Margaret Hale is raised in fashionable Harley Street along with her cousin Edith, but when Edith marries, Margaret returns to Hampshire County in the South of England to live with her mother and her father, a country clergyman. The pastoral life she has imagined is quickly disrupted by her father's confession that he is no longer able to remain true to the Church of England and will leave his position to become a tutor of adult learners in the northern manufacturing town of Milton. The traumatic relocation is exacerbated by Mrs. Hale's diagnosis with a "deadly disease" (probably cancer) soon after the move.

Margaret takes charge of most of the practical aspects of the move and then assumes charge of her mother's illness, acting as an intermediary between the doctor and her parents. As well as learning more about her own family's servant, Dixon, who has been with her mother since her girlhood, Margaret becomes friendly with textile worker Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy, who is dying of consumption (tuberculosis) from inhaling textile dust. The Milton workers' activism and independence appeal to Margaret; she rethinks both class and labor relations as a result, including charitable relationships. Her strong opinions and actions bring her into conflict with the family of John Thornton, a factory owner and self-made man who is also one of her father's students.

When Margaret shields John from a stone thrown by a striking worker, however, he avows his love for her. A series of obstacles to the relationship include Margaret's initial rebuff of John and her dishonesty about her exiled brother's secret return to his mother's deathbed. Before the ending brings John and Margaret back together--as well as calming the tension between workers and factory owners--Margaret experiences not only the deaths of almost everyone she loves, but also the suicide of one of the striking workers.


The novel is famous as an "industrial novel" that engages class struggle and suffering in newly industrialized Victorian cities like Manchester (or, as Gaskell calls it, Milton) and as an important female bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel. Margaret's public intervention in the strike ranks among the most exciting moments in Victorian literature.

The novel also represents the fabric of daily life, including modes of dying, across more than one Victorian social class. In the "gentle" Hale household, for example, secrecy surrounds Mrs. Hale's illness; Dixon, her lady's-maid is the first to know, followed by Margaret, and only later Mr. Hale. Margaret must force Dixon to relinquish her position as primary caregiver in order to take charge of her mother's illness. Mr. Hale proves himself unable to take an active role in his wife's care, just as he was unable to tell her of his loss of faith in the Anglican Church. In the Higgins family, as in the family of the suicide Boucher, secrecy is a luxury and no one struggles over the right to do what caregiving can be done in the context of poverty. As illness edges into death, however, the novel stresses how much the two families share.

Mr. Hale's death from heart failure, followed by the death by stroke of Mr. Bell, Hale's mentor and Margaret's godfather, not only make Margaret an independent heiress, in a sense preparing her for marriage to John, but also offer a realistic rendering of the loneliness of an adult child who has lived in the company of aging parents. Margaret's development is as much engendered by her experiences with dying and death as it is by her experience with labor relations. The chapters on Mrs. Hale's illness might be productively paired with excerpts from Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (see this database). A good non-fictional companion text would be Pat Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family.


First published: 1854. Introduction to this edition by Sally Shuttleworth.


Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published





Angus Easson

Page Count