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

Bessy Higgins, the text's representative woman worker, has "secured the right not to work" only through fatal disability. The iconic figure of the disabled mill girl, the victim of the unhealthy working conditions in the factories, was a familiar one to Victorian readers of blue books on factory conditions or of Charlotte Tonna's works. As Catherine Gallagher observes, advocates of The Ten Hours Movement focused on the sufferings of young girls (who were of course assumed to be weaker and more passive than their male counterparts) in order to generate support for legislative intervention on behalf of all workers who were thereby assumed to be feminine and defenseless (128-29).

Initially at least, Bessy also evokes that favorite Victorian sentimental fantasy — the dying young woman. But, although she is pale, sickly, weak, and obsessed with images of heaven, Bessy is neither a little Nell, a Sarah Green, nor a Helen Fleetwood. She is rebellious, angry, unpredictable, articulate, curious. "I want to know so many things, and am so tossed about wi' wonder," she exclaims to Margaret (133; ch. 11). Like Jane Eyre she longs for wider vistas: "I've always wanted to get high up and see far away, and take a deep breath o' fullness in that air" (144; ch. 13). Having dutifully worked to support her family, she confesses that "I've longed for to be a man to go spreeing" (185; ch. 17). In a moment of rage at the inexplicable pain of her life she lashes out at Margaret: "I could go mad and kill yo' I could" (145; ch. 13). . . .

Unable to accept her life and its meaningless Suffering, Bessy turns to the mysterious prophecies of the Book of Revelation. In his study of popular millenarianism, J.F.C. Harrison comments on the psychological appeal of this way of thinking: "the search for meaning, in both personal experience and the world at large, usually found expression in some kind of eschatology" (228).


Victorian Web Overview Elizabeth Gaskell North and South

Created c.1994; last modified 25 March 2000

Last modified 8 June 2007