Ditch Flowers and Dog-violets and Lesser Celandines, Oh My!: Acts of Cross-Class Kindness in Gaskell’s North and South

By Lauren Callihan (MA ’19), Department of English, Kansas State University

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) chronicles the trials and tribulations of the novel’s protagonist Margaret Hale. After her father leaves the church, Margaret is uprooted from her charming home in rural Southern England and moves with her family to a smoky industrial town in the North.

Margaret must learn the local customs in order to forge connections within this new community. Margaret’s genuine acts of kindness throughout the novel enable her to read and respond to her new surroundings. 

The image depicts a paperback copy of Gaskell’s North and South. There are several dried flowers placed in an aesthetically pleasing fashion on the right side of the book

While reading this novel I was most interested in the Gaskell’s use of floral and botanical imagery. My focus on this imagery will come as no surprise to anyone who is even slightly familiar with my interests.

If you too are curious about Gaskell’s use of flowers in her fiction you might like to read the work of Jeanette Eve. Eve explores how Gaskell’s writing is “permeated by a kind of language of flowers which reflects several typically Victorian interests but is peculiarly her own” (1). Like Eve, I found Gaskell’s use of floral imagery to be slightly “peculiar” and agree that Gaskell uses flowers in unique way that enables her characters to act with more autonomy. 

I am most interested in the ways that Margaret interacts with characters who are not from the same social class, for example, the scene in which Margaret impulsively gathers wildflowers and offers them to Bessy, a former factory worker. Margaret uses the hand-picked flowers as an opportunity to cultivate her relationship with Bessy even though they are from different social classes.  

I have included a set of memes below. I warmly invite you to consider them and the following questions: 

What is surprising about this interaction? In terms of power dynamics, who seems to be gaining something from this exchange? Why would these so-called “ditch” flowers be so eagerly received? 

The meme depicts a factory worker from Lancashire Mill Girl, circa 1905. She is dressed in a working class fashion and has an uneasy expression on her face. The meme reads: “Stranger hands her flowers.” Responds with- “Yo’re not of this country, I reckon?”
The meme depicts a middle class woman. She is dressed in a flowing gown and has a somewhat confused or surprised expression on her face. The meme reads: * Surprised* “I come from the South-From Hampshire.”

We need to acknowledge the class differences between Bessy and Margaret as it plays a significant role in their relationship. Although Margaret is of a much higher social standing than Bessy, the power dynamic between them momentarily fluctuates during the exchange of the flowers. As a local Bessy is much more familiar with the place-based social practices that are typical in Milton than Margaret. In fact, Bessy and her father are able to identify Margaret as an outsider who is “not of this country” based solely on Margaret’s act of kindness. 

The image depicts a pressed bouquet comprises of the flowers that were listed in Margaret’s bouquet for Bessy. The purple “dog violets” (wild violets) and yellow “lesser celandines” form a tiny yet colorful arrangement.

If you are still curious as to why Bessy would be so pleased with such a small bouquet you might remember she spends most of her time in a large industrial city. It is unlikely that she has seen flowers this bright and vibrant in quite some time and they would be a welcome sight for her.

What floral or botanical imagery did you think was interesting? Please share your thoughts with us! 

Works Cited

Eve, Jeanette. “The Floral and Horticultural in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Novels.” The Gaskell Society Journal, vol. 7, 1993, pp.1-15. 
Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South, Norton, 2005.

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