Another thing I really liked about N&S is that Gaskell is subtly subversive in regard to the description and characterisation of her heroine. At the beginning of the novel, Margaret expresses her impatience with all the “trifles” of the arrangements for her cousin’s wedding: “A sense of indescribable weariness of all the arrangements for a pretty effect, in which Edith had been busied as supreme authority for the last six weeks, oppressed her just now […]” (Chapter 1). She doesn’t really seem to be into talks about the latest fashion, about ribbons, frills, and what not.
After this glimpse of her character in Chapter 1, her physical appearance is then described in Chapter 2:
Sometimes people wondered that parents so handsome should have a daughter who was so far from regularly beautiful; not beautiful at all, was occasionally said. He mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and ‘an’t please you, sir.’
In other words, neither in appearance nor in temperament does Margaret fit the Victorian ideal of femininity: she might be pure (after all, she is terribly upset about being regarded as a desirable woman — think of her reaction to the proposals of marriage she receives from Henry Lennox and Thornton!), but submissive, decorous, frail or angelic she’s not. The quotation above clearly doesn’t only indicate that she enjoys intelligent conversations, but also that she probably is not afraid of butting heads with the person she’s having a discussion with. Thus it prepares the reader for Margaret’s heated discussions with Thornton later on in the novel.
The two of them engage in a verbal battle that is quite ferocious at times (when she rejects him, Thornton feels as she has “given him a sound blow with her fists” (Chapter 26)) and that contrasts with Henry Lennox’s empty flattery. While Thornton actually listens to Margaret and lets his actions be influenced by her, Lennox thinks her mind “could easily […] be led to embrace all objects on which he had set his heart” (Chapter 49). Both men liken Margaret to an empress, but whereas on Thornton’s part this is an expression of his admiration and his growing (or rather, instant) regard for her,* Lennox is clearly annoyed by what he sees as her inappropriate, superior ways: “She has been very farouche with me for a long time; and is only just beginning to thaw a little from her Zenobia ways” (Chapter 59). (Jerk!) This, of course, makes it more than clear that Thornton is the better partner for Margaret.
The extent of Margaret’s unconventionality first becomes obvious during the dinner party at Thornton’s:
She was surprised to think how much she enjoyed this dinner. She knew enough now to understand many local interests — nay, even some of the technical words employed by the eager millowners. (Chapter 20)
In other words, she is interested in what the men talk about. And what do they talk about? Milton politics.
Oh. My. Gosh.
A woman interested in politics!
This is subversive stuff indeed, given the Victorian ideology of the separation of the two spheres. The Victorians regarded life as being divided into two spheres, the public sphere and the private sphere. The public sphere is that of men — they venture out into the big world to earn money and to talk/make politics. Women by contrast occupy the private sphere; they’re responsible for the household and for the children. Because they’re so frail and ethereal, they must sheltered from the world outside. But in N&S Margaret clearly ventures beyond her own sphere, and never more so when she rushes out to face the rioters at Marlborough Mills and throws herself at Thornton to protect him from the angry mob.
Traditionally, Victorian heroines who dare to move beyond their proper place and beyond the Victorian ideal of femininity are cruelly punished for this transgression. (Just think of the Lady of Shalott, who has to die after she assumes a male subject position by looking out of the window of her tower!) In N&S, by contrast, the heroine is rewarded for her daring: by her very unconventionality she wins the love of powerful, passionate man, who respects her and listens to her.
So yay! for Margaret! And a double yay!! for Gaskell!
* See their first meeting in Chapter 7:
Her dress was very plain: a close straw bonnet of the best material and shape, trimmed with white ribbon; a dark silk gown, without any trimmin or flounce; a large Indian shawl, which hung about her in long heavy folds and which she wore as an empress wears her drapery. […] Mr. Thornton was in habits of authority himself, but she seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once.