Sympathy for the Working Classes in North and South and “Fencing for Humanity”

By J. F.


North and South is a novel that to its very core is concerned with divisions within society, a concept embodied in its dichotomous title. The resultant tensions from these divisions are most visible in the tension shown between factory workers and their masters. Gaskell portrays the struggles of these oppressed workers with a passionate, yet balanced eye, eager to show to the public the reality of the harsh lives led by the working classes in the Victorian era. And the same passionate voice Gaskell uses to speak of events such as Bessy’s slowly deteriorating health appears in the first article of the No. 264 issue of Household Words, published in eighteen-fifty-five.


Household Words, a journal published every week and conducted by Dickens, was a journal aimed at, like many of Dickens’ public projects, educating people from all walks of society in the social issues of the time whilst providing them with a source of entertainment. Published from 1850 to 1859, and later absorbed into Dickens’ All the Year Round, it was “the comrade and friend to many thousands of people” (“Household Words”). This camaraderie and sympathy for the working class clearly appears in the article “Fencing with Humanity”. The article, clearly on the side of the workers, speaks of the deplorable rate of accidents occurring at the time within factories across the country; to wit “Upwards of two thousand accidents… occurred in the half year, last reported upon” (“Fencing with Humanity” 241). It does so with an unflinching resolve to portray these events as they really happened; the reader is not spared any of the details: the workers are graphically “slain by every torture, from breaking on the wheel to being torn limb from limb” (“Fencing with Humanity” 241). The danger inherent to work in the factory is less violently acknowledged by Gaskell in Bessy’s deteriorating health due to cotton flake. Though Bessy’s degeneration is less violent, it is by no means less pitiable; the frustration is palpable when the condition is revealed to be preventable, as it is with the accidents in the article, of which it is said that “all but about a hundred… were… preventable” (“Fencing with Humanity” 241). The wheel that would save Bessy is never installed because it “brings in no profit” (Gaskell 102), an inhuman callousness mirroring the conduct of factory owners in the article to whom “the price of life is twenty pounds” (“Fencing with Humanity” 241). The author’s sympathy in the article is due to changes in how the working classes were being viewed and portrayed; likewise we are instead presented with characters such as Nicholas Higgins by Gaskell, who though acerbic is capable of powerful emotion at times, saying “So help me god! man[sic] alive” (Gaskell 145).

Justin householdp243

This sensitivity contrasts with the anger brought to bear against the owners of these mills and factories in the novel, against characters such as Thornton. Thornton is ignorant of the plight of the staff of his mill, saying “Yes; the fools will have a strike” (Gaskell 117), and doubly so of the opportunities afforded to him and not to others; though he is being tutored in the classics, he has education enough that Homer is not “an unknown book” (Gaskell 85). Similar to how he paints the supposedly willfully ignorant mill workers, the owners quoted in the article paint the workers of their mills, reportedly saying that “the victims have been cautioned, and that they were heedless of instructions.” (“Fencing with Humanity” 241), placing the blame squarely on the worker’s shoulders, and not their own. Clearly Gaskell was not forming the character of Thornton from nothing; examples of these non-arguments clearly held a place in the consciousness of Victorians. The same aspiration to rebuke the inhumane arguments of these owners seen in the article, which questions “who is guilty of disobedience,—the masters or the men?” (“Fencing with Humanity” 242), persists in the principal character of Margaret Hale, who battles Thornton on every point of his philosophy, saying, for example, “You consider all who are unsuccessful… as your enemies” (Gaskell 84-85).

In conclusion, the plight of the working classes was a topic largely on the minds of the Victorians; both in their fiction and their non-fiction they were curious to unravel the truth from their preconceptions of the working classes, and respect the humanity laid there within.

Works cited

“Fencing with Humanity.” Household Words: A Weekly Journal. 9 (14 Apr. 1855): 241-243. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. London: Penguin, 1995. Print.

“Household Words.” The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals: 1800 – 1900, n.p. Web. 20 Oct. 2013

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s