Elizabeth Gaskell’s Moorland Cottage: Summary and Thoughts Chapter 2

Gaskell Blog © Katherine C.

Maggie! you must sit as upright as ever you can; make your back flat, child, and don’t poke. If I cough, you must draw up. I shall cough whenever I see you do anything wrong, and I shall be looking at you all day; so remember.

Maggie interrupts Mrs. Browne with delight as the the beauty of the church spire framed against a contrasting dark cloud catches her eye. Her unromantic mother wonders what rubbish her child speaks and in offended dignity stops her instructions on good-breeding. The thoughtful Mr. Buxton sends his son, Frank, to meet them at the bridge with Erminia’s Shetland pony for Maggie to ride on; the journey would surely tire the little girl.

Now this was rather provoking to Mrs. Browne, as she chose to consider Maggie in disgrace. However, there was no help for it: all she could do was to spoil the enjoyment as far as possible, by looking and speaking in a cold manner, which often chilled Maggie’s little heart, and took all the zest out of the pleasure now.

Noticing she’s sad Frank tries to cheer her, making the pony trot and canter but she stays gloomy. Not understanding the reasons behind her gravity he finds her dull. When they arrive Frank takes her to Erminia.

Mr. Buxton’s sister married a man of bad character, he was against the match and cut her off. When she was left a widow everyone thought it a blessing. As she lay dying a few years later, asked her brother to raise little Erminia and never speak a word against the man she’d loved. Erminia has been sheltered from the truth and since Mr. Buxton reproached himself for cutting off his sister when she needed him most, she’s been coddled and spoiled.

Young Gleaners Resting by a Stile by: Myles Birket Foster

In the beginning she finds Maggie, with her shabby gown and clumpy shoes, an unequal friend and thinks herself very kind and condescending to play with her.  But her opinion changes the four children decide to go on the swing after dinner. Maggie has great fun, every the tyrant Edward tells her she’s been there long enough. Maggie gives up her seat:

“Don’t you like swinging?” asked Erminia.

“Yes! but Edward would like it now.” And Edward accordingly took her place. Frank turned away, and would not swing him. Maggie strove hard to do it, but he was heavy, and the swing bent unevenly. He scolded her for what she could not help, and at last jumped out so roughly, that the seat hit Maggie’s face, and knocked her down. When she got up, her lips quivered with pain, but she did not cry; she only looked anxiously at her frock. There was a great rent across the front breadth. Then she did shed tears–tears of fright. What would her mother say?

Erminia saw her crying.

“Are you hurt?” said she, kindly. “Oh, how your check is swelled! What a rude, cross boy your brother is!”

“I did not know he was going to jump out. I am not crying because I am hurt, but because of this great rent in my nice new frock. Mamma will be so displeased.”

…Erminia’s little heart was softened by such excessive poverty. A best frock made of shabby old silk! She put her arms round Maggie’s neck, and said:

“Come with me; we will go to my aunt’s [Mrs. Buxton’s] dressing-room, and Dawson will give me some silk, and I’ll help you to mend it.”

Painting by: Myles Birket Foster

Maggie and Erminia form a friendship after the misfortune and Mrs. Buxton asks the two little ladies to stay for tea. In some respects Mrs. Buxton reminds me of Mrs. Hamley from Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, which she would later write, and tragically not live to complete, fifteen years later. They both come from genteel families, Mrs. Buxton is the grand-daughter of Sir Henry Biddulph and they both have delicate health. They also take on a motherly role to the heroines.

It was the happiest part of the day to Maggie. Something in herself was so much in harmony with Mrs. Buxton’s sweet, resigned gentleness, that it answered like an echo, and the two understood each other strangely well.

Poor Maggie, if only Mrs. Browne and Edward understood the Buxton’s a fraction as well. Ned finds them all stuffed-up and Mrs. Browne is offended at not seeing Mrs. Buxton for more than an hour, thinking her ill health a fanciful excuse. The Buxton’s are no more impressed by the pair: Mrs. Browne is thought of as tiresome, and Ned, selfish and self-important.

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. bccmee says:

    The story is picking up. It’s interesting that Ned and Mrs. Browne put on airs and are not well-liked by the Buxton family. Instead, the family prefers Maggie with her unspoiled charm.

    Nancy has proven herself to be very unselfish in her affections toward Maggie. “Nancy loved Maggie dearly, and felt no jealousy of this warm admiration of the unknown lady [Mrs. Buxton].” That speaks of a pure kind of love between Nancy and Maggie.

    1. And it’s so tender of her to stay up late to sew Maggie a dress, especially since no one else remembered she had nothing to wear to the Buxton’s. She must have been very tired after tending the the livestock and household.

  2. Diane says:

    This chapter is truly a sad commmentary on how the family treats Maggie. The Buxtons’ kindness is a gift to the little girl. If anyone put on airs – they are at least entitled to it but instead they all show kindness to the whole family yet only Maggie is able to appreciate it.
    I almost cried when I read the paragraph listed above about Mrs. Browne’s attitude about Maggie riding the horse. Instead of being happy a someone showing kindness to her daughter she goes out of her way to make it a misrable experience for her.

    1. bccmee says:

      Diane, I almost forgot about that detail when Mrs. Browne tries to lessen Maggie’s enjoyment. I hope Maggie’s mother gets her comeuppance!

    2. Me too, and in chapter three when little Maggie is excluded from seeing Edward off to school and she sits staring at them as they make their way in the cart is heart-wrenching.

  3. Cat says:

    Poor little Maggie – my heart goes out to her as I begin to like her mother and brother less and less. The special relationship between Nancy and Maggie is some consolation.

  4. Helen says:

    After reading the first two chapters I feel so sorry for Maggie. It seems everyone else is prepared to show her some kindness apart from her own mother and brother. The way she quietly accepts their cruel treatment is heartbreaking. It’s very sad but I’m enjoying the story so far.

  5. Summer says:

    Loving the story more and more! The character of Maggie becoming so endearing; all she has to endure.! Like the pictures you included in the annotations, they’re so beautiful!

    1. Thank you, Summer. I choose them because the painter, Myles Birket Foster, illustrated the first edition of The Moorland Cottage. I wish I could find the actual illustrations online– haven’t come across them yet.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the story, it’s truly tender, and as you said Maggie is a very endearing character. 🙂

  6. Lovely summary and images Katherine. It’s like an art book. I beautiful annotated edition of Moorland Cottage!

    This chapter really reveals family dynamics of both the Browne’s and the Buxton’s. Gaskell is building her case against the bad characters against the good. Ned is already on my list as a young man who will grow into a life of dissipation and vice. To hit your sister with a swing seat and not apologize or help her in unconscionable. Gaskell lets us think that Erminia might be vain and snobby, but I was surprised that she actually helped poor Maggie after the swing incident. Frank is obviously a better young man, like his father; considerate and kind. I am glad that Maggie has Nancy for support in a household that seems to be unfriendly and depreciating.

    My favorite quote was:

    “His sister (Mr. Buxton’s) had married a man whose character was worse than his fortune, and had been left a widow. Everybody thought her husband’s death a blessing;”

    Having a character worse than their fortune sounds so Austenish! I love it! It reminded me of the quote from ch 22 in Emma

    “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.”

    It appears that Mrs. Gaskell has the opposite opinion when speaking of the dead! Interesting.

    1. Thank you, Laurel Ann! 😀
      Horrible Ned, he must have been what Frederick Tilney was like growing up.
      Gaskell has quite a few Austenesque lines within her writing.

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