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Friday Flashback: Reading Gaskell’s North & South

This post is a continuation of my Friday Favorites post on North & South (2004) and perhaps will only be interesting to those who are already fans of the mini-series. (Or maybe it will inspire potential new fans? One can hope.) In 2006 I read the novel and had great fun comparing it to the series in two Livejournal posts.

Jan 11, 2006

If you’ve listened to the commentary for N&S, you already have a good idea of what they’ve changed, added, or deleted in order to adapt the novel into a film. The main differences I see so far:

— Mrs. Hale was not happy in Helstone. She’s just generally malcontented. You learn that her sister married for status & money (and hated her husband), but Mrs. Hale married a poor clergyman for love, and has always mildly resented her lowered standard of living. (And Dixon is very sympathetic to this, of course.)

— Mr. Thornton is NOT beating the crap out of people in the sight of young ladies

— There are no union meetings with Higgins rallying the workers. This makes me sad. I found those scenes very moving in the film.

— Bessie isn’t quite as sassy and snarky — more the typical lower class Victorian invalid.

Various interesting passages:

Henry Lennox to Margaret:

Well, I suppose you are all in the depths of business — ladies’ business, I mean. Very different to my business, which is the real true law business. Playing with shawls is very different work to drawing up settlements. (10)

What a self-important prig! Do you think Gaskell’s female contemporary readers would have been equally irked by that? Or would they just have accepted it as “separate sphere” sort of bantering? I have to believe that this is Gaskell telling her readers “Sure, this would be a socially appropriate partner for Margaret BUT TRULY HE’S JUST THE PRACTICE ROUND!”

Margaret’s physical description:

Sometimes people wondered that parents so handsome should have a daughter who was so far from regularly beautiful; not beautiful at all, was occasionally said. Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a “yes” and “no,” and “an’t please you, sir.” But the wide mouth was one soft curve of rich red lips; and the skin, if not white and fair, was of ivory smoothness and delicacy. If the look on her face was, in general, too dignified and reserved for one so young, now, talking to her father, it was bright as the morning, — full of dimples, and glances that spoke of childish gladness, and boundless hope in the future. (17)

And then there’s the scene of Mr. Thornton having tea with the Hales. This passage, in which he contemplates Margaret, seems almost erotic to me:

It appeared to Mr. Thornton that all these graceful cares were habitual to the family; and especially of a piece with Margaret. She stood by the tea-table in a light-colored muslin gown, which had a good deal of pink about it. She looked as if she was not attending to the conversation, but solely busy with the tea-cups, among which her round ivory hands moved with pretty, noiseless, daintiness. She had a bracelet on one taper arm, which would fall down over her round wrist. Mr. Thornton watched the re-placing of this troublesome ornament with far more attention than he listened to her father. It seemed as if it fascinated him to see her push it up impatiently, until it tightened her soft flesh; and then to mark the loosening — the fall. He could almost have exclaimed — “There it goes, again!” There was so little left to be done after he arrived at the preparation of tea, that he was almost sorry the obligation of eating and drinking came so soon to prevent his watching Margaret. She handed him his cup of tea with the proud air of an unwilling slave; but her eye caught the moment when he was ready for another cup; and he almost longed to ask her to do for him what he saw her compelled to do for her father, who took her little finger and thumb in his masculine hand, and made them serve as sugar-tongs. (79)

Margaret’s perception of Thornton:

Now, in Mr. Thornton’s face the straight brows fell low over the clear deep-set earnest eyes, which, without being unpleasantly sharp, seemed intent enough to penetrate into the very heart and core of what he was looking at. The lines in the face were few but firm, as if they were carved in marble, and lay principally about the lips, which were slightly compressed over a set of teeth so faultless and beautiful as to give the effect of sudden sunlight when the rare bright smile, coming in an instant and shining out of the eyes, changed the whole look from the severe and resolved expression of a man ready to do and dare everything, to the keen honest enjoyment of the moment, which is seldom shown so fearlessly and instantaneously except by children. Margaret liked this smile; it was the first thing she had admired in this new friend of her father’s . . . (80)

Now, the first bit agrees quite nicely with the film version, but I don’t think Richard Armitage ever smiles so much that all his teeth show. And I’m rather glad of that. It’s much more powerful when he lets slip those rare wee smiles.

Jan 18, 2006

Over the weekend I told a friend that the most illuminating thing about the novel was the opportunity to get into Thornton’s head. In the film he’s quite enigmatic in his brooding, glaring silences. I suppose we see his vulnerability in the scenes with his mother, but as with Pride and Prejudice (book AND film versions) we usually don’t comprehend the pain suffered by the hero during his difficult moments with the heroine. But in Gaskell’s novel, we get both viewpoints during the scenes that involve Margaret and Thornton interacting with each other — AND we get their private assessments of the interaction later on. What delights!

As he waits to propose to Margaret:

Mr Thornton stood by one of the windows, with his back to the door, apparently absorbed in watching something in the street. But, in truth, he was afraid of himself. His heart beat thick at the thought of her coming. He could not forget the touch of her arms around his neck, impatiently felt as it had been at the time; but now the recollection of her clinging defense of him, seemed to thrill him through and through, — to melt away every resolution, all power of self-control, as if it were wax before a fire. He dreaded lest he should go forwards to meet her, with his arms held out in mute entreaty that she would come and nestle there, as she had done, all unheeded, the day before, but never unheeded again. His heart throbbed loud and quick. (193)

Oh! It kills me when he imagines holding out his arms to her in “mute entreaty” and thinks of her “nestling” there. Such tenderness. And doubly touching because we know what’s about to happen!

After the proposal:

When Mr. Thornton had left the house that morning he was almost blinded by his baffled passion. . . He had positive bodily pain, — a violent headache, and a throbbing intermittent pulse. He could not bear the noise, the garish light, the continued rumble and movement in the street. He called himself a fool for suffering so; and yet could not, at the moment, recollect the cause of his suffering, and whether it was adequate to the consequences it had produced. It would have been a relief to him, if he could have sat down and cried on a door-step by a little child, who was raging and storming, through his passionate tears, at some injury he had received. He said to himself, that he hated Margaret, but a wild, sharp sensation of love cleft his dull, thundering feeling like lightning, even as he shaped the words expressive of hatred. His greatest comfort was in hugging his torment; and in feeling, as he had indeed said to her , that though she might despise him, contemn him, treat him with her proud sovereign indifference, he did not change one whit. She could not make him change. He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain. (207)

Why do I love to read about Thornton’s torture and angst? There are many similar passages after this, particularly after he sees Margaret with Frederick at the train station. Oh, how he does work himself into a mental frenzy over that! I won’t quote it here — you simply MUST read the book!

I’ll conclude with this funny little moment — I think we can all relate to Thornton here:

They found Margaret with a letter open before her, eagerly discussing its contents with her father. On the entrance of the gentlemen, it was immediately put aside; but Mr. Thornton’s eager senses caught some few words of Mr. Hale’s to Mr. Bell.

“A letter from Henry Lennox. It makes Margaret very hopeful.”

Mr. Bell nodded. Margaret was as red as a rose when Mr. Thornton looked at her. He had the greatest mind in the world to get up and go out of the room that very instant, and never set foot in the house again. (332)

Friday Favorites: North and South (2004)

A little while ago this article reminded me of one of my very favorite costume dramas of all time: the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s North and South, which premiered nearly 15 years ago. Reading the article filled me with such nostalgia and yearning that I jumped at the chance to watch the mini-series again when visiting my friend Michelle in Tennessee.

We watched all four episodes in one evening. It didn’t matter that I’d seen the series 20 times already. It’s just so SATISFYING.

Sarah Seltzer at Flavorwire agrees:

Like the best “prestige TV,” its concerns are with social justice, moral ambiguity, and individual responsibility. Everyone is rendered sympathetically, to some degree, even those who stand in opposition to each other. Surrounded by the conflicts of this complex world, we have the love story between Thornton, who transcended his modest background to become a mill owner (a boss with principles, but a boss nonetheless), and the refined, socially liberal Margaret Hale (played by a radiant Daniella Denby-Ashe), who comes from the gentler South and thinks him an oppressive brute. It’s one of the most explosive, chemistry-rich misunderstanding-laden romances that’s ever graced the small screen. Their courtship has a structure that clearly imitates Pride and Prejudice, but each step along the way is ten times as dramatic.

I love these comments from Armitage and Denby-Ashe about their chemistry. (If you haven’t yet seen the series and you’re super squeamish about spoilers, you might skip this short video.)

All enthusing aside, I could imagine someone watching the first episode and not continuing. It’s a somewhat grim set-up, and everyone/everything is flawed or unappealing in some way. If you felt this way and stopped, I urge you to continue. It is worth it! And it’s endlessly re-watchable. (You’ll find it on Netflix. It’s also available on various other streaming platforms.)

If you’re already a fan, feel free to share some favorite moments in the comments!

***This bog entry is also somewhat of a “Friday Flashback” because I want to include some comparison/discussion of the novel and TV adaptation saved from my old Livejournal blog. I read the novel after viewing and, as you might imagine, I had some thoughts. But I’m going to put them in a separate WordPress post soon…