[From "'What Must Not be Said': North and South and the Problem of Women's Work," by Catherine Barnes Stevenson]

In chapter forty-nine of North and South the text circles back to the problematic issue of women's work. Margaret Hale, having wrestled with her conscience, "took her life into her own hands" and tried to reconcile "home duties" with the "development of the individual":

She had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working. (508; ch. 49)

But close examination of the text's discussion of the meaning of the terms "authority" and "freedom in working" reveals fundamental incoherence. The "utter merg[ing] of a life in obedience to authority" seems at first glance to refer to obedience to the domestic imperative by which Margaret would stay at home with her aunt and cousin, living their idle life. Margaret, after all, has to struggle against her aunt's authority in order to get permission to work. On the other hand, since Margaret's "dark night of the soul" produced a determination to take her life "in her own hands," it is also possible to read "authority" in this passage as the divine command to care for one's neighbor. It is simply not clear what course of action authority sanctions or what kind of authority is being described. To further confuse matters authority is opposed to freedom in working (the very activity that it seems authority may demand) And does "freedom in working" mean the freedom to work or to choose the kind of work she will do? A number of times in her letters Gaskell takes up the issue of the single woman's right to work, yet this right is always granted within the framework of her having fulfilled the primary domestic obligation (see Letters116-117; 317).

In describing women's "most difficult" problem, then, Gaskell seems unable to sift out confusions and ambiguities. That this moment so fraught with meaning for the Victorian heroine, the moment when she chooses between .social expectation and personal conviction, should be a nexus of terms with imprecise meanings suggests that here the book "circles about the absence of that which it cannot say, haunted by the absence of certain repressed words which make their return" (Macherey 80). Although Margaret is granted the partial freedom to work during the day in the London slums so long as she return to the domestic circle in the evening, her life as a single worker is mysterious — since we never see what she does during the day — and short-lived — since she marries John Thornton soon after deciding to "take her life in her own hands." Thus, while it is clear at the novel's end that Margaret intends to use her money to improve industrial conditions and to slay actively interested in social causes, it is also clear that in the future she will be firmly entrenched in a domestic context. In fact, the final words of the novel firmly instate Margaret and John Thornton within the familial rather than the social order.

Certainly, Gaskell made a heroic attempt to expand her heroine's range beyond the confines of the romance plot — an attempt justly celebrated by recent feminist critics — and to imagine a female protagonist who contributes to the public as well as the private realm. But in so doing she was drawn again to the central problematic of her text: conflicting ideologies about women's work, whether that be factory work, social work in the slums of London, or professional authorship. Incoherence in the narrative voice, truncated plot silences, lies and evasions — all these are the traces of that ideological struggle.

Created c.1994; last modified 25 March 2000