Religious Doubt in Gaskell's North and South

One can clearly see the distinction of the working class and the middle class in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, and many would note that as the novel’s theme. However, the more pressing issue in the novel is that of religious doubt, which the difference of northern and southern England exposes. The working class is rooted deeply in the Victorian crisis of faith, a movement not solely held by those with access to privileged ideas and philosophers. Although they are not necessarily moved to doubt by an anti-Christian movement of ideas, they have no reason to believe. Gaskell’s work shows a definite change, a change toward modernity and industrialization, which carries the burden of changing the religious ideas of nineteenth-century society. Mr. Hale’s crisis of faith serves as a catalyst to move the family to the industrialized town of Milton-Northern, where they integrate themselves into the working-class society that has an even lesser sense of belief in things beyond the physical world. Nicholas Higgins is portrayed as the lead character in this theme of religious doubt, taking Mr. Hale’s doubt to a deeper level.

The real story in the novel begins when Mr. Hale decides to leave the Church and his home in Helstone. He announces to Margaret, “I can meet the consequences of my painful, miserable doubts; but it is an effort beyond me to speak of what has caused me so much suffering” (Gaskell 35). Margaret is shocked at this announcement, and thus begins the spiraling journey they will take into the heart of working class England. Mr. Hale’s decision to leave the Church is a precursor to the religious issues brought forth later in the novel. Although it is never fully investigated, it does signify the permanent change in Victorian England.

Rosemarie Bodenheimer mentions that “later readers with the whole novel in hand have criticized the treatment of Mr. Hale’s defection from the Church of England as unmotivated, or without serious consequences, or as a mere pretext for the family’s removal to Milton-Northern” (p. 283). However, Gaskell had any number of choices to get this family into the industrialized town of Milton, but she chose to use this as the method of change. This shows that this novel is concerned with the growing religious doubt of that period. “Mr. Hale’s decision is not a weakness but a placement of emphasis: his irrevocable change, its statement of doubt in the face of a traditional order” (Bodenheimer 284). His decision cannot be merely written off as plot device, used solely to move the family. It is a statement about the change taking place in England and of the novel’s characters who are a living part of that change.

Assumptions can only be made as to what Mr. Hale’s doubts are because he obviously believes in God, and he himself says that he has no “doubts as to religion; not the slightest injury to that” (Gaskell 35). Moreover, he will not speak about the specifics of his doubt. However, he “has grown apart from his social role and come to a state of mind, indefinite and yet absolute, in which he cannot sign the Articles which signify his allegiance to a higher authority” (Bodenheimer 283-284). Although readers can only make guesswork about the details, they must keep in mind that Mr. Hale is a clergyman, and it would be unrealistic for Gaskell to let him tell all the details of his dissent from the Church to his daughter. This device, although it is a plot device used to get the family out of the comforts of Helstone, serves a larger purpose, which leads them into a world in which religious doubt is common.

John Kucich writes, “One direct sign of doubt, however, is the widespread treatment of clergy…exemplary ministers who have lost their faith, like Mr. Hale in North and South” (pp. 214-215). One must not be too quick to think he has doubts about his spirituality, but that he has “doubts by the authority of the Church” (Gaskell 35). Quitting the Church was enough to force the family to move to a place where no one knew them. It was undoubtedly hard for Margaret to accept. However, “the hard reality was, that her father had so admitted tempting doubts into his mind as to become a schismatic – an outcast” (Gaskell 43). He could no longer live in Helstone because leaving the Church made him an outcast.

Since Mr. Hale’s religious doubt functions as a precursor to a larger narrative theme, one must establish that theme clearly. The industrialized town of Milton-Northern is largely filled with working class citizens. Those citizens are troubled by what they can see and feel and what they cannot, the reality of life’s hardships and the emptiness of religion. No character shows this distinction more clearly than Nicholas Higgins, and the scene in which he talks to Mr. Hale after his daughter’s death. Higgins is evidently a broken man at this point, but this serves to draw out his true feelings about life.

The conversation starts with a reference to Milton-Northern: “I reckon yo’d not ha’ much belief in yo’ if yo’ lived here, — if yo’d been bred here” (Gaskell 222). Gaskell starts at this point because she is emphasizing the difference between northern and southern England. The inhabitants of the south have more leisure time to think and ponder on religious ideas, but in the north, people are on the move, always working to provide for their family, not having much time to wonder whether God exists. This emphasis marks the novel’s religious theme – in the north, one cannot believe, honestly, a benevolent God resides over them. The hardships they must endure precludes any time for reflection on religion. “D’ye think their first cry i’ the’ morning is, ‘What shall I do to get hold on eternal life?’ or ‘What shall I do to fill my purse this blessed day?’” (Gaskell 223). Their worries are not over religious matters, but over how to live with as little suffering as possible. The contrast here is between “folk who’ve had time to think on these things” and the workers who are trying to earn their “bread” (Gaskell 223). This is a contrast between the north and south that Gaskell wants to point out.

Kucich wants to point out that the religious doubt presented in Victorian fiction is “the breakdown of a sense of social wholeness” because labeling something as religious doubt in that period was not an “appropriate” subject to write about (p. 214). Gaskell’s novel lacks this “sense of social wholeness.” The industrialized north clashed with traditional ideals. “One cause of Victorian doubt was a growing sense that moral sensibility was no longer served by the religious and social institutions that were supposed to represent it” (Kucich 214). One could not abide by the traditional institutions in this new, industrialized world – it was much too different.

There is the obvious question as to whether Gaskell accurately portrayed Victorian religious doubt, the discontent of the northern working class as it clashed with the principles of the south. There was doubtless a movement of religious ideas in nineteenth century England, and that this movement echoed across the world. Victorian intellectuals, or the “educated class,” served “its society both as a guide in matters of value and as a critic of its society’s goals and standards” (Meyer 586). The Victorian crisis of faith of the educated class served as a precursor to a larger movement, although it would become “evident only decades later” (Meyer 586). This movement, though it was felt around the world, is shown clearly in the novel’s industrialized Milton-Northern.

Meyer mentions, “Doubt was no longer a matter of personal bafflement but a badge of intellectual honesty” (p. 589). It isn’t clear that Nicholas Higgins is an intellectual because of his improper use of the English language, but beneath that, there is a man that is thinking, a man that can honestly and intellectually say he has doubts. “The purse and the gold and the notes is real things; things as can be felt and touched; them’s realities; and eternal life is all a talk” (Gaskell 223). Higgins is being openly honest about the state of the minds of the working class. “They don’t believe i’ the Bible, — not they. They may say they do, for form’s sake” (Gaskell 223). Gaskell has a clear grasp on the world in which she is living. She is not exaggerating the effects of the movement of religious doubt that was started by the educated class. The working class wanted something they can touch, they can feel, and ultimately something that they know is there because they do not have the time to contemplate the meaning of life.

“If salvation, and life to come, and what not, was true – not in men’s words, but in men’s hearts’ core – dun yo’ not think they’d din us wi’ it as they do wi’ political ’conomy?” asks Higgins of Mr. Hale (Gaskell 223). Mr. Hale responds that the masters think it is not their place to pass on wisdom of religion to their workers, but that is not his view. This is another difference between the north and south. Mr. Thornton only wants to teach men how to work, not how to believe. Part of industrialization, of moving toward modernity, in its fast-paced course, was the idea that it was not important, nor was it a master’s, or employer’s, place to pass on religion to his workers. Higgins speaks more toward the traditional workplace, “If yo’d spoken o’ religion as a thing that, if it was true, it didn’t concern all men to press on all men’s attention, above everything else in this ’varsal earth” (223). The state of society had changed. The focus was reassigned to merely the work itself and nothing more because of the changes that were taking place. It wasn’t a top priority, whether one believed or not, to get into the religious affairs of one’s workers.

The Victorian crisis of faith wasn’t only a movement of intellectuals but of the working class. It could hardly be called a movement of society if the common person were not involved. Meyer notes, “Doubt may intrude on a person’s every mood, making it virtually impossible for one to trust in anything. Such doubt was a cultural ailment, not just a personal problem: it was the existential malady of the late nineteenth century” (p. 590). This doubt placed itself into the hearts of not only the members of Victorian England but into the heart of the culture itself. Even if one believed, there was still doubt all around, and that affected every person in that society.

After Mr. Hale’s questioning of Higgins’ belief in God, Higgins says he doesn’t “believe in any other life than this, in which [Bessy] dreed such trouble, and had such never-ending care; and I cannot bear to think it were all a set o’ chances, that might ha’ been altered wi’ a breath o’ wind” (Gaskell 224). Higgins is no doubt upset by the life-changing event of Bessy’s death, but this allows him to show his true feelings. “There’s many a time when I’ve thought I didna believe in God, but I’ve never put it fair out before me in words, as many men do” (Gaskell 224). Higgins is passing over to the other side, where he can believe in no God. However, this isn’t merely a state of change that took place at this particular scene in the novel. It is the moment where it is clear that his mind is made up on religious matters. This change in Higgins had been taking place long before this conversation, in him and in the hearts and souls of the people of nineteenth-century England.

Higgins’ character represents the whole of Victorian society. “There’s but one thing steady and quiet i’ all this reeling world, and, reason or no reason, I’ll cling to that” (Gaskell 224). He brushes most of the religious conversation off by saying, “I’m welly dazed wi’ sorrow, and at times I hardly know what I’m saying” (Gaskell 224). However, it doesn’t change the fact that he did say those things, or more so, that Gaskell had him say them. There is obviously a concern with religious doubt in Mr. Hale and Higgins’ conversation, and it is eating at Higgins’ heart. If Bessy didn’t die, there would’ve been no need for this conversation to take place at all. Gaskell uses her death to move the novel deeper into the realm of religious doubt. However, by using the death as this type of device, it also hinders its effect. Readers may overlook it as a scene where a man is merely feeling sorrow for his daughter’s death. It must be taken for what it is though – a cry of Victorian society, of a people so seriously rooted in religious doubt that they cannot escape.

The Victorian crisis of faith, as mentioned, was more than people’s personal beliefs about the existence of God or the authority of the Church. It was a movement in the souls of a people, which poured itself over into rest of the world. Mr. Hale’s religious doubt, although a minor detail in the larger narrative, put the Hale family in the midst of a northern English society fueled by nothing but what they can touch and see. This society was not lacking in religious knowledge but in religious belief. Gaskell used the contrast between north and south to emphasize the state of societal change. Industrialization was a vehicle for doubt in the nineteenth century as people’s priorities became more focused on earning a living, wages they can use, and material possessions they could hold. Gaskell’s focus might have been on the changes brought forth in Victorian England, but those changes made a lasting impact on religion in the minds of its people.

Works Cited

  • Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. “North and South: A Permanent State of Change.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 34(1979): 281-301
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
  • Kucich, John. “Intellectual debate in the Victorian novel: religion, science, and the professional.” The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, pp. 212-232. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001
  • Meyer, D. H. “American Intellectuals and the Victorian Crisis of Faith.” American Quarterly 5(1975): 585-603.