which he sees as a weapon of the capitalist mill-owners against their employees. A cultural relativist, Higgins tells the former clergyman:

"I reckon yo'd not ha' much belief in yo' if yo' lived here — if yo'd been bred here. I axe your pardon if I use wrong words, but what I mean by belief just now, is a-thinking on sayings and maxims and promises made by folk yo' never saw, about the things and the life yo' never saw, nor no one else. Now, yo' say those are the true things, and true sayings, a true life. I just say, where's the proof? There's many and many a wiser, and scores better learned than I am around me — folk who've had time to think on these things — while my time has had to be gu'en up to getting my bread. Well, I sees these people. Their lives is pretty open to me. They're real folk. They don't believe i' the Bible — not they. They may say they do, for form's sake; but Lord, Sir, d'ye think their first cry i' th' morning is, 'What shall I do to get hold of eteranl life?' or 'What shall I do to fill my purse this blessed day? Where shall I go? What bargains shall I strike?' The purse and the gold and the notes is real things; things as can be felt and touched; them's realities; and eternal life is all a talk. . . . If salvation, and the life to come, and what not, was true — not in men's words, but in means hearts' core — dun yo' not think they'd din us wi' it as they do wi' political 'conomy? They're mighty anxious to come round to us wi' that piece o' wisdom; but t'other would be a greater convarsion, if it were true.'"

Note Gaskell's use of class and local dialect for characterization and to further her rhetoric of realism. This indictment, which incidentally demonstrates working-class intellectual ability to her middle class reader, sounds remarkably like that made by the Evangelicals he attacks (most North Country capitalists came from the evangelical and dissenting groups than from the Established Church) on what Wilberforce called "nominal Christians." Higgins also makes a point much like those Carlyle, Thoreau, and Ruskin makes in their attacks on the status-quo.


Victorian Web Overview Elizabeth Gaskell North and South

Created c.1992; last modified 27 March 2000