North and South is a four part adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s love story of Margaret Hale, a middle class southerner who is forced to move to the northern town of Milton.
I’ve been remiss in writing reviews for my favourite book adaptations and this one is certainly in the top five if not the absolute winner. It is an amazing adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s book North and South that will most likely never be surpassed in its perfection. I’m not surprised Imdb gives it a rating of 9 – it certainly deserves it and more. 😀
REVIEW (Plot spoilers below)
The story centres on lives of two people – Margaret Hale, a gentlewoman from England’s south that is relocated north, and John Thornton, a factory owner in her new industrial hometown. But what is perhaps the heart of the story and which is emphasized in the series are the changing conditions of factory workers and the growing divide between the classes.
The book is a commentary on the situation in 1850s industrial towns. Our protagonists give us differing views on the rights of owners and the workforce, each coloured by their upbringing and experience. The series excels in portraying the details of worker’s life, the hellish conditions of their workplaces, the attitudes of the masters, and the changing times with the formation of powerful unions and the risks strikes posed for the entire economy of these industrial towns. So, despite the amazing romantic story herein, the book and series are great exactly because they dare to be more than simply a romantic story and tackle on the injustices that became apparent in Gaskell’s time.
The moving force of the book is Margaret, whose family is uprooted from the gentle and agricultural south and moved to an industrial town, Milton. It is heavily based on Manchester of the time. There the family must adjust to their new circumstances, which is especially hard for Margaret’s mother. Her father finds a job tutoring young men, one of them being John Thornton. In a scenario reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice, Margaret has an unpleasant first encounter with the man, which colours their subsequent meetings.
John is fascinated with the beautiful and educated newcomer whose opinions are so different from those of his peers. He can’t help the attraction though he tries, knowing she would never accept his suit. He feels their divide most deeply, especially when considering their upbringing – she had a stable and warm home life, he had to work to pay off his father’s debts and bring up a business to support his mother and sister. That gives him a unique view on the troubles of the workforce and he cares deeply for their livelihood. That is why he is so strict with them regarding safety and so careful with money, something his sister Fanny just doesn’t understand. Luckily he has his mother, a woman who isn’t afraid of struggles and who supports him. She is less enthusiastic about his interest in Margaret whom she feels does not deserve or understand him.
Margaret sees Mrs. Thornton as a hard woman and disregards much of her advice. Yet she finds friends in a worker family from Thornton’s mill – Nicolas, Mary and Bessy Higgins. She sees their troubles first-hand, making her all the more sympathetic to the plight of their class. She grows close to Bessy who contracted Pneumoconiosis from exposure to the cotton-fibres in the mills. Even relocation to Thornton’s mill with expensive ventilation that helps reduce the dust and protect worker’s health does not help and Bessy is still very ill.
When workers in Milton go on strike, Margaret is the only one from the upper classes to visit them and offer help just as she did in her father’s parish. In midst of this crisis, her family experiences one blow after another. First is the rapid decline of her mother’s health. Margaret goes to borrow a water-bed for her mother and gets caught in a riot at the mill where she shields John from the mob. She gets injured but returns home before her family could find out. John is more I love with her than ever and, bolstered by her actions, goes to propose. His proposal comes as a surprise. Margaret firmly rejects him, a decision she ultimately comes to regret. They appear forever estranged.
To escape Milton, Margaret goes to visit her wealthy aunt and her family, going together with her cousin and cousin’s brother-in-law to the Great Exhibition. There they run into John Thornton, who is admired by other men for his understanding and interest in innovation. Margaret is mortified but nonetheless notes that she likes John’s sincerity when surrounded by empty niceties the wealthy classes are so fond of. She longs to return home to her mother who is rapidly declining in health.
Despite the danger, they summon Margaret’s brother, who is wanted by the navy for mutiny. Mrs. Hale wishes to see him one last time before she dies. The family hides him in the house for several days and doesn’t accept visitors, not even John, who is a close friend of Mr. Hale. John believes this is due to Margaret’s wishes. Then Frederick is discovered by a member of his old crew and he must run for his life. In a desperate move, Margaret and her brother go to the train station at night where they are seen by John. Thinking Frederick to be Margaret’s lover due to the air of secrecy around the house, John is devastated. Nonetheless, he covers for her when an investigation into a man’s death places her at the train station. Soon her mother dies and not long after her father. Suddenly alone, Margaret is entrusted to her aunt who promptly whisks her to London even though Margaret would feel better in Milton. John believes them to be forever parted.
A few months pass and Margaret’s godfather, who also owns Thornton’s mill, dies and leaves all his possessions to his god-daughter. Margaret is suddenly an heiress. John, however, is ruined due to the effects the strike left on the mill and his refusal to gamble with the money. Yet the workers respect him for his upright nature, the reforms he implemented in the mill, and his willingness to listen to their desires and advice. They promise to work for him if he ever finds himself in the position to hire. Nicolas Higgins also discloses to John the secret of the man at the train station. John is relieved and feeling closer to Margaret (for she was the one to urge him to connect with the workers), he goes to visit her old home in the south.
In the mean time, Margaret comes to see the empty mill she now owns. She hoped to meet John but found his mother who still believes Margaret feels herself above them. Margaret disabuses her of this notion and decides to return to London. At a stop during the ride, she sees John. Hoping to help his situation, she proposes a business deal by which they can reopen the mill. Feelings between them come to a culmination by a kiss. The pair returns to Milton.
That is a short summary of the plot that doesn’t delve into the deeper themes and social commentary of the series. That would require further 1.000 words of commentary. I won’t bother you with it here; I feel you should see the series and form your own opinions. What is important to know though, is that I’m still caught fangirling about the utter perfection of the adaptation time and time again (or whenever I see a snapshot of the main characters).
I love the book but perhaps this is the rare instance of an adaptation surpassing the original in some aspects. The lead actors have amazing chemistry – they practically sizzle at times even if the characters are observing rules of propriety. It’s the lingering looks, the frustration at their miscommunication, opposite views on life, and verbal battles that turn them into one of the most equal of romantic couples. They respect one another, communicate with surprising honesty, and in the end become better people by learning from each other. Not even Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s story can compare to the odds these two overcame.
I must confess I still harbour a crush on Richard Armitage. He
could would reduce me to a blubbering mess if I were ever to meet him in person. Gods, I’m blushing from the mere idea. 😀 Part of this stems from his magnetic portrayal of John Thornton – I’ve rarely seen a case of perfect casting as this. It left a lasting impression as you can see. 😀 Daniela Denby-Ashe did an amazing job as Margaret as well.
(Images – found on Google search, no copyright infringement intended)