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Tuberculosis as a romantic trope and a narrative device in Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South




Roess, Deborah A., author
Tsang, Philip, advisor
Gollapudi, Alpana, committee member
Crans, Debbie C., committee member

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A conventional reading of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell has generally established the novel as highly realistic and Gaskell as a keen observer. However, the novel is full of contradictions that make this reading of the novel problematic. Bessy Higgins' death from tuberculosis gives us some insight into relationships in the novel if one considers Bessy Higgins as a "character" developed using a romantic trope associated with having tuberculosis and then sacrificed for the happy ending in this romance, Margaret Hale's marriage to John Thornton. The trope used by Gaskell to describe Bessy Higgins' romanticized death from tuberculosis was familiar to Gaskell's readers. In Chapter 1, I describe the perception of tuberculosis in the 18th and 19th century as a romantic disease. This trope is used in, for example, Samuel Richardson's novel Clarissa where Clarissa's gradual dying from tuberculosis was apparently painless but provided Clarissa with the opportunity to prepare for the rewards of her virtue upon her death. Similarly, John Keats' death from tuberculosis, documented in his letters and the writings of his contemporaries, was treated as an almost predestined romantic death for a highly sensitive poet. In Chapter 2, I examine the function of Bessy's tuberculosis in the narrative in North and South. Gaskell uses Bessy's tuberculosis to achieve the marriage of Margaret Hale to John Thornton as well as a resolution of the conflicts between Thornton and his workers. Bessy Higgins' tuberculosis is pivotal to the novel's narrative. Gaskell uses what had become an old-fashioned trope by the mid-19th century to establish a relationship between Bessy Higgins and Margaret Hale. Using this trope, Gaskell first transforms Bessy Higgins, a mill worker of humble origins, into both a romantic and individualized character whose death bears greater similarity to the death of Margaret Hale's mother than to the deaths of the lower-class characters, e.g., Mr. and Mrs. Boucher and Leonards. In conferring ambiguity to Bessy's class using the romantic trope associated with tuberculosis in the middle and upper classes, subsequent events in the novel become possible. A softening of class barriers, however incomplete, allows Margaret Hale to become part of a community in Milton that includes the striking mill workers. Within this newly constructed community, Bessy Higgins' father, Nicholas Higgins, an important figure in the mill worker's strike, becomes someone more closely a peer to John Thornton, the mill owner, than one of Thornton's workers. Gaskell can then use the relationship between John Thornton and Nicholas Higgins, based on a greater sense of equality between the two men, to address labor relations between masters and their workers and, ultimately, resolve the labor disputes that threaten Thornton's prosperity. Making use of the genre rules for a romance, Margaret Hale's relationship with Bessy and the softening of class barriers allows Margaret to consider Thornton, the son of a bankrupt speculator, as a suitable marriage partner despite her perception of Thornton as being not quite a gentleman. Margaret is quite specific early in the novel about her qualifications for a suitor and rejects, over the course of the novel, other suitors including Thornton. It is only when Milton's workers and their masters can be seen as individuals, made possible for Margaret through her relationship with Bessy Higgins and subsequently with Bessy's father, that John Thornton can be transformed from a mill master to a more humanized figure. As Thornton's relations with his workers become more equitable, Thornton becomes a desirable marriage partner for Margaret. In Chapter 3, I address the problem of treating Gaskell as a keen observer by examining the discordance between Gaskell's portrayal of a romanticized death from tuberculosis by a mill worker in mid-century Milton with what is likely to have been her own experiences with tuberculosis in Manchester and with the medical community's contemporary perspective on the disease and its treatment. A brief review of English medical literature from 1835-1850 suggests that active treatment of tuberculosis was available and, in many cases, successful. Thus, Gaskell's use of a romantic trope to describe Bessy Higgins' disease discredits both Gaskell as a keen observer and the notion that literary portrayals can alter general perceptions of disease, neither of which are supported by the text of North and South.


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North and South
romantic trope
Gaskell, Elizabeth


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