Upon hearing of Mr. Hale's decision to leave the Church of England, Mrs. Hale's loyal and ever-present maidservant, Dixon, comments to Margaret:

And Master thinking of turning Dissenter at his time of life...I said to missus, "What would poor Sir John have said? he never liked your marrying Mr. Hale, but if he could have known it would have come to this, he would have sworn worse oaths than ever, if that was possible" Dixon's venture to confront her ostensible master indirectly can easily be compared to Sam Weller's attempt at the same, when he, by means of the friendly debt to his father, gets himself thrown into debtor's prison, so that Pickwick would be powerless to send him away, as was his intent. Both servants, in some fashion, rebel against the power over them, and both reap the consequences of their actions.

For Elizabeth Gaskell, these consequences are the most decided articulation of the rules regarding a servant's position in the home — specifically, that it is unacceptable for a servant to cast moral judgments upon her employers. In her response to Dixon's unprofessional commentary, Margaret firmly and convincingly re-establishes the line between servant and family, which the maid had presumed to cross by speaking candidly.

Gaskell leaves no room for doubt of Margaret's stand. The young lady makes clear her response, first reiterating the social order, "You forget who you are speaking to. I am Mr. Hale's daughter," and then emphasizing the unspoken understanding which ought to have been present to check Dixon's impropriety. In addition to words, Margaret's vehement, yet calmly convinced manner also supports her position, "the low tone she always used when excited, which had a sound in it as of some distant turmoil, or threatening storm breaking far away." By Margaret's response and its after-effects, we gain a great understanding of the dynamic between the two women, which by the point of this incident in North and South had not been thoroughly examined.

North and South gives full voice to the traditional and accepted employer-servant relationship, with all of its rules of etiquette, and those times when the rules are bent. It was not uncommon for the servant to have lived in a household for years and not be permitted to once speak candidly to their employer. Rules such as these were enforced in various ways, from being published to being preached. Masters and ministers often cited he Bible and God's will as justification for the existing social order and the necessity of being a "good servant" (Pamela Horn, Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, 126). Codes of servitude also varied in the severity and mood of their practice. As much variation existed in the master-servant relationship as in any other employment situation. Some servants were disruptive and lazy, while some were efficient and attentive, and likewise some masters were harsh, while others were merely cold and strict, and still others were lenient and kind. In rare cases, either of both parties could even be considered loving (Horn 140). The latter form of this association we see in the Pickwick Papers.

Sam Weller also knowingly puts himself in opposition to his Master in the debtors prison. Dickens, however, has a different opinion than Gaskell does on the acceptability of this action. From his first hiring, the story highlights Sam constantly for his loyalty to his master, and no less so when Pickwick is in prison, for he disregards his master's authority in order to remain by him.

Dickens completely omits Pickwick's response, rather, choosing to rely on the reader's imagination in light of the impression of the Pickwick-Sam dynamic, which has already been created and rehashed over and over, for Pickwick's response to Sam's insolence. Dickens, by delineating the two men's relationship as symbiotic and amicable, has engendered an understanding with the reader, so that he need not supply a response. Rather, the joke is that we all, Dickens and readers alike, know that Pickwick's rejoinder to Sam's, "If its forty year to come, I shall be a pris'ner, and I'm wery glad on 't...now the murder's out, and, damme, there's an end on it" must be a benevolently amused and greatly affected smile and a "Young fellow, you are a fool, and true to my own heart," or something of the like.

It is true, Dixon can be said to have the same fervent loyalty to Mrs. Hale as Sam has to Pickwick. For Gaskell's purposes, however, Dixon's loyalty is an obstacle to domestic harmony, and Margaret's calculated response is testimony to that fact. By contrast, the understanding Dickens has built with his readers makes Sam's disobedience an act nothing less than the manifestation of the spirit of a good servant.

[Follow for another discussion of the Gaskell passage]

Last modified 1996