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 sheís telling the truth. When it comes to most modern lovers in the movies or television, just color me cynical, but I donít 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 heíll 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 personís 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
a long time I fed my hunger for romances on the screen by watching adaptations
of Jane Austenís 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. Gaskellís 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
North and South was her last finished novel and it appeared in parts
in Charles Dickensís magazine Household Words. Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell
were good friends and he shared her concern with social reform.
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 fatherís 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 clergymanís 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.
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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 Margaretís brother lives in exile, having taken part
in a mutiny against an insane captain.
Eventually the workers strike and as it drags on, Thorntonís 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 Thorntonís honesty and work ethic are contrasted to Lennoxís 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. Margaretís
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, ďIíve
seen hell, and itís white.Ē 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 wonít use because
of its expense.
I canít 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, itís
always sunny, and the colors are all bright. But when the Hales move to Milton,
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. Itís 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.