The Function of the Russell Mutiny in Revealing Labour Exploitation in Gaskell’s North and South

by Jeremy R. Strong

In the study of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South, recent attention has been paid to the role of Frederick but not enough to the function of the mutiny. One scholar, Stephanie Markovits, in her article “North and South, East and West: Elizabeth Gaskell, The Crimean War and the Condition of England” comments that “Frederick’s mutiny, Mr. Hale’s crisis of doubt and the workers’ strike all represent analogous forms of rebellion” (483). Markovits downplays Frederick’s role and neglects the subject of the mutiny altogether, to the detriment of her argument. Julia Sun-Joo Lee in her article “The Return of the ‘Unnative’: The Transnational Politics of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South” sees Frederick as “the ‘string’ (ficelle) that tugs at the central plot, the horizontal thread of connection that, when pulled, makes visible the cultural and economic matrix in which the narrative occurs” (462). Though Lee argues quite effectively for more attention being paid to Frederick’s character, she ultimately neglects to properly contextualize the mutiny. The mutiny on the Russell should be linked thematically with the strike and Mr. Hale’s dissent, as Markovits mentions. More importantly, these events should be read not simply as analogous but as indicative of a wider pattern of ethical concern about human rights. This paper will justify such a reading by both establishing a historical context for understanding mutiny and presenting direct evidence from North and South that the mutiny on the Russell is a crucial part of an ethical trifecta concerned with exploitation of labour.

            To establish historical context for the mutiny depicted in North and South it is useful to examine the work of Niklas Frykman. His article “The Mutiny On The Hermione: Warfare, Revolution, And Treason In The Royal Navy” gives us reason to view mutiny in a specific light in the 1790’s while also hinting at its evolution. Through reading Frykman we see that mutinous uprisings of British sailors evolved from tackling personal questions of justice under empire, to more global concerns of liberty in attempting to transcend empire. In the essay he writes that:

In 1793, the lower deck had become all but ungovernable. Revolutionary seamen habitually disregarded their commanders, they organized autonomous councils, they struck for higher wages, for higher invalid compensation, for better treatment of war widows and their children, they rioted through port towns. (160)

This series of mutinies, a series of increasingly militant “armed strikes” (161) Frykman writes, were an “unprecedented explosion of lower deck unrest across navies in the 1790s” (159) and were concerned chiefly with practical, workable issues:

 they demanded both an increase in wages and that they actually would get paid, and on time; they demanded the abolition of officers’ disproportionate privileges in regards to prize money; they demanded the right to oust tyrannous officers; and, when in breach of the articles of war, they demanded to be tried by a jury of their peers, not by a court martial made up only of officers. These were all reasonable demands. (162)

Frykman draws attention to the difference between mutinies of this sort and the violent mutiny on the Hermione, which was “the struggle for justice” that had “given way to that for liberty” (176). We can now begin to align Frederick’s mutiny on the Russell with the mutiny on the Hermione. In North and South, in the Chapter The Mutiny, we learn that Frederick’s involvement is based on his Captain’s inhumane treatment of the crew as “rats or monkeys” (107). Mr. and Mrs. Hale see their son’s actions as “Frederick standing up against injustice” (109). The Hale’s then give up hope of struggling against the British justice system and instead embrace the idea of their son’s Liberty in Spain, afraid of his returning “for if he comes to England he will be hung” (109).

             I have a much more compelling reason for introducing Frykman’s article than simply parallels, however. The particular incident of mutiny on the Russell may have been modeled by Gaskell after the mutiny on the Hermione. Frykman writes of the Captain’s behavior and how it incited the men to mutiny:

A few days later, Pigot exploded again. This time, some of the topmen struck him as not quite fast enough, and so he screamed and shouted, threatening the last man down with a flogging. Three panic-stricken men slipped. They crashed onto the quarterdeck, dead. (166)

When compared to Gaskell’s version of mutiny on the Russell in Frederick’s letter, the similarities are striking:

Some sailors being aloft in the main-topsail rigging, the captain had ordered them to race down, threatening the hindmost with the cat-of-nine-tails. He who was the farthest on the spar, feeling the impossibility of passing his companions, and yet passionately dreading the disgrace of the flogging, threw himself desperately down to catch a rope considerably lower, failed, and fell senseless on deck. He only survived for a few hours afterwards. (107)

This possible and likely link to the historically important mutiny on the Hermione allows a reconsideration of the prominence that the Russell mutiny should play in understanding the text of North and South. Unlike the mutiny on the Bounty of 1789, the Hermione was “the most violent mutiny in the history of the British Royal Navy” (159) in which ten officers were brutally murdered. The Hermione is presented further as a situation in which the original mutineers were “all opposed to violence from the start” (164). The fact that they did not succeed in preventing it is unfortunate. Frederick on the other hand, does succeed in North and South. His victory comes with anguish for himself and his family, but Frederick’s disavowal of his British citizenship, is also one that transcends empire. Frederick is “happy now; more secure in fortune and future prospects than he could ever have been in the navy; and has, doubtless, adopted his wife’s country as his own” (382).

            The evolution of mutiny into the realm of ethical protest invites comparison to how the mutiny then functions in the text alongside both the dissent of Mr. Hale and the strike. The Hale family are complicit in their knowledge of Frederick’s assumed name and his location. This is made abundantly clear during his visit and comes up directly in the text when Margaret lies to the police to protect her brother (273). There is more than just covering up for Frederick going on in North and South, however. The Hale’s not only cover for Frederick, but empathize with his problem (108-109), which may allow Margaret and Mr. Hale to feel similarly for Higgins (227-228). Frederick is caught between forces of the ethically right sailors and the rule of law, just as Higgins is torn between the well meant ethics of the union and business practices of Thornton.

            The best example of the Hale dilemma is relayed to us in the chapter The Mutiny, in which Mrs. Hale is asked by Margaret if it gives her pain to tell the story of what happened to her son. She responds:

Pain! No,” and then elaborates “it is pain to think that perhaps I may never see my darling boy again. Or else he did right, Margaret. They may say what they like, but I have his own letters to show, and I’ll believe him, though he is my son, sooner than any court martial on earth. (106)

 Mrs. Hale’s remarking surprise that she should feel pain and her indignant response imply her feeling to be of an affronted sense of justice. She truly feels her son to have been in the right and his standing up to Captain Reid to be an ethical victory.

The concerns raised by the strike throughout the novel are also ethical. In her article “Intelligence and Awareness in North and South”, Nancy D. Mann seems to agree in principle with my assertion that the book revolves around ethics:

 The personal struggle between Margaret and Thornton represents, not only the eternal agons of male and female and of past and future, but a variety of class, economic, religious, intellectual, and ethical conflicts: gentry against manufacturers, agriculture against industry, orthodoxy against dissent, Hellenism against Hebraism, and a social ethic of mutual responsibility against one of isolation and mutual respect for each other’s independence. (34)

Mann unfortunately fails to tackle the issue of slavery in her otherwise insightful investigation of social struggle. In his article “The Rising Standard of Living in England, 1800-1850” R. M. Hartwell discusses the forces at work inside British society and how those forces caused a slight but noticeable increase in the standard of living:

There is no doubt that humanitarian and legislative pressure increased the social-overhead cost of industry, directly benefiting the workers, and driving out of business those employers at the margin whose inefficiency had previously been protected by the exploitation of labour. (404)

            The exploitation of labour is one of many issues at stake in North and South.

It is how this issue is defined that is important; by the mutiny and reinforced through the strike and dissent. We’ve discussed the strike briefly as an ethical battle over labour exploitation but what of Mr. Hale’s dissent from the church? In the article “Mr. Hale’s doubts in North and South” Angus Easson devotes his attention to Mr. Hale’s break with Anglican church doctrine. In light of the historical Abolition of Slavery Act adopted by parliament in Britain in 1933 and largely brought about through the pressures of nonconformist groups such as the Methodists and Quakers, we can see as Easson does that Mr. Hale “stands as a man of integrity, who has fought, within himself at least, the good fight, to whom conscience, truth, fear of God, love of justice and right are stronger than any appeals of expediency or self-interest” (39). We should then note as Julia Sun-Joo Lee does: “when Mr. Hale first informs Margaret of his break with the church, her first instinct is to link his decision to Frederick’s crime” (462). The trifecta of major events in the novel woven together through concern over the ethics of the exploitation of labour is now apparent.

            The mutiny in North and South is a fictional example of real world Victorian reality. Now that I have demonstrated the mutiny on the Russell as parallel to the strike and to Mr. Hale’s dissent, important implications for the further study of the novel are made apparent. Details of the novel that some critics have before seen as “plot contrivance” (see Sun-Joo Lee, 449) now take on significant meaning. For example, it may seem obvious to make the connection between the workers in Thornton’s factory producing textiles for consumption by a populace that has acted to abolish slavery while still depending on cotton picked by American slaves. A more complicated situation arises however when the mutiny is brought into play. Frederick’s job aboard the Russell is to “keep slavers off” (107), or to prevent slavery through the capture of slave ships. He in turn mutinies in response to being treated as a slave aboard the ship. The connection of Frederick to slavery and ethical rebellion and his intrinsic link to Margaret and her experience invites using the mutiny on the Russell to re-examine Margaret’s relationship with Thornton, her relationship with Higgins and Boucher and even her defiance of authority when she lies to the police.

            The mutiny functions in North and South not just as a random plot device but as an important indicator for how to read Gaskell’s strike narrative as a social problem novel. In 1839, only a decade or so before Gaskell began to write North and South, African slaves participated in a violent mutiny aboard the ship La Amistad. The opportunity to study the interconnected facets of American slavery and British factory labour in North And South is revealed through the function of the mutiny on the Russell.

Works Cited, Consulted and Considered

Chakravarty, Gautam. The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination. Cambridge UP,      2005. Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture.

Easson, Angus. “Mr Hales Doubts in North and South.” Review of English Studies: A      Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language 31.121 (1980):      30-40.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. Oxford University Press, New York, 2008.

Hartwell, R. M. “The Rising Standard of Living in England, 1800-1850.” Economic            History Review. 13.3. 1961. pg. 397 – 416.

Klein, Ira. “Materialism, Mutiny and Modernization in British India.” Modern Asian Studies. 2000 vol. 34 pages 545 – 580.

Lindner, Christoph. “Outside Looking in: Material Culture in Gaskell’s Industrial Novels.” Orbis Litterarum: International Review of Literary Studies 55.5 (2000): 379-96.      

Lee, Julia Sun-Joo. “The Return of the Unnative: The Transnational Politics of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 61.4 (2007): 449-78.

Mann, Nancy D. “Intelligence and Self-Awareness in North and South: A Matter of Sex   and Class.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 29.1 (1975):      24-38.

Martin, Carol A. “Gaskell, Darwin, and North and South.” Studies in the Novel 15.2          (1983): 91-107.

McCord, Norman, and David E. Brewster. “Some Labour Troubles Of The 1790’S In        North East England.” International Review Of Social History 13.3 (1968):             366-383. Historical Abstracts.

Mitchell, Barbara. “Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (29 September 1810-12 November           1865)”. Nineteenth-Century British Literary Biographers. Ed. Steven Serafin. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 144. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. 97-107.   Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online. Gale. University of Manitoba    Libraries.

Markovits, Stefanie. “North and South, East and West: Elizabeth Gaskell, the Crimean    War, and the Condition of England.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 59.4 (2005):         463-93.

Reddy, Maureen T. “Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (29 September 1810-12 November        1865)”. British Short-Fiction Writers, 1800-1880. Ed. John R. Greenfield.       Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 159. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996. 122-133.            Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online. Gale. University of Manitoba            Libraries.

Sanborn, Geoffrey. “The Madness of Mutiny: Wordsworth, the Bounty and the       Borderers.” The Wordsworth Circle 23.1 (1992): 35-42.

Seaman, L. C. B. Victorian England: aspects of English and imperial history,         1837-1901.    London, Methuen, 1973.

Thiele, David. “That There Brutus: Elite Culture and Knowledge Diffusion in the     Industrial Novels of Elizabeth Gaskell.” Victorian Literature and Culture 35.1            (2007): 263-85.

Wainwright, Valerie. “Discovering Autonomy and Authenticity in North and South:             Elizabeth Gaskell, John Stuart Mill, and the Liberal Ethic.” CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 23.2 (1994): 149-65.

Wright, Edgar. “Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (29 September 1810-12 November 1865).”   Victorian Novelists Before 1885. Ed. Ira Bruce Nadel and William E. Fredeman.   Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 21. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. 174-188.   Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online. Gale. University of Manitoba            Libraries.

Young, G. M. Early Victorian England, 1830-1865. Oxford university press, H.       Milford. 1934. In two volumes. Vol. 1, 414 pages. Vol. 2, 558 Pages.

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