John Henry Cardinal Newman's description of the gentlemen (1852) says that
"It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain . . . the true gentleman . . . carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast. . . he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd . . He is patient, forebearing, and resigned."
Charles William Day, in his 1843 Hints on Etiquette similarly admonishes any gentleman who invites others into his home to "Remember that all your guests are equal for the time being, and have a similar claim to your courtesies; nay if there be a difference shown, those of lesser rank require a little more attention than the rest, that they may not be made to feel their inferiority."
These statements into account, one might no tconsider remarkable Mr. Hale's gracious welcome to Higgins. However, Newman and Day probably did not imagine that gentlemen would ever come into social contact with workers like Higgins, and they did not mean the "adherence to . . . politeness towards those with whom you may have dealings" that Day advocated to apply to mill-workers.
Gaskell, though, obviously advocated equal treatment for the working class. She comes close to preaching in this passage, when respect from a "better" changes Nicholas into a "new creature, " from the "drunken infidel" that he was " in the rough independence of his own hearthstone." Contact with Margaret gives dying Bessy hope and inspiration, and Thornton's pivotal moment in the text comes when he realizes that Higgins and he are both men, both human, not two entirely different sorts of animal. Her social agenda sharply distinguishes Gaskell from Brontë. The characters in Jane Eyre accept the social hierarchy unthinkingly, and the character of no one is influenced by interaction with a person from a different class. Jane is very aware of her precise place on the social ladder, thankful that Mrs. Fairfax has "no grandeur to overwhelm, no stateliness to embarrass," but quick to inform the Rivers' servant Hannah that she is "very" "book-learned." Like other subjects, class in Jane's world is treated personally. While she accepts Blanche Ingram as her societal superior, she has no qualms about feeling immensely superior to her as an individual. Brontë is not in the least concerned with the plight of the working class, and so, unlike Gaskell, her book does not offer any remedies to solve it.
Both authors, however, show a character interacting with a person of a lower class in order to shed light on that character. Mr. Hale is seen as kind, good, inherently generous and socially correct, because of the way he deals with Nicholas Higgins. Brontė describes Blanche Ingram's behavior around her social inferiors to drive home the fact that she is rude, mean-spirited, inconsiderate and spoiled. When a footman at Thornfield hesitates to carry out one of her orders, she shouts at him, "Cease that chatter, blockhead! and do my bidding." After a (supposed) gypsy fortune-teller tells her things she doesn't want to hear, she remarks that "I think Mr. Eshton will do well to put the hag in the stocks to-morrow morning," and her descriptions of the "merry days" when she would ruin the lives of her governesses are nothing less than despicable. In this way Gaskell and Brontë use the same method to illuminate two extremely different people.
Created October 1992; last modified: 26 March 2000