Despite their steady and "honest" endeavors, neither John Crumb nor John Thornton is rewarded with immediate romantic success. Ruby and Margaret's preconceived notions of love have already been colored by unrealistic ideals — ideals which obscure the reality of two relatively humble men. Whether their dreams consist of glamour or of gentility, Ruby and Margaret find lasting happiness only as they abandon these youthful fantasies. But Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell, while propelling their heroines down similar paths, employ divergent approaches.
Trollope carefully elucidates the tension between Ruby's two lovers, leaving little of understatement or implication to be interpreted by the reader.
"But alas, she thought there might be something better than such worship [by Crumb]; and therefore, when Felix Carbury came her way, with his beautiful oval face, and his rich brown colour, and his bright hair and lovely moustache, she was lost in a feeling which she mistook for love;and when he sneaked over to her a second and a third time, she thought more of his listless praise than ever she had thought of John Crumb's honest promises. But, though she was an utter fool, she was not a fool without a principle. She was miserably ignorant; but she did understand that there was a degradation which it behoved her to avoid. She thought, as the moths seem to think, that she might fly into the flame and not burn her wings." (Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, Oxford Classics, I, 171 — location of passage in full text of the novel)
Gaskell, meanwhile, sets her work more subtly, allowing Margaret Hale to reveal her journey in her own words. Yet although the writers differ in the intensity of their authorial presence, they both situate their narratives within a larger context of Victorian social perceptions — leaving Ruby and Margaret to redefine the nature of a true "gentleman."
This redefinition, however, is the product of much agonized soul-searching. Both characters are initially placed in hostile environments (or what they perceive to be hostile environments). Ruby Ruggles' loathing for her rural, unsophisticated life matches the revulsion Margaret Hale feels at her introduction to the North of England.
"'You are quite prejudiced against Mr. Thornton, Margaret.'
'He is the first specimen of a manufacturer — of a person engaged in trade --that I ever had the opportunity of studying, papa. He is my first olive: let me make a face while I swallow it. I know he is good of his kind, and by and by I shall like the kind. I rather think I am already beginning to do so.'" (Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, 221)
The two women look to other settings for their hopes and dreams — Ruby to exotic London; Margaret to her beloved, gentle South. Trapped in these confining circumstances, they endure constant reminders of a more idealized existence. Ruby's disdain for the unabashedly common John Crumb is exacerbated by the proximity of Felix Carbury, with "his bright hair and lovely moustache." Yet Felix's praise is, at best, "listless," and Trollope himself pronounces her an "utter fool" for teasing the baronet's fickle charms. Margaret, for her part, has set up no concrete idol — but her southern sensibilities lead her to revile John Thornton, the "manufacturer" whose presence is initially as alien and unpalatable as an olive. Both Ruby and Margaret, however, eventually acknowledge their follies. Implicit in the statement of John Crumb's "honest promises" is the assumption that he, not Felix, is the right choice for Ruby — and her happiness is contingent upon recognition of this fact. Margaret herself relinquishes her childish fantasies, perhaps not without a small sigh of regret, admitting that John is "good of his kind," and that she is already beginning to like this "kind." Throughout both novels runs a theme of hard-fought, hard-won love: love which comes at the price of persistent seeking and growing maturity.
In outlining this conception of love, Trollope and Gaskell allow their audiences very different amounts of interpretive autonomy. Trollope consistently injects himself into the narrative, announcing for the reader that Ruby is "miserably ignorant." Gaskell, on the other hand, permits Margaret to establish her personality through the medium of dialogue. It is Margaret who discusses her imminent change of heart; Margaret who presents her thoughts and feelings for the audience. She acknowledges her own "prejudice," conceding that she only needs time to adjust. Written in the first person, North and South is a more directly personal work than The Way We Live Now. Unlike Trollope, who takes it upon himself to inform the reader of their appropriate reaction, Gaskell frames Margaret's growing epiphany in her own words, allowing her evolution to manifest itself gradually.
This evolution, however, is completed at the expense of ingrained conceptions of class and status. Both Ruby and Margaret confront the stereotype of a Victorian "gentleman" — the man they will each, in their own private hopes, marry. Ruby falls not only for Sir Felix's title, but for the dashing appearance and flamboyant expenditures which set him apart from John Crumb's earnest industry. Margaret, for her part, has been raised to look down on the manufacturing classes — and to these classes must John Thornton, regardless of his prosperity, always belong. But, as David Cody explains, "the concept of the gentleman was not merely a social or class designation." The Hales consider themselves a better class than the industrial workers of northern England, just as Ruby judges Felix to be of higher status than the floury John Crumb, but their predilections ultimately come to rest on more than financial status or nobility. Cody goes on to write that "there was also a moral component inherent in the concept which made it a difficult and an ambiguous thing for the Victorians themselves to define" — and this is where Gaskell and Trollope make their moral pronouncements. For while Felix Carbury is a baronet, he is certainly no gentleman. Like the "playful but tender young bard" in the Punch cartoon "Vers de Societ&eacture;," Felix lacks substance; unlike Crumb, he suffers from a total lack in moral stature. John Thornton, on the other hand, is a man of supreme integrity. When Margaret and Ruby accept this definition of a gentleman — one which emphasizes dignity over external, class-based distinctions-they are able to conclude their stories on the appropriate note of conjugal bliss, and reject the "weak-minded" role assigned to them by satirists.
Last modified 23 December 2006