I discovered the BBC miniseries North and South (adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name) on Netflix’s recommended-for-you list. I’d just finished watching several film adaptations of Austen books, my husband was away for a few nights, and I needed something to while away my lonely evenings (okay, so I was avoiding writing). And, wow! North and South has catapulted to the top of my list of favorite classic adaptations, eclipsing even the Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. You can keep your Mr. Darcy; Richard Armitage as John Thornton is much more interesting (and better-looking!) hero.
Gaskell’s stories are a different breed from Austen’s. Austen’s character studies are incisive, but her world is small and her focus tight. Gaskell, on the other hand, is a more passionate writer and willing to take on the larger issues of the Victorian era. In North & South, she depicts the differences between the industrialized North (of England) and the more rural South in the clash between “master” John Thornton and newcomer Margaret Hale, a former rector’s daughter who sympathizes with the workers. Gaskell highlights the problems of industrialization–low wages, poor working conditions, chronic health problems–which drive the workers into a protracted strike, a “war” against the mill owners. The strike creates its own issues for workers and owners alike, however, and Gaskell meets them head on.
This is also a fish out of water story, a theme I very much enjoy. Daniela Denby-Ashe’s Margaret is level-headed and capable, yet grieves the loss of her rustic home deeply. It’s a shock to her to coem from the sunshine, fields and slow ways of the South to the grey, grim, dirty and crowded North. Unused to the ways of the North, she bungles her initial social interactions, but is quick to admit fault and make amends–mostly. She takes Mr. Thornton in deep dislike right from the beginning (a la Elizabeth Bennet) and it takes most of the book for her to come to see his value. Indeed, it takes her most of the book to see the value in his industrial town, the fictional Milton. It’s a long, heartbreaking journey (there is some melodrama in the story, but I don’t mind it).
One of my favorite scenes of the series is this one, depicting Margaret at her lowest point, seeing Milton in the worst light:
Thornton, a self-made businessman, epitomizes the dynamism and industry of the North. He’s blunt and forceful, but Richard Armitage imbues his character with passion and integrity also. I like that Thornton works for a living, that he’s worked hard to get where he’s at, instead of being born into it and spending his time on an endless round of house parties.
The soundtrack is beautiful and haunting, but unfortunately BBC has released neither a CD nor the score for it. After hunting around on the Internet (and YouTube) for a bit, I found an arrangement for a piano version of this:
And that’s what I’ve been playing recently.