North and South meets A Visit from the Goon Squad
Kindly step aside, Mr. Darcy, for Mr. John Thornton of Middleton.
Sorry, John Who?
If Jane Austen's Darcy marks the measure of romantic hero, Elizabeth Gaskell’s John Thornton may well be his superior: a self-made, socially-conscious business leader with a mind for higher learning and a true, unwavering heart. His lower profile is a little ironic, since Gaskell orginally wrote him into a serial for Charles Dicken's Household Words. But perhaps Darcy is just a little less complex and easier to adore—nobly-born and not caught up in the mess of tensions between working class men, and those who employed them, that is Thornton’s reality in 1855.
“Master” was the word in Gaskell’s day, and is Thornton’s role as a cotton mill owner in the city of Middleton--Gaskell’s fictional interpretation of Manchester at the time. The romantic tension between Thornton and Miss Margaret Hale, newly arrived in Middleton from the bucolic South, keeps pace with all the social upheaval of its era.
Gaskell’s belief in the need for empathy and communication, across vast social chasms, was not only ahead of her own time, it still seems to elude us today--where resolving union/management conflicts retain all the stubbornness and entrenchment of struggles staged more than 150 years ago. Sadly, it may be that in having Thornton humbly sit down for meals with his workers, Gaskell unwittingly politicized and relegated him to forever shadow Darcy as the ultimate romantic hero, which is unfortunate, given that as North and South proceeds Thornton’s virtues and thoughtfulness only grow.
As for Margaret… her world is a complicated one. From a severing of ties with the Church, that leads her father, Vicar Hale, to impose exile on himself and his family from the pastoral tranquility of England’s South to the industrial North, to the rise of union power and worker’s rights, the splinters in society are rife and pricking when Miss Hale and Mr. Thornton first meet.
Constrained by society and confused by the true nature of Mr. Thornton’s character, Margaret busies herself doing what the daughter of a former vicar would naturally do: befriending a working family in Milton. Though proud and conflicted, Margaret’s dawning humility and kindness make her a heroine worthy of her sweet and happy ending.
There are no John Thornton’s in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. There’s a Benny, a Scotty and a Lou in scenes from their various stages of seedy music industry success. To chase North and South with this grimey group is about as far as anyone might leap from England in 1855 to the near-present. A crash landing of sorts, but Squad is so original and observant it’s not fair to compare. We live somewhere between the two extremes of gallant protagonists and punks past their prime. Heroes we can only dream of, louches we’d rather not know in real life, but will all to eagerly read about, so long as they’re written as well as Gaskell and Egan have done.