North and South

By M. Gowlett, guest author

The 2004 BBC mini-series ‘North and South’ provides us with yet another brilliantly turned-out, authentically and atmospherically-set period drama that throws us back in time and brings history alive for us, albeit through a fictional story. As with most period dramas, this story has, at its core, the gradual development, from most unlikely beginnings, of a romance between a beautiful woman and a handsome man coming from different classes. In this respect, it can be compared with Pride and Prejudice; also in the fact that in both cases the initial proposal of marriage is most disdainfully refused as preposterous by the lady in question. The romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy has a rocky enough beginning and a stony enough rejection, but even this impossible-case scenario is eclipsed by the apparent impossibility of a match between Margaret Hale and Mr Thornton.

In North and South, the lady is Margaret Hale and it is the changes in her outlook and character that are the main focus of the story; in fact Elizabeth Gaskell, the author of the book on which the film is based, originally intended to entitle it ‘Margaret’ or ‘Margaret Hale’. She was persuaded to change the title to ‘North and South’ by Charles Dickens who agreed to publish her story in 1854 in serialized form in his weekly journal ‘Household Words’; she proceeded to re-emphasize the ‘Margaret’ aspect for the publication in book form a little later. The title ‘North and South’ embodies the stark contrast between two geographically opposite points and between two diametrically opposed lifestyles. Dickens chose it to highlight the conflict between the north and south of England at a time when public unrest was escalating on account of the ‘outrageous’ new developments caused by the Industrial Revolution, which took place in the north from the late 1700s through to the mid 1800s. Until this time, wealth had mainly come from agriculture so the landowning aristocracy were in control, and could lead a life of comfort as there were plenty of poor labourers to work the land for them. In return for their labours from generation to generation, the workers could expect to be provided with simple houses, basic food and, when times were bad, the occasional charitable gift from their masters, or more often from the lady of the house. In other words, the privileged realized that their position carried with it some degree of responsibility for those who worked for them. The Industrial Revolution changed all this. The new bosses were the men who controlled the natural resources, such as coal and water to run the machinery, and the factory owners and tenant managers. The owners and managers of mines and cotton mills (the textile industry was one of the first to be mechanized) were not such benevolent masters; they paid meagre wages but expected their workers to fend for themselves; their employees' private lives were none of their business. Factory bosses themselves had often worked their way up from poverty so they well understood hardship, but had had to be hard to reach that position; Mr Thornton in our story is one such case. Dickens was very aware of the turbulent changes taking place in the society of his day, and the plight of the poor. This situation was the backdrop to most of his stories, especially ‘Hard Times’, which was also first published in 1854 in instalment-form for his journal, ‘Household Words’, most articles in which dealt with these issues. The serialized ‘North and South’ fitted the genre perfectly.

DVD on Amazon U.K.
DVD on Amazon U.S.

Margaret Hale grew up in comfortable, aristocratic and professional circles, despite her father's ‘living’ as a clergyman not stretching to as many smart new gowns for his wife as she would have liked. Margaret spent ten years living with her Aunt Shaw and cousin Edith who lived as gentry in London, only staying at the parsonage with her less affluent parents in the beautiful southern village of Helstone for holidays. After Edith's no-expense-spared wedding to a Captain Lennox, and Margaret's own refusal of his lawyer brother's proposal of marriage to her, Margaret looks forward to returning to life at the parsonage only to hear from her father that the family is about to relocate to the industrial north. Mrs Hale is only informed of this at the very last moment; she is shocked to the core, and can never really accept that her husband's long-deliberated conviction that his doubts concerning his faith forced him to quit his job was sufficient reason to ‘condemn’ the family to such a fate.

There was mutual disdain between northerners and southerners at the time, around 1850. The ‘upper-class’ people from the south considered their lifestyle to be refined and civilized, while that of the north was crude, dirty and based only on earning money. People of the north considered the southern lifestyle to be boring and the people to be spoilt and complacent, while they in the north got on with the hard work of life. Actually, these views haven't completely died out to this day, and the current discrepancy in job opportunities and wages reflect this! In our story, these prejudices ensconced in our two main characters are gradually broken down.

Anyway, when the family arrive in the northern industrial town of Milton, Margaret and her mother's worst fears are confirmed. Margaret's introduction to Mr Thornton couldn't have been worse, as she witnessed his harsh and violent treatment of one of his employees who he had caught smoking. Later he has the chance to explain to her, but only much later does she begin to understand the fact that the punishment he had administered was done in the interest of the employees, for whom he was responsible; a recent fire at his mill had caused the death of 300 workers, including many children, and he had found the experience of burying them heartbreaking. Thornton's disciplinary action is defended as justified by a very freethinking and pro-active mill worker Nicholas Higgins, who is at the time busy trying to rally his fellow workers to take strike action to improve their lot. It is interesting that these two men at the opposite ends of the spectrum, one a company boss, the other the leader of the rebels, in fact have a lot in common. They both strongly believe in their principles and stand by them: Higgins at one point mentioning that he would sooner die at his post than yield; Thornton being prepared to bring in Irish labourers to break the strike at whatever risk to himself, while fellow bosses were willing to give in. He genuinely seems to believe (true or not, I don't know) that he can't afford to pay his workers more without going under, so that it is actually in the workers' interest for the strike to fail: “It's our livelihood at stake, but it's their lives!”

Actually, Margaret's brother Frederick's action in standing up for his principles and the rights of his fellow seamen falls into a similar category. Interestingly, The Combination Acts of 1799, which were passed to prevent mutinies during the Napoleonic Wars (poor Frederick was blacklisted as a mutineer, hence having to flee the country for fear of being court-martialled and surely facing the death penalty) were used for decades to suppress Trade Unions. Since then of course, various Government Acts have been passed dealing with the issue of compensation for strikers. Situations differ from country to country; in England, for example, the rights of strikers are still very different from those in France, where the right to strike is recognized and guaranteed by the Constitution – things are not so clear-cut in other countries. Of course, the governments of different countries have also since accepted responsibility for social welfare to varying degrees; ‘North and South’ shows us most clearly the dire consequences of there being no system of benefits in place, as was the case at that time.

Cotton snowflakes in North and South
Cotton snowflakes in North and South
Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) as she first sees the cotton snowflakes at Thornton's cotton factory. BBC 2004. Screencap credit: Desert Sky Screencaps.

The mill workers certainly had a case for striking: the conditions in the factory were appalling! We, and Margaret, are at first entranced by the seemingly beautiful sight of huge ‘snowflakes’ floating through the air inside the work-hall of Marlborough Mills, of which Mr Thornton is the boss. These ‘snowflakes’ turn out to be deadly fluffy cotton fibres that are slowly but surely blocking up the lungs of the workers. Again showing concern for his workers as well as for his business, Mr Thornton has taken action, in advance of his peers, to reduce this air pollution by installing a special, newly invented ventilation wheel. However, the improvement is nowhere near enough and the damage is already done; ringleader Nicholas Higgins' daughter Bessie, who has become best friends with Margaret, succumbs to the killer lung disease along with many others. Margaret is shocked to experience the human suffering she sees all around her, especially that of the families of striking workers who can't afford to feed their children, and her ‘southern’ compassion prompts her to take baskets of food to help out, for which she is criticized for helping to prolong the strike rather than helping. Finally, as the deadlock continues, poor John Boucher tragically takes his life, followed shortly by his wife, leaving six starving orphans.

Margaret's spontaneous expression of compassion also leads her to step in front of Mr Thornton to protect him from ‘missiles’ hurled at him by the strikers incensed by his bringing in Irish workers to break the strike. She does this without thinking, as the incident occurs long before she realizes that her feelings towards him are beginning to change. The fact that Margaret's actions are misinterpreted by John's mother (who later talks him into proposing to Margaret, as protocol demanded) serves to highlight the gulf between the old traditional view of womanhood and Margaret's ‘modern’ view of it. Persuading her son in this way must really have gone against the grain for the poor mother, as she is not at all fond of Margaret and considers her to be in no way worthy of her son. Anyway, at the time, Margaret refuses him in no uncertain terms!

North and South ending at railway station
North and South ending at railway station
Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and John Thornton (Richard Armitage) at the railway station, finally realising each other's true feelings. BBC 2004. Screencap credit: Desert Sky Screencaps.

However, in due course, the most unlikely becomes reality! Mr Thornton and Mr Higgins finally realize that they do indeed have many principles in common and discover mutual respect for each other. Together they set up a works canteen where both the boss and the workers can eat cheaply, to everyone's advantage – it is Higgins' sense of duty and determination to feed the Boucher orphans (and Thornton's admiration of him for doing so) that precipitates this, and it is Higgins' remaining daughter Mary who is the cook. Thornton's hard-hearted mum finally ‘softens’ just a little bit; but most importantly, John Thornton and Margaret finally resolve their differences, acknowledge their feelings for each other and realize they can't live without each other. Their north versus south prejudices have proven unfounded - Margaret is shocked to discover that she has practically swapped her allegiance; perhaps she has also begun to see the attraction of the ‘northern’ harder form of masculinity, and John in turn has come to realize that strength needn't exclude compassion.

So, we finally witness the touching love scene that takes place on the platform of a railway station somewhere between Milton and London, where they meet when their trains cross, after both of them have set out to retrieve each other; he produces a yellow rose picked in her beloved Helstone; she timidly spells out a proposition. At first, she is too shy to disclose her feelings for him openly; she might disparagingly have been described as ‘strong-minded’ for a woman, but she isn't that emancipated! Instead she attempts to disguise her feelings by offering him a purely business deal. She has just inherited a large sum of money, and property, from a Mr Bell, an old friend and ex-Oxford-tutor of her father's, and a godfather to Frederick. He had actually been instrumental in Mr Hale's decision to relocate to Milton in the first place. He knew that Mr Hale wanted to escape from Helstone to a place where nobody knew of his leaving the church, and he found him a potential classics' student in the tenant manager of Marlborough Mills (of which he was the owner), namely John Thornton. Mr Bell had become very fond of Margaret and wished to take care of her after the death of her mother and father. He had rather hoped that she might even marry him to look after him in his old age (and final months, as it turns out), but when she dashes his hopes, he benevolently hands over to her the bulk of his assets, including Marlborough Mills. She is now a rich woman and she offers John money to enable him to continue running the mill, which had had to close down on account of his over-cautious decision concerning an investment. She tries to sell him the idea by explaining that the money is just lying in the bank; she, as a woman, would not be allowed to do much with it, whereas he could put it to very good use, giving work again to those who depended on him; in the process, she says, paying her higher interest than the bank. Luckily, John is well able to see her true feelings for him through this guise, and we have the happy ending to our love story.

We are lucky enough to have so many great period dramas, but ‘North and South’ always seems to rate as one of the best; it comes top of the rating in the Top Ten list, as voted by visitors to this website. Maybe this is partly due to the fact that it not only is a great love story, but also involves so many important issues that are still relevant today, such as employment rights and prejudices that shouldn't exist and should be broken down. However, the main reason for its high rating is probably the fact that it is a very good period drama! All the characters are well formed and convincing, and I imagine that Elizabeth Gaskell would be very happy with the actors' portrayal of them. Richard Armitage, as John Thornton, with sharp facial features suggesting resolute determination but with deep-set expressive eyes which later betray a softness inside; Daniela Denby-Ashe, as the spontaneous and compassionate Margaret, whose thoughtful face can light up in a second with a wide cheery smile; Tim Pigott-Smith as her gentle, academic father; Sinéad Cusack as her mum, sweet but peeved: Anna Maxwell Martin (well known to me from ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Becoming Jane’) as Bessie, cheerful and pragmatic, even on her deathbed; Brendan Coyle (from ‘Larkrise to Candleford’ and ‘Downton Abbey’) deep-thinking and determined, ‘standing on principle’ but with a strong moral sense of honesty and duty; and Pauline Quirke (from ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Little Dorrit’) as Dixon the maid who considers herself to be the mistress's ‘protecting fairy’ – perfect for the part, as were all the actors for their parts!

I would conclude by saying that, for me, this period drama is well cast, well acted and generally very well done!

Useful source

When researching for this article, I found a most useful introduction written by Dr Patsy Stoneman of the University of Hull in the Wordsworth Classics edition of Elizabeth Gaskell's book, ‘North and South’.


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