The opening chapters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South begin to present the thorny issue of class prejudice – in North and South, however, there is not a simple distinction between the upper and lower classes, as the issue of new industrial wealth is thrown in. The Hales themselves occupy a sort of middle class. Apart from her parents, Margaret has enjoyed living with her richer family in London, which allows her to present herself like “a princess” in dress and manners (9). Her own immediate family, however, is not so wealthy as to afford to “equip [Mrs. Hale] afresh, from top to toe” for her niece’s wedding, though they live comfortably in “‘beautiful'” Helstone (15, 13). Nevertheless, this is not enough to stop them from later being labeled as “‘penniless”‘ by Mrs. Thornton, after Mr. Hale leaves his post with the Church, which emphasizes their middling place (77).
Despite the Hales’ more humble means, Margaret demonstrates deep prejudice against those whose money and lives are tied to industry, whom she sees as lesser. She disparages her neighbors, the Gormans, for being “‘shoppy people'” who make their money “‘in trade,'” claiming her family is “‘far better off'” not associating with them (19). Despite their presumably roughly-equal wealth-level, Margaret dislikes them simply because of their association with “‘useless'” trade, rather than older, established “‘learned professions'” or “‘occupations [that] have to do with land'” (19). Her distaste for them is not based on simple class prejudice – a hierarchy with those who earn more above those who earn less – but is also influenced by how they have attained their money. She questions what “‘manufacturers'” could possibly do with “‘classics'” knowledge or the “‘accomplishments of a gentleman,'” suggesting that they are not capable of appreciating such refinements simply because of their labor (39). She and her family repeatedly refer to the “deficiencies” of the manufacturing class, thus characterizing them as less civilized, and possibly less human (39, 69). Thus, she finds the idea of living among them in a “hopeless” manufacturing town, with an omnipresent “deep lead-coloured cloud” above, “repugnan[t]” (59). The description of Milton-Northern – with its subdued grey hue and “lead” sky – further shows her distaste for manufacturing and its associates.
Perhaps most telling about the attitudes toward manufacturing workers are the descriptions of the workers themselves. Margaret is “struck” by their “slovenly looseness” compared to a “similar class in London” (59). Her prejudice, then, is not related to their wealth level alone, but to their connection to industry. Mill workers are further described as “rough” and “careless,” with “unrestrained voices” and a disregard for the “common rules of street politeness,” which originally even “frighten[s]” Margaret (71). In her view, they are uncivilized and coarse, and from their description, it seems as though Margaret finds manufacturing and its workers wholly beneath her. Despite her seeming distaste for the class, her budding friendship with Nicholas Higgins suggests that she might be able to look past her prejudice and see the “human interest” still present in Milton and its inhabitants (74).