As we’ve already witnessed in Jane Eyre, 19th-Century society and behavior was principally guided by restraint and repression. This especially applied to women, and even more especially to upper and middle class women, who were expected to exercise “lady-like” and proper behavior. There was the notion that girls had to be civilized to turn into gentlewoman.
Margaret, in North and South, is the perfect example of this typical 19th-Century gentlewoman. She is constantly suppressing her true feelings, yielding to the place that her society has decided to cage her in. Margaret grew up in the English countryside in the tiny “hamlet” of Helstone, “all untamed from the forest.” However when she turned a certain age, she was forced against her will to move to London, where she could be better “tamed.” Even from the very start of her time in London, Margaret is “bidden not to cry,” (p. 10). She feels ashamed of her rebellious and improper behavior, even though it seems natural to us that a child forced to move away from home would cry on the first night.
Margaret’s actions are constantly regulated by shame. She is frequently described as having the “healthy shame of a child,” (p.19) or making a “strong effort to be calm” (p. 30). Gaskell further illustrates Margaret’s hesitations through the use of parentheses. An example of this is when she is rejecting Henry Lennox, when Gaskell parenthetically inserts: “‘disagreeable,’ she was going to say, but stopped short” (p. 31).
Margaret and the controlled society that she is used to starkly contrasts with the “unrestrained voices” and “carelessness of all common rules of street politeness” that she sees in the factory people of Milton. Among other demonstrations of improper behavior, Margaret is subject to the factory workers’ 19th-Century version of cat-calling, which she finds shocking but strangely charming. In Milton, the ideas of proper behavior are constantly challenged.