Our first section of reading for North and South already presents us with 4 distinct settings: London, Helstone, Heston, and Milton. Just as Gaskell juxtaposed old and new Keighley in Volume I, Chapter I of Life of Charlotte Bronte, she provides us with plentiful descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells, and even air quality of the cities and towns in North and South. I was particularly interested in the characterization of London, then arguably the most powerful city in the world.
London, seat of the British Empire, opens the novel. Margaret’s domestic life here is marked by relative luxury, leisure, and even little snippets of British imperial power, as demonstrated by the Indian shawls Margaret tries on, lending her an air of a “princess” (9). We see London again as the Hales are en route to Milton via Heston. In this section, the author seems to mirror her depiction of Keighley and its transformation in Mrs. Hale’s chatter about London; Gaskell writes, “It was long since Mrs. Hale had been in London; and she roused up, almost like a child, to look about her at the different streets” (57). As she gazes out, she comments on the changes and modernization underway, pointing out “immense plate-glass windows” (57), an innovation mentioned in the second paragraph of Life of Charlotte Bronte. The sense of energy and purpose is palpable to Margaret, who remarks that “every one they saw…appeared hurrying to some appointment, expected by, or expecting somebody” (57). This suggests not just a world of social engagements, but perhaps even the growth of finance and service industries, a result of the period’s globalization and economic changes due to British imperialism.
Helstone is portrayed as a natural sanctuary of “wild, free, living creatures,” “slanting sunbeams,” and “forest trees” (17), or a relic of older, simpler times rooted in land and agriculture. Milton provides a stark contrast, especially given the family’s location in Crampton, a “thoroughfare for the factory people” (71). While these two settings set up a juxtaposition of nature and modern manufacturing, I feel that the novel’s portrayal of London as a city of busy professionals keen on high society, like Henry Lennox, perhaps sheds light on another exploitative, negative nature of modernization and so-called progress; it is only through the sufferings of people like Nicholas Higgins and the colonies that such urban growth and prosperity is made possible.
p.s. sorry for the weird lines, everyone; it wouldn’t allow me to indent or space out paragraphs otherwise for some reason!