North & South – Victorian England comes alive in all its passion!
I hate it when a great classic is ruined upon its screen adaptation but sadly it happens quite frequently! So when my fears were proved wrong when I saw North & South, written by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1855 and adapted by the BBC in 2004, I was ecstatic! I became an instant fan of Elizabeth Gaskell, the BBC Masterpiece Theatre and Richard Armitage!
When the novel (North & South) was published in 1855 it created no great stir. Elizabeth Gaskell was a minor writer in the pantheon of English literature, even during her times. Whatever publicity she got in her life, and in subsequent years, was more due to her biography of Charlotte Bronte and less due to her other works. She was dwarfed by the giants of English literature like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and indeed her works fall short of classics like Pride & Prejudice and David Copperfield.
She was rarely included in college curricula and her fame hovered at a constant low. Her novels were adapted for screen a few times, but did not get as much publicity as did the adaptations of Austen and Dickens.
Mrs. Gaskell continued to lay low until the brilliant directors of the BBC Masterpiece Theatre came out with the 1999 adaptation of Wives and Daughters. The miniature world of Mrs. Gaskell instantly materialized on the screen with the help of modern technology and its brilliant use by the directors of the Masterpiece Theatre. The acting was superb and the Victorian England was brilliantly captured in its exquisite sets and breathtaking landscapes. Mrs. Gaskell finally scored points over her more illustrious colleagues.
Wives & Daughters was followed by North & South in 2005 and Cranford in 2007. All of them were huge hits with the audience. Anyone who loves a period drama and especially those concerning Victorian England will immediately fall for North & South. The story is about the changing England of 19th century when the Industrial Revolution was tearing up the existing social order and was creating a new England. The divide could be seen as the divide between the industrial North with towns such as Manchester and Liverpool and the largely agrarian South. Manchester is portrayed as Milton in the novel. The divide is portrayed by small yet significant scenes in the series. Thornton offers hand to Margaret and she refuses as its not normal in the South. Southerners are embarrassed by the way Northerns talk about their personal matters in public.
The story largely revolves around the idealistic heroine Margaret Hale and the practical industrialist John Thornton portrayed by the dashing Richard Armitage. Margaret’s father is a Dissenter who has lost his job in the countryside because he could not confirm to the official views of the Church. His family is uprooted and is compelled to come to Milton where he takes up teaching Philosophy and Classics.
There are some unforgettable scenes in the series which are so beautiful that they are etched forever in my memory. The first encounter of Margaret and Thornton is one such scene.
While searching for a rental place for her family she goes to the office of Thornton and not finding him there goes down into the factory where she sees him in a rage, beating and abusing a worker. When she tries to stop him she is shown the door quite discourteously by Thornton. There are few words but the walk of Margaret down the mill is actually the agrarian South walking up the alleys of the industrial North. Attitudes of the antagonists are made clear even before the first words. And yet at the same time the irresistible attraction mirrors in Margaret’s eyes at her first glance at Thornton.
Later on she discovers that Thornton is a student of her father and differences crop up instantly. Margaret and Thornton differ all along the series. Her idealism about the working class drives her towards the Higgins family and though she is initially rebuffed by them, slowly the household accepts her and she becomes their great friend.
The story develops into a love-hate relationship where both the lead characters find themselves getting attracted towards each other irresistibly despite their differences. Finally Thornton proposes Margaret in a beautiful scene but is refused point blank! Characters play beautifully! Thornton is his usual proud self. Even while proposing, he can’t help getting into argument and prove that the side of mill owners is the right one. Margaret too cannot come out of her role of the idealistic supporter of the workers. The scene is made unforgettable by the ‘color of fruit’ remark. The scene begins and ends with it. Almost at the end of the scene Thornton remarks, “One minute we talk of the color of fruit, the other of love!” How brilliantly it sums up their passions and their egos!
The characters are so finely developed that I found myself drawn into their emotional and ethical struggles. The pride and practicality of Thornton; the idealism and self-respect of Margaret; the pomp and defiance of Thornton’s mother; and the childish frivolity of his sister; the intellectual honesty of Margaret’s father; the womanly worldliness of Margaret’s mother, everything is so finely portrayed that the viewer finds himself tumbling down into the Victorian world of Mrs. Gaskell. Higgins is another strong character of the series, played beautifully by Brendan Coyle. He is an independent and proud factory worker who can fight till death for his ideals and beliefs. Yet he has a very human side too which Margaret gets to see when she befriends his daughter Bessy.
Anyone who has ever migrated from a small place to a big city can find his feelings mirrored in the journey of Margaret. She yearns for the idyllic landscape left behind in her country home and hates the smoke and chimneys of Milton. The noise seems hellish as compared to the quiet of the English countryside.
The crowd seems appalling and Milton is so big that after so many sojourns daily into its alleys she is yet to know even half of the town. She finds the residents rough and inconsiderate and the slow death of Bessy by TB makes her hate the city even more. The southerners can never accept the Northern ways! Thornton will also find a lot of us nodding with him: the energy and activity of the city as compared to the staid life and quietude of the country life which seems dull and boring.
Thornton is the mirror image of everything Milton and Margaret hates Thornton as she hates Milton. As an inflexible mill owner who rules over his workers with an iron fist, he is the nemesis of Margaret. And yet as much as Margaret hates Milton and Thornton, they both grow on her until finally she accepts both Thornton and Milton. This is another common experience of a rural emigrant. The first impression of city life is full of hate but it slowly becomes acceptable and even lovely. Margaret feels this when she visits her country home again after living for sometime in Milton. Though she loves the visit but she strongly feels that all of that country life is firmly in the past and Milton is her present now. It is also an artistic way of her portraying the changing feelings of Margaret towards Thornton.
Though every character was fully developed and the sets did a lot of work, the show was largely carried over by Richard Armitage. He carries the role of the 19th century mill owner superbly. The accent is perfect Manchesterish! He has the swagger and pride of a mill owner and exactly confirms to the character of Mrs. Gaskell. When he sees Margaret with her brother at the station without knowing about their actual relationship, Frederick remarks, “What a scowl that man has!” And really, he does have a frightening scowl! The ‘look back’ scene is the best of the series.
The story develops wonderfully with the prides and prejudices of the characters clashing and resolving with each other. At first Higgins and Thornton are two irreconcilable characters of the two classes – the mill owners and the factory workers. Marx would never have them reconcile with each other! But Gaskell was no Marx and thankfully England never proved out to be Russia! As the story develops Thornton and Higgins go out of their way in order to come to an understanding and make room for the other side. Apart from the chemistry of Thornton and Margaret the relation between Higgins & Thornton is one of most interesting and beautiful features of the series. The Western world worked out its conflicts more or less the way Gaskell’s characters do in North & South. If I were to turn to a social historian, my choice would be Mrs. Gaskell and not Karl Marx!
The theme superbly adds to the brilliance of the show. The end of episode two, the proposal scene, the look back scene and a lot of other scenes blend in with the central idea with the help of the beautiful theme playing in the background. It is one of the shortest themes and one has to play it over and over again! But it is perfect for the series with its constant background playing.
North & South is the best short TV series and adaptation I have ever seen! After watching it so many times I cannot forget the end of the first episode when Margaret exclaims over Milton, “I believe I have seen Hell! And it’s white! All white!” The theme grows stronger and we see white cotton swirling everywhere against the black background with Thornton striding proud yet sad over his realm…