published on October 21, 2008

North and South

When it comes to romances on television or in the movies, I prefer mine set in the past. I believe that Darcy and Elizabeth will stay together happily and when Jane Eyre tells us that she and her Edward Rochester are very happy in their marriage, I feel she’s telling the truth. When it comes to most modern lovers in the movies or television, just color me cynical, but I don’t see too many modern couples staying together in good times and in bad. I figure ten years from now, Big will find a younger, less spendthrift Carrie, and he’ll toss her and her shoe collection out.

In the 19th century, marriage was not something taken lightly. It was for life, and a wrong choice could make a person’s life uncomfortable (Mr. Bennett) if not miserable (which is how I see Lydia Bennet in a few years). So when I watch a love story with a period setting, I want to believe the happy couple have actually thought about their feelings for each other and are not just led by outward appearances.

For a long time I fed my hunger for romances on the screen by watching adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels and various versions of Jane Eyre. Then I heard some buzz about a 2004 mini-series called North and South. I had read the book years ago in an English Lit class, so I checked the video out of the library, watched it, and immediately ordered it from Amazon so I could watch it over and over again. It is, hands down, one of the best and most intelligent romantic stories I have ever seen.

North and South is based on the novel by Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, who used elements of her own life in the book. She was born in Chelsea and came from a family of well-connected, socially conscious Unitarians. Her father, William Stevenson, was a minister who left the ministry and worked for the treasury. Her mother died when she was a baby, and she spent most of her childhood with her aunt in Cheshire. Later on, Mrs. Gaskell used this setting for her novel Cranford. She married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, and by all accounts the marriage was a very happy one. The Gaskells spent several years in Manchester, which became a major industrial city during the Industrial Revolution, and Mrs. Gaskell saw the problems of the workers first hand.

Manchester was a center of cultural and intellectual ferment, but it was also a place where poverty and sickness was rampant. The social and economic divide between the North and the South of England – which still exists – was an element almost all of Mrs. Gaskell’s books, and caused her to be typecast as a problem novelist. Her first book, Mary Barton, is set in Manchester during the time of the Chartist movement and portrays the hard times the working class had to endure. Ruth, the novel’s heroine, once had a child out of wedlock in the days when doing so was scandalous enough to cause a woman’s ruin. North and South is a more balanced portrait of the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the workers and the owners.

Mrs. Gaskell also wrote the charming episodic novel Cranford, the unfinished domestic novel Wives and Daughters, quite a number of short stories, and a noted biography of Charlotte Bronte. North and South was her last finished novel and it appeared in parts in Charles Dickens’s magazine Household Words. Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell were good friends and he shared her concern with social reform.

In 2004, the BBC produced a mini-series based on North and South starring Richard Armitage as John Thornton, a mill owner in Milton, and Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, originally from the South. The mini-series follows the novel fairly closely, although some alterations were made, most notably adding a spectacularly romantic scene in a train station.

As the story begins, Margaret Hale lives in Helstone in the south of England where her father is a clergyman. Mr. Hale suffers a crisis of conscious when he finds he can no longer give assent to the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England, so he resigns his living and moves the family to Milton, an industrial city in the north where he hopes to teach private pupils. Milton is nothing like Helstone and Margaret is a total outsider. She is appalled by the poverty she sees and thinks the mill owners (called masters) are indifferent to human suffering. Her attitude is reinforced when she sees one of the masters, John Thornton, beat a worker for lighting a pipe. Thornton turns out to be one of her father’s pupils. When she berates him for having beaten the man, he tells her about the danger of smoking in a mill. Clearly things are not as simple as they seem.

Margaret and her family’s housekeeper Dixon discover that the people of Milton are very different from the people they knew in Helstone. The Hales are unable to hire a maid, since a woman can make better wages working at one of the mills and the women of Milton consider being a servant beneath them. When Margaret befriends one of the mill workers, Bessie Higgins, she offers to bring her a basket. As a clergyman’s daughter, Margaret was used to making charitable rounds, but Bessie and her father Nicholas laugh at her Lady Bountiful ways.

The masters have their own set of problems. The mills depend on a steady supply of cotton, and they are having problems with that supply. The workers are angry since they took a pay cut several years ago and their wages have not been increased since. Nicholas Higgins, leader of the local union, wants the workers to strike despite the hardship it will bring. If a strike goes through, it will bring great hardship on some of the mill owners too, but the masters will not share their problems with the workers, and they look on Nicholas as a rabble rouser.

John Thornton is fast falling in love with Margaret, but there are many obstacles in their way. His proud mother does not like Margaret, thinking her a southern snob. Margaret is very conscious of the difference in rank between them – her parents are comparatively poor and Thornton is very wealthy, although she does not know that Thornton is having financial problems. Mrs. Hale is in poor health, and Margaret’s brother lives in exile, having taken part in a mutiny against an insane captain.

Eventually the workers strike and as it drags on, Thornton’s financial situation becomes worse, so he brings in Irish workers to break the strike. The union workers protest, the protest becomes violent and one of the men throws a stone, meant for Thornton, which strikes Margaret, who is protecting him The strike collapses and Thornton proposes. She turns him down, thinking he believes himself superior to them. He protests his love, but Margaret cannot believe him.

As the story progresses, Margaret slowly sees Thornton in a new light, especially when she meets him at the Great Exhibition in London in the company of Henry Lennox, one of her admirers, where Thornton’s honesty and work ethic are contrasted to Lennox’s shallowness. Thornton has been and continues to be one of the more enlightened of the masters, and eventually he and Nicholas Higgins form a tentative friendship.

Eventually, their economic status changes for both Margaret and Thornton. Margaret’s parents both die and her godfather, Mr. Bell, leaves her a large legacy. Thornton, who has refused to deal in risky speculation, loses the mill. Margaret goes back to Helstone but discovers that the golden glow with which she has surrounded Helstone in her memories has faded. She misses the dynamic (even if it is dirty) atmosphere of Milton and she misses Thornton dreadfully. In the book, they meet, they talk, and they settle matters in a rather matter of fact scene, but in the miniseries, Thornton and Margaret meet in a train station and confess their love in one of the most passionately romantic scenes ever.

The BBC did not publicize their version of North and South to a great extent, but the series touched a chord with viewers and became enormously popular. It made Richard Armitage, who plays John Thornton, a star and a romantic heartthrob. Daniela Denby-Ashe, who plays Margaret Hale, is warm, intelligent and charming and she and Armitage share excellent chemistry. In one scene while passing him a cup of tea, their hands lightly brush, and the sizzle in that scene is palpable.

Several scenes were filmed in Helmshore Mills Textile Museum in Lancashire, where there is an actual working cotton mill. The scenes in the mills – where the atmosphere is thick with cotton lint – causes Margaret to say at one point,  I’ve seen hell, and it’s white. Workers in cotton mills often contracted lung disease (the technical term is byssinosis) and Bessie Higgins dies of it. Unlike some of the other masters, Thornton has a flywheel installed to blow away some of the cotton lint, a device that other masters won’t use because of its expense.

I can’t praise the series’ cinematography enough; at the start, when the Hales are living in the South, Helstone is bathed in a golden glow. It never seems to rain, it’s always sunny, and the colors are all bright. But when the Hales move to Milton, it’s just the opposite. The atmosphere is dull, and smoky. The sun never seems to show itself and Margaret (and all the characters) dress in dark, muted colors. But as time goes on, the atmosphere in Milton ever so subtly brightens. No – it does not become all sunny and clean in Milton, but the atmosphere brightens almost imperceptibly, to show how Margaret is becoming a part of the community. When she makes her trip to Helstone toward the end of the story, it is still sunny there, but the scene is darkened just enough to show the audience that Margaret is no longer at home there.

North and South is as passionately romantic a series as can be, but it does not stint on examining the problems of society. It’s not didactic or preachy (masters bad – workers good) but instead allows its characters to have their share of strengths and weaknesses. Mrs. Gaskell believed that cooperation and communication between the owners and the workers would lead to a better system. As the series ends, Margaret Hale and John Thornton prepare to do just that.

by Ellen Micheletti

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Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day.