Study Guide

Mrs. Shaw in North and South

Mrs. Shaw

Margaret Hale's Aunt Shaw isn't in much of North and South, but she's worth mentioning because Gaskell makes the effort to make her a fairly round character. We might want to think at first that Mrs. Shaw is superficial and lazy, but the narrator lets us know early on that she is actually a romantic at heart, saying, "[A]lthough it was below the expectations which many of Edith's acquaintances had formed for her, a young and pretty heiress. But Mrs. Shaw said that her only child should marry for love,—and sighed emphatically, as if love had not been her motive for marrying the general" (1.1.4).

Mrs. Shaw feels that she lost out on love by marrying a "respectable" English gentleman with plenty of status and money. On top of that, she lives in fear of being selfish. When it comes to personal enjoyment, she'll only really relax if some sort of authority figure (like a doctor) commands her to. As the narrator notes, "Mrs. Shaw had as strong wishes as most people, but she never liked to do anything from the open and acknowledged motive of her own good will and pleasure; she preferred being compelled to gratify herself by some other person's command or desire" (1.1.54). Mrs. Shaw is a woman who enjoys the finer comforts as much as the next person. But she has a complicated relationship to these comforts that should make us think twice about judging her harshly.