NicholasHigginsThe first time I fell in love with the wrong man, I was a teenager, and the man was Victor Laszlo.

Now, Laszlo is only “the wrong man” by weird convoluted cinema logic. He’s been thwarting the Nazis across Europe for years; he’s articulate, bold, dedicated, noble, loyal, and let’s face it, a heck of a lot better looking than Humphrey Bogart. That’s a good man by any standards. He’s only “wrong” in the sense that he’s not the perfect match for Ilsa. Which is fine. Stay with Rick, Ilsa. I’d be more than happy to help your husband rebound.

I thought of Laszlo when I was rewatching North and South and found myself once again in love with the wrong man. Richard Armitage as John Thornton is universally acknowledged as a heartthrob, and I do understand the heroine’s attraction to him. I think Thornton is a great match for Margaret. But Nicholas Higgins, played by the marvelous Brendan Coyle (better known perhaps as Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey) steals the series for me.

Beyond romance, Thornton’s primary struggle is keeping his business afloat. That’s fine, and I appreciate that he has a reputation as a fair and honest employer. But that’s not heroism; that’s basic decency and basic economics. I can understand Margaret being impressed, contrasting him with other owners who are happy to gamble the payroll or skimp on safety equipment. To me, though, it’s like finding a historical hero who has bathes regularly and has reasonably straight teeth: historically unusual, but something I as a modern reader simply expect from a man. Plus, this is all undermined by the fact that the Thorntons (and all the masters) clearly still aren’t paying actual living wages for the people, including children, doing the physical, dangerous work.

At one point, Thornton proposes that his workers form a canteen to save money on food and volunteers an unused mill building as the location. This is unusual behavior for his position, sure. But the catalyst, and the man who does the actual work, is Nicholas Higgins. Nicholas’s honest answer about his family’s poor food situation inspires Thornton to consider his workers’ meals. Nicholas organizes the canteen; Nicholas’s daughter does the cooking. When Thornton later eats with his workers, it’s because Nicholas reached out and invited him. What’s more impressive: refusing to be ashamed of poverty and organizing a factory full of workers to pay into and dine in a restaurant, or owning an empty warehouse?

Thornton also educates a promising young orphan – the boy that Nicholas took in and cared for when his parents died. It’s pretty clear that finances are the only thing preventing Nicholas from having the boy educated himself. The child’s father, by the way, ruined Nicholas’s strike. But Nicholas promised that the man’s children wouldn’t go hungry, and he’ll keep that promise, even if it means humbling himself to beg for work when the strike leaves him unemployable.

Nicholas is an intense, complicated, thoughtful man. He struggles with religious faith (“I’m not saying I don’t believe in your God, but I can’t believe He meant the world to be as it is.”). He is a loving father who found his ill daughter work in Thornton’s safer mill but didn’t take it for himself. He is forgiving, accepting Margaret as a friend after her earlier snobbery and developing a friendship of sorts with Thornton after Thornton has treated him very poorly. Despite being uneducated, he’s clearly intelligent and hard-working, the sort of man who will rise high enough to hit his head on any glass ceiling and might make it through anyway. I can see him a few years down the road being a national union figure or a Member of Parliament.

And on top of that, you know what? He’s hot. Nicholas Higgins was rocking his dad bod before it became a thing. His voice is wonderful, and his face is extremely expressive.

You can have your Thornton, Margaret. I think he’s a nice match for you. But I’ve got my eye on that union firebrand living behind the Golden Dragon pub.

What about you? Have you ever been watching or reading a romance and found your attention wandering to a man who wasn’t supposed to be the hero? Do you think I’m utterly crazy in my love of Victor Laszlo and Nicholas Higgins, have I won you as a convert, or were you on my side all along?

 

Caroline AAR