In these five novels, Elizabeth Gaskell's motherless heroines begin with some good qualities and some weaknesses: Mary Barton is loving, but superficial; Mary Smith is concerned, but critical; Ruth Hilton is trusting, but naive; Margaret Hale is strong, but proud; and Molly Gibson is loyal, but short-tempered. Each undergoes a process of maturation and education which enhances her good qualities and decreases her weaknesses so that she can become a strong woman who stands up for the things she believes in, but who is also caring, nurturing, and loving: the embodiment of Victorian feminine virtue.
The growth of Gaskell's early heroines happens to them without their cognizance, by the words and actions of others which are heard, seen, and slowly processed. This is true in Mary Barton, in which Mary eventually learns to value what is inside people, including herself, rather than appearances, and to trust herself to overcome the problems that life brings by facing them and not seeking ways to escape. It is also the case in Cranford, in which Mary Smith gradually moves away from the self-serving attitude of Drumble, and becomes absorbed into the kinder and more cooperation-based world of the Cranfordians. In Ruth, we see Ruth actively embracing the examples shown to her by the Bensons as a way of cleansing herself of the sin into which her naivete led her, as well as seeking out a position as a sick-nurse: the occupation that would make best use of the caring and character she has cultivated. Margaret, in North and South, is the most mature of any of the girls at the beginnings of their stories: she is strong from the start though she considers herself a coward, and we see her always testing herself so that she will grow braver. Early on Margaret is takes control of situations for others out of necessity, but as she gains more knowledge from her experiences with the dispute between masters and workers, and from the people around her, she becomes strong for others and for herself, by choice. And finally there is Molly of Wives and Daughters whose happy childhood world is upset by the addition of a shallow and self-interested stepmother to her household. Molly must be always aware of what is right and good, as shown to her by Roger Hamley and her father, so that she is able to withstand her stepmother's attempts to change Molly into a model of herself. These five women prove that Elizabeth Gaskell had faith in her sex as more than just the Victorian ideal of the "angel in the house" and was determined to show that her heroines would not pale in the face of adversity but change and adapt and become stronger for the challenge, for without challenge or change comes stagnation.
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