"Margaret could not help her looks;" Gaskell writes in describing the young woman's physical appearance, "but the short curled upper lip, the round massive up-turned chin, the manner of carrying her head, her movements, full of a soft feminine defiance, always gave strangers the impression of haughtiness" (ch. 7, p.62). When John Thornton comes to take tea with the Hales in chapter 10, he is distinctly aware of the arrogance and indifference that Margaret shows him, and yet he cannot help his extreme attraction to her. For a man who exudes power and control in all other facets of his life, this is a difficult experience for Thornton to deal with. He wants to be able to demonstrate the same indifference, and yet he is drawn to Margaret's every move:
She had a bracelet on one taper arm, which would fall down over her round wrist. Mr. Thornton watched the replacing of this troublesome ornament with far more attention than he listened to her father. It seemed as if it fascinated him to see her push it up impatiently until it tightened her soft flesh; and then to mark the loosening — the fall. He could almost have exclaimed — "There it goes again!"... and he almost longed to ask her to do for him what he saw her compelled to do for her father, who took her little finger and thumb in his masculine hand, and made them serve as sugar tongs. Mr. Thornton saw her beautiful eyes lifted to her father, full of light, half-laughter, and half-love, as this bit of pantomime went on between the two, unobserved, as they thought. (ch.10, p.79)
As William A. Cohen writes on The Victorian Web, nineteenth-century "Britain is mainly remembered for two things: sexual prudishness and long novels. Through the combined effects of newspapers and novels, sexuality in the nineteenth century became the subject routinely and paradoxically signaled by its ineffability — a subject that consequently produces volatile effects at the moments when it approaches explicit articulation" ("Sex, Scandal, and the Novel"). Clearly, it would have been taboo as well as uncouth for Gaskell to blatantly express Thornton's sexual passion for Margaret. Instead, the author uses the technique of imagery in order to convey Thornton's feelings. The simile used in comparing Margaret's fingers to a pair of sugar tongs, for example, can be simultaneously viewed as both sweet and seductive. Indeed, every one of Margaret's movements in the above passage becomes sexually charged, and yet the subtlety of the description allows the scene to remain more or less innocent.
Dickens uses a similar technique in attempting to portray sexuality in The Pickwick Papers, though his methods are slightly less subtle. For instance, when Sam Weller accidentally runs into Mary in his search for Arabella, they share a delightfully humorous scene involving the portrayal of sexuality through the folding of a carpet:
Having made this arrangement with great dispatch, he assisted Mary in the long-deferred occupation of shaking the carpets. It is not half as innocent a thing as it looks, that shaking little pieces of carpet - at least, there may be no great harm in the shaking , but the folding is a very insidious process. So long as the shaking lasts, and the two parties are kept the carpet's length apart, it is as innocent an amusement as can well be devised, but when the folding begins, and the distance between them gets gradually lessened from one-half its former length to a quarter, and then to an eighth, and then to a sixteenth, and then to a thirty-second if the carpet be long enough, it becomes dangerous. We do not know to a nicety how many pieces of carpet were folded in this instance, but we can venture to state that as many pieces as there were, so many times did Sam kiss the pretty housemaid. (ch. 38, p.524)
The sexuality in this instance is much more explicit than it is in Gaskell's writing, and yet the imagery of the carpet folding and the comical tone that Dickens employs in describing the scene once again allows for there to be a sense of innocence. This is especially true since the character involved in this situation is Sam Weller, who tends to defy many of the Victorian standards in the first place.
Both Gaskell and Dickens tactfully illustrate the idea that sex can often be embedded in acts that one might normally consider devoid of any emotional sentiment. Nevertheless, despite their similarity in theme, there is an important distinction between these two passages in terms of fantasy and realism. North and South is often assigned to the mode of high realism, and yet, in the above passage, Gaskell purports to be inside John Thornton's mind. From one external cue (the shifting of Margaret's bracelet), the author somehow knows Thornton's innermost thoughts and feelings. In a sense, this is highly fantastic since nobody can actually read someone else's mind. In The Pickwick Papers passage, on the other hand, there is no claim made on the internal monologue of the characters. In fact, the "historians" (i.e. Dickens) who are supposedly recounting the events of the Pickwickians are good enough to admit that they "venture to state" kisses were involved in the carpet folding. They know nothing for certain, of course. Thus, the type of physical description used in The Pickwick Papers is in many ways more realistic than the technique involved in North and South, even though the actual plot of Dickens' novel is without a doubt more fantastic.
Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. New York, London: Penguin Books, 1999.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Last modified 21 March 2003