Class relations play a significant role in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. But there is more to class relations than simply masters and workers — there is the relation between masters and servants in the home. This is a more traditional relationship than that found in factories, but the dynamic is essentially the same. However, gender becomes more of an issue with the serving class, as the "woman of the house" can be in a position of power over maids and servants, a position she is very unlikely to hold in the industrial world. Early in the novel, Margaret has a confrontation with her housekeeper in Helston, Dixon. Dixon makes condescending comments about Margaret's father, and she quickly comes to his defense:

Dixon had been so much accustomed to comment upon Mr. Hale's proceedings to her mistress...that she never noticed Margaret's flashing eye and dilating nostril. To hear her father talked of in this way by a servant to her face!

'Dixon,' she said, in the low tone she always used when much excited, which had a sound in it as of some distant turmoil, or threatening storm breaking far away. 'Dixon! you forget to whom you are speaking.' She stood upright and firm on her feet now, confronting the waiting-maid, and fixing her with her steady discerning eye. 'I am Mr. Hale's daughter. Go! You have made a strange mistake, and one that I am sure your own good feeling will make you sorry for when you think about it.' . . .

Dixon did not know whether to resent these decided words or to cry; either course would have done with her mistress...and she, who would have resented such words from any one less haughty and determined in manner, was subdued enough. . . .

From henceforth Dixon obeyed and admired Margaret. She said it was because she was so like poor Master Frederick; but the truth was, that Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature. [48]

Questions

1. When Gaskell attributes Dixon's subordinate desire to "many others," is she referring to many other women? Workers? Servants? What exactly is the meaning of that statement?

2. How does Dixon's relationship with the Hales compare to the relationship of a factory worker to Thornton? How does this reflect the broader "north and south" contrast?

3. What is the significance of a woman (Margaret) wielding so much power in a Victorian era relationship, albeit one so innately unbalanced as the master/servant relationship?


Victorian Web Overview North and South Elizabeth Gaskell

Last modified 5 March 2003