After watching the BBC version of North & South multiple times and enjoying it so much, I decided it was time to read the novel.
What the movie doesn’t portray, due to obvious time constraints, is the depth of thought and exploration of character that Gaskell put into her work. Nuances, pertinent quotations at the beginning of each chapter, descriptions of landscape and people, the thought processes of the various characters etc. went by the wayside in the translation from book to movie. In some ways the movie and book were totally different experiences; almost two different stories, but in other ways they complemented each other.
If you’ve read Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first book, it’s almost a foreshadowing of North & South as it takes place in an industrial town for the most part and deals with the social problems that surfaced in that setting.
Margaret Hale and her parents leave their beloved village in the south of England to live in the industrial north when her father gives up his role of vicar after struggling with a matter of conscience.
Their new life in Milton (a fictional town akin to Manchester) brings them into contact with mill owners and workers and they are caught up in the tension between the two.
The movie focuses on the relationship between Margaret and Mr. John Thornton, an abrasive, driven, mill owner who had worked hard to rise from impoverished circumstances to his current position.
They meet when the Hales rent a house from him and over time Thornton comes to love her and declares himself. Margaret scorns him at first but over a period of time she begins to appreciate and understand him and see him differently.
The book shows a much better development of this relationship than the movie. I enjoyed this conversation between the two of them early on in their relationship after Margaret asked Thornton if he thought a certain man, Mr. Morison, was a gentleman:
‘I am not quite the person to decide on another’s gentlemanliness, Miss Hale. I mean, I don’t quite understand your application of the word. But I should say that this Morison is no true man. I don’t know who he is; I merely judge him from Mr. Horsfall’s account.’
‘I suspect my “gentleman” includes your “true man.”’
‘And a great deal more, you would imply. I differ from you. A man is to me a higher and a completer being than a gentleman.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Margaret. ‘We must understand the words differently.’
‘I take it that “gentleman” is a term that only describes a person in his relation to others; but when we speak of him as “a man,” we consider him not merely with regard to his fellow-men, but in relation to himself – to life – to time – to eternity. A cast-away lonely as Robinson Crusoe – a prisoner immured in a dungeon for life – nay, even a saint in Patmos, has his endurance, his strength, his faith, best described by being spoken of as “a man.” I am rather weary of this word “gentlemanly,” which seems to me to be often inappropriately used, and often, too, with such exaggerated distortion of meaning, while the full simplicity of the noun “man,” and the adjective “manly” are unacknowledged – that I am induced to class it with the cant of the day.’
Mr. Hale tutored John, who not having had opportunity for a proper education in his youth, now sought to study the Classics. The two men became good friends and Mr. Hale thought highly of his student but realised that his daughter didn’t. In a conversation regarding this Margaret said:
‘He is a man of great strength of character — of unusual intellect, considering the few advantages he has had.’
And Mr. Hales very astute answer, which I think is a wonderful observation about intellect generally:
‘Not so few. He has led a practical life from a very early age; has been called upon to exercise judgment and self-control. All that develops one part of the intellect. To be sure, he needs some of the knowledge of the past, which gives the truest basis for conjecture as to the future; but he knows this need – he perceives it, and that is something. You are quite prejudiced against Mr. Thornton, Margaret.’
Hard times come upon John Thornton and he is tempted to speculate. His father had done so and when his attempts failed he had committed suicide leaving his wife to bring up John and his younger sister on her own. This had left a profound mark on John. His success as a self-made man and his moral character as to how he conducted his business dealings was something he was rightly proud of.
One night he was very low as he contemplated his future. I loved this conversation he had with his mother who was not very endearing in the movie but redeemed herself here:
‘I have so worked and planned. I have discovered new powers in my situation too late — and now all is over. I am too old to begin again with the same heart. It is hard, mother.’
He turned away from her, and covered his face with his hands.
‘I can’t think,’ said she, with gloomy defiance in her tone, ‘how it comes about. Here is my boy – good son, just man, tender heart – and he fails in all he sets his mind upon: he finds a woman to love, and she cares no more for his affection than if he had been any common man; he labours, and his labour comes to nought…
‘I sometimes have wondered where justice was gone to, and now I don’t believe there is such a thing in the world…’
‘Mother!’ said he, holding her gently in his arms, ‘who has sent me my lot in life, both of good and of evil?’
She shook her head. She would have nothing to do with religion just then.
‘Mother,’ he went on, seeing that she would not speak, ‘I, too, have been rebellious; but I am striving to be so no longer. Help me, as you helped me when I was a child. Then you said many good words – when my father died, and we were sometimes sorely short of comforts – which we shall never be now; you said brave, noble, trustful words then, mother, which I have never forgotten, though they may have lain dormant. Speak to me again in the old way, mother. Do not let us have to think that the world has too much hardened our hearts. If you would say the old good words, it would make me feel something of the pious simplicity of my childhood. I say them to myself, but they would come differently from you, remembering all the cares and trials you have had to bear.’
‘I have had a many,’ said she, sobbing, ‘but none so sore as this. To see you cast down from your rightful place! I could say it for myself, John, but not for you. Not for you! God has seen fit to be very hard on you, very.’
She shook with the sobs that come so convulsively when an old person weeps. The silence around her struck her at last; and she quieted herself to listen. No sound. She looked. Her son sat by the table, his arms thrown half across it, his head bent face downwards.
‘Oh, John!’ she said, and she lifted his face up. Such a strange, pallid look of gloom was on it, that for a moment it struck her that this look was the forerunner of death; but, as the rigidity melted out of the countenance and the natural colour returned, and she saw that he was himself once again, all worldly mortification sank to nothing before the consciousness of the great blessing that he himself by his simple existence was to her. She thanked God for this, and this alone, with a fervour that swept away all rebellious feelings from her mind.
It was passages like the one above that gave an entirely different aspect on the character of both mother and son, aspects that the movie didn’t portray in any depth. In fact, John Thornton seemed to be quite an irreligious man.
Another character that the movie didn’t really show to advantage was that of Henry Lennox, Margaret’s other suitor. He is shown to be jealous and full of rivalry towards Thornton but he actually helped Margaret and John in the end by bowing out and allowing them to meet on their own. He realised that he would never win Margaret and had the decency not to begrudge another who could. I thought he got a bit of a raw deal in the film.
The more I read Gaskell’s work, the more I appreciate her literary skill and her ability to craft a rich & satisfying story, as may be seen if you compare even two of her books, say Cranford and North & South.
In North and South Elizabeth Gaskell’s Christian beliefs were woven into the story very naturally along with some very thoughtful themes on the nature of man and character traits: rich and poor, masters and workers, men and women, social problems, class structure, trade unions, family life, pride and humility, prejudice and understanding…this is an excellent read and the movie is lovely even if it only deals with a small portion of the whole. I totally recommend both!
North & South is my choice for no. 8) A Novel with a Christian Theme in the 2019 Christian Greats Challenge.