The discussion of N&S in the Uglow biography was immediately preceded by a discussion of Gaskell’s relationship with Florence Nightingale, which seems to have affected how she handled the theme of love for humanity vs. love for the individual, which is one aspect of the tension between John Thornton and Margaret Hale in the book.
To quote Uglow:
At Lea Hurst Gaskell met another woman whose real-life story influenced the final stages of her work [i.e., on N&S]. Her arrival coincided with the end of Florence Nightingale’s holiday, and in her Elizabeth found a woman who would make no compromises between genius and domestic ties…Like all who met Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth was spellbound…She was struck by her beauty—her chestnut hair and grey eyes—and her wicked humour…The humour suggested a certain detachment, though, and beneath the self-sacrifice Gaskell spotted steely single-mindedness.
Uglow then quotes a Gaskell letter in which she quotes Nightingale’s sister, Parthenope, or ‘Parthe,’as she was nicknamed: “’F. does not care for individuals but for the whole race as being God’s creatures.’”
Uglows says that “this remark intrigued Elizabeth, whose general social concern always sprang from individuals, especially those nearest to her.” Quoting Gaskell in another letter discussing Nightingale, “She has no friend—and she wants none. She stands perfectly alone, half-way between God and his creatures…but then this want of love for individuals becomes a gift and a very rare one, if one takes it in conjunction with her intense love for the race: her utter unselfishness in serving and ministering.”
Uglow closes this chapter with the remark that although “Gaskell described Nightingale’s tireless efforts in the Crimea…and warmly supported her work in future year, the whole of her own fiction—and especially North and South—opposes the route that Florence had chosen, the subordination of relationships and of people to ideas.
It’s interesting to consider Gaskell’s ambivalence towards Nightingale at the time when she was writing N&S—she admired and rejected the example of Nightingale in much the same way that Thornton and Margaret struggle to understand each other and the society in which they live, a society stratified and segmented by labels: master, worker, man, gentleman, Dissenter, Catholic, Christian.
So what does N&S say about love of individual versus love of humanity? I think it comes down to the idea that for most of us love of humanity can only be achieved via individual connection. Florence Nightingales are rare birds—they can operate, in fact, they can only operate when disconnected from family and when friendless, but the common folk, the rest of us, cannot function, cannot care deeply enough to act boldly enough to make a difference if we don’t connect with, relate to, or have a personal stake with the group we wish to help or understand. Labels disconnect people from each other, and prevent a true love of humanity from blossoming.