30 Jan 2013

Page vs Screen: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and the BBC

Ok, first of all this is NOT about the 1980s Civil War novel North and South brought to life on the small screen with Patrick Swayze as the lead. This North and South is over a century older! Written in 1855 by British author Elizabeth Gaskell (and originally published by Dickens in a weekly periodical), it's a social novel that showcases the relations between workers and their industrial masters in the fictional town of Milton in northern England (apparently inspired by Manchester where the author lived). These tense relations are seen through the eyes of the Hale family who have had to move there from Helstone in rural southern England after the father, a pastor, decides he must leave the Church of England as a matter of conscience. Following the advice of Mr Bell, a friend from his Oxford days, he moves to Milton with his wife and daughter and takes up teaching private students. It is quite a clash for the family, nowadays we'd call it culture shock. The peaceful, idyllic rural south has nothing in common with the grey, noisy, dirty northern city... even the people and their attitudes are quite different. Margaret makes friends with some of the workers and clashes with Mr John Thornton, master of Malborough Mills, who is also one of her father's students. Theirs is a clash worthy of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, but in this case they are both afflicted with both pride and prejudice and must overcome it before the story can come to a happy ending... ;o)

It's a story that fits well into the Industrial Revolution, a story of strife between classes (workers and masters, and the early unions and first strikes "The Union is a great power, the Union is our only power"). It does a good job of presenting the case both of the workers and the masters (dealing with the cheaper competition from America so they must lower their costs to remain competitive). As Mr Hale puts it:  "I meet many a working man. They have some dreadful tales and speak from the heart and have arguments for the strike which appear to me to be entirely logical. (...) But then our friend Thornton (...) he answers my questions and puts the other side so eloquently... I truly don't know what to think!" It also shows the difference in mentality between people from the southern rural counties and London society and the northern industrial cities.

Like most 19th century novels there are plentiful descriptions of places, people, background, society etc., and not that much dialogue. Much of that necessary information is given to us in the TV series either from the characters themselves during conversations, or in the form of letters between Margaret and her cousin Edith (whose wedding is the starting point of the story). Margaret's first letter to Edith serves as an introduction to what life is like in Milton, her father's teaching and students, it can sometimes be amusing when the difference between the "cheerful" tone of the letter is in contrast with the darker reality of what's happening on screen! We get more "exposition" during a dinner among the various "masters" and Mr Hale which illustrates Thornton's influence among his equals, and discussions of the situation of the workers and working conditions in the cotton mills.

Although we get some of Margaret's inner thoughts via those letters (and a few conversations), we're missing most of Thornton's thoughts on Margaret, which in the novel illustrate how he admires her from the start (despite an inauspicious beginning in which he finds her "haughty") and how his feelings develop, and also his sense of inferiority (due to a lack of education, his status as he's in trade, not a "gentleman") and being unworthy of her. But Richard Armitage does an excellent job conveying his fascination with her and evolving feelings with the tone of his voice and his looks and glances and his facial expressions. The gorgeous soundtrack also helps... But because of this we miss out on why a key moment (Leonards' death and Margaret's lies to a police officer) disturbs Thornton so much. In the book it's clear he believes so deeply in her honourable and truthful nature that he believes she lied to cover up for a gentleman (with whom he saw her) who is a bad influence on her, so the belief hat she is being led astray adds to his jealousy.

Ok, starting here I'm going to go into a more detailed comparison of book and series... so if you want to avoid spoilers you should stop reading! Instead go download the book for free from Project Gutenberg, read it, then watch the series, and come back and tell me what you think! ;o)

Note: The quotes are all from the show. I jotted them down while re-watching it for the purpose of this post. I've discovered a downside to e-books...  I can't quickly flip through pages to find elements I want to verify in the book! And I don't know it well enough to say "it must be in this chapter", so looking for similar quotes in the book would just take way too long...

Dramatis personae

All the characters were very well cast I thought, and the tones and gestures of the actors fit in very well with the book (which is very descriptive when it comes to the characters' emotions).

  • Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) has a very open face, but although she seems quite independent is also very demure, usually keeping her eyes down... except when arguing with Thornton and then she gets quite fired up! She's quite curious about how things work in Milton, about its people. The more she learns, her opinion of things change, and the more she starts taking charge. She's a fascinating character!
  • Mrs Hale (Lesley Manville) is frail and looks always scared or worried. 
  • Mr Hale (Tim Pigott-Smith) seems like a congenial sort of man, enjoying the challenge of the change and the different energy to be found in this industrial city. But he lacks some of his daughter's strength.
  • Dixon (Pauline Quirke), the family's devoted and very outspoken servant, particularly attached to Mrs Hale since her youth.
  • John Thornton (Richard Armitage) is a stern master, but cheerful when talking about classics with Mr Hale, and tender when talking with Mrs Hale and Margaret (when he's not arguing with her). He has quite a temper which he struggles to keep in control. He's devoted to his mother and very grateful to her for her constant support.
  • Mrs Thornton (Sinéad Cusack) is something of a dragon! She's stern and proud, particularly of her son and what he's accomplished ("The name of John Thornton in Milton, manufacturer and magistrate, is known and respected amongst all men of business. And sought after by all young women in Milton." "If you had a son like mine Mrs Hale, you would not be embarrassed to sing his praises" "The mill is everything. There is no other factory like it in Milton"). 
  • Fanny Thornton (Jo Joyner), the sister, is flighty, superficial and contemptuous when she talks. 
  • Nicholas Higgins (Brendan Coyle - of Downton Abbey fame!) is our introduction to the world of the workers and the Union as he's one of its leaders. A man with a strong native intelligence, but not a lot of education. Devoted to his cause and his daughter.
  • Bessy Higgins (Anna Maxwell Martin) is really Margaret's only friend in the North, but she's dying of consumption from having breathed in too many cotton fibres (illustrating the poor working conditions).
  • Boucher (William Huston) is there as a character to show us how things are among those workers who are worse off, having trouble with their meagre salaries to feed their large families. Who become desperate when the Strike lasts longer than expected... He also serves to illustrate the tyranny of the Unions, who will force all the workers to be a part of the Union (explained quite well by Higgins in the book) and to be part of the strike, even if they don't want to.



Quick look on how the series is structured:

The TV series is bookended by trains. It seems appropriate considering the importance of trains as a mode of transport during the Industrial Revolution which at the time of the story is in full swing! Plus it's a way to bring things full circle. The first and final scenes are both of Margaret looking out a train window...

The first episode starts with Margaret on her way north to Milton by train, followed by her cousin Edith's wedding in London 3 months before. It's our introduction to Milton and the people there. It ends right after the first strike meeting, with Margaret writing Edith in a letter telling her she thinks she's found hell, here in Milton, and it's white (the cotton).

The second episode starts up the next Spring with tensions rising between Masters and workers and Margaret asking Mrs Thornton for her doctor's address for her mother. It covers the strike and the big dinner at the Thornton's as well as the key scene between Thornton, Margaret and the strikers at Malborough Mill (which was very well done!). It ends with the Proposal.

The third episode starts as Thornton leaves the Hales' house all agitated after the disastrous proposal. It's a tragic episode with several key deaths as well as the dangers of Frederick's visit and the ensuing misunderstanding between Thornton and Margaret. It has the one big extra in the series: Margaret's visit to London for the Great Exhibition. In the book Edith kept insisting that Margaret come visit her, but she didn't. Here they added the visit and had it coincide with the Fair. It gives her a chance to see Thornton admired by men in London, it helps to increase her opinion of him. It ends with a confrontation between Thornton and Margaret after the matter of Leonard's death.

Finally, the fourth episode starts with Higgins coming to the Hales to ask for advice about finding work in the South as no one will hire him in Milton and he needs work so he can maintain poor Boucher's children. Also with Mrs Thornton's "remonstrances" to Margaret about her behaviour (by being seeing after dark, alone with a gentleman). We've got the final two deaths and Margaret's time in London with her Aunt. It ends with the Proposal, albeit quite different from the scene in the book!

Main differences between the series and the novel:


  • Time! You have to pay close attention in the series (Margaret mentions the seasons in her letters) to be aware of the passage of time (the story covers a 3-year period). In the book we spend a longer time at the Vicarage in Helstone before going North, and get a much closer look at Mr Hale's worries and final decision which in the series we only get bits and pieces of from comments between other people (Thornton's overseer and landlord of the Hale's new house). Mr Hale only explains it to the family once they're in Milton and after his wife and daughter confront him about the fact that "people are talking".  The series also shows the entire family as going straight to Milton, instead of Mrs Hale and Dixon spending time at the coast.
  • Margaret's first meeting of John Thornton in the book is in the hotel she and her father are staying in. It leaves neither one of them with a good first impression of the other (she is prejudiced against tradesmen and is too tired from house hunting to pay him much attention while they wait for her father). This is in sharp contrast to the series in which her first encounter with Thornton is in his own Mill where she witnesses him chase after and beat one of the workers for having a lit pipe in the sorting room (which is full of floating cotton fluff, very flammable material). It's a very violent scene, she tries to intercede and gets rebuffed by Thornton ("Get that woman out of here!"). To say she's shocked would be an understatement. Then their second meeting is his first class with her father and it's still very tense arguing about the above scene. So definitely not a promising start between them!
  • Our first introduction to Higgins is a positive one as he helps her when she's overwhelmed by the factory workers leaving the mills when the whistle blows. Second meeting starts to develop Bessy's role more than it is in the book. The scene on the hill serves as a bit of culture shock when Margaret offers to come to their house and "bring a basket", while Bessie laughs wondering what they'd "put in a basket" and Higgins says "here in the North we wait until we're asked to come to someone's house". We get much more interaction between Bessie (who has more scenes than in the book, and I think she lives longer) and Margaret, and the friendship seems more real, more equal, than in the book. Also, both Higgins and Bessie speak better in the series, seem less uneducated (although in the book it's clear they both have quite a bit of natural intelligence). Higgins when the strike is decided: "No violence! Masters expect us to behave like animals. We will show them we are thinking men. We will not be out-thought. The only enemy of the strike is ourselves! Now we must manage this strike well."
  • Mr Bell is also more prominent in the series, although to be fair in the book he is mentioned quite a bit, but we don't meet him until Mrs Hill's funeral whereas in the series he appears earlier, just before the strike (in time for Thornton's dinner), and is around a lot more. His ending has also been changed significantly, and it's much more pleasant to imagine him living out his final days in the Argentine than dying alone in his rooms in Oxford...
  • Thornton's visit to Helstone (the rose!) happens much earlier in the book than in the show, but it's a change that leads very well into the final scene of the series so ok. ;o)
  • The whole speculation discussion appears earlier in the show and is more developed than in the book. We get a clearer impression of why Thornton refuses to risk everything in that manner... and it also gives Fanny a bit more to do than in the book.
  • The main element that is altogether missing from the series is Thornton's visit to London and his interactions with Lennox as Margaret's solicitor and manager of her business affairs. This results in the final scene in novel and series being quite different in form, although the start off point (a business arrangement) and the end result are the same. The whole tone of the scene is very similar. Personally I prefer the series' version, much more romantic and more original than another scene between a couple in a drawing room... ;o)
  • The series also introduces a final scene between Margaret and Mrs Thornton in the empty mill which is quite powerful! I love it each time these two come head to head...
  • Elements from the book that weren't as well conveyed in the series: the fact that Mrs Hill wasn't happy at Helstone and was frequently after Mr Hill to get a better position (and so they're moving to a place much worse is a bit ironic). Also the intensity of Dixon's devotion to Mrs Hill and Margaret's jealousy of her place in her mother's affection.

From the length and depth of this post it should be pretty clear that I really LOVED this story! I enjoyed both the romance and the social commentary on the period (industrial revolution, women's roles etc.). A friend advised me to watch it (based on our common fascination with Pride and Prejudice and our common admiration of Richard Armitage), and I can't thank her enough! The book was equally as wonderful, and for once I find it was almost perfectly adapted in the mini-series! Although I'll admit I'm probably a bit biased as I saw the show before reading the book... But if anyone asks me for a "best adaptation from page to screen" some day, I think it will be this series.

Oh, and for P&P comparisons: I prefer Lizzie Bennett, but I'm pretty sure I'd choose Thornton over Darcy! ;o)

I'm going to finish off with some quotes, if you've seen/read the story you might be interested in revisiting these (including the final scene!), otherwise skip to the comments and tell me what you thought! ;o)


 A few quotes illustrating the evolution of Margaret and Thornton's views:


Episode 1:
M: "You are mistaken, you don't know anything about the South. It may be a little less energetic in its pursuit of competitive trade, but then there is less suffering than I have seen in your mills."
T: "I think I might say that you don't know the North. We Masters are not all the same, whatever your prejudice against Milton men and their ways."

Episode 2: (after arguing about the strikers)
"T: Miss Hale  I didn't just come here to thank you. I came because... I think it very likely... I know I've never found myself in this position before... It's difficult to find the words. Miss Hale my feelings for you are very strong.
M: Please. Stop. Please don't go any further.
T: Excuse me?
M: Please don't continue in that way. It's not the way of a gentleman.
T: (tone raised) I'm well aware that in your eyes at least I'm not a gentleman. But I think I deserve to know why I am offensive!
M: It offends me that you should speak to me as if it were your duty to rescue my reputation!
T: (angrier) I spoke to you about my feelings because I love you, I have no thought for your reputation!
M: You think that because you are rich and my father is in reduced circumstances that you can have me for your possession? I should expect nothing less from someone in trade!
T: (now quite agitated) I don't want to possess you - I wish to marry you because I love you!
M: You shouldn't because I do not like you and never have! (turns away and looks out the window)
He moves to the chimney and they talk of other things for a moment.
M: I'm sorry.
T: For what?! That you find my feelings for you offensive?! Or that you assume that because I'm in trade I'm only capable of thinking in terms of buying and selling? or that I take pleasure in sending my empolyees to an early grave?!
M: No of course not! I'm sorry to be so blunt. I've not learnt how to refuse, how to responds when a man talks to me as you just have.
T: (now being harsh) Oh, there are others? This happens to you every day? Of course, you must have to disappoint so many men that offer you their heart!
M: (now a bit confused) Please understand Mr Thornton
T: I do understand. I understand you completely."
He walks out, and the music has reached its crescendo (the soundtrack is amazing, particularly in the scenes between these two!) 

Episode 3:
Conversation between Margaret and her brother:
"F: Who was that? The same tradesman that came earlier?
M: Mr Thornton. He's a manufacturer.
F: Tradesman, manufacturer. They're all the same. What did father mean by coming all this way and placing you in the company of these people!
M: Mr Thornton is... he's a gentleman Fred. And he's been very good to us."

After the Police incident, Thornton comes for a lesson with Mr Hale and Margaret tries to speak with him:
"M: I have to thank you.
T: (with a very cold, stern look) No, no thanks. I did not do anything for you. Do you not realise the risk you take in being so indiscreet? Have you no explanation for your behaviour that night at the station? You must imagine what I must think!
M: Mr Thornton please, I am aware of what you must think of me. I know of how it must have appeared. Being with a stranger so late at night. The man you saw me with, he... the secret is another person's. I cannot explain it without doing him harm!
T: I have not the slightest with of prying into the gentleman's secrets. I'm only concerned as your father's friend. I hope you realise that any foolish passion for you on my part is entirely over! I'm looking to the future."
Her face is so sad... in the book it's clear how terrible she feels at his having this terrible opinion about her over a misunderstanding which she cannot explain to him. She feels worse about the lie than having been seen with a "gentleman" (Frederick)

Episode 4:
Mr Hill to Margaret after a visit by Higgins:
"My, my, Margaret! To admit that the South has its faults and Mr Thornton has his virtues... what has happened to bring about such a transformation?! "

Higgins tells Thornton about Margaret's brother being in Milton
T: "He was her brother" just above a whisper, with a little smile of relief.

The final scene at the train station is a brilliant change from the novel! The coincidence of it seems like fate. And so much is conveyed with just the looks between them... I just had to put in the whole scene!

"T: Where are you going?
M: To London. I've been to Milton.
T: You'll not guess where I've been. He pulls out a yellow rose from his breast pocket.
M: To Helstone! I thought those had all gone
T: I found it in the hedge row. You have to look hard.... Why were you in milton?
M: On business. That is, I have a business proposition. I need Henry to help me explain.
T: You don't need Henry to explain.
They sit.
M: I have to get this right. It's a business proposition. I have some 15 thousand pounds. It is lying in the bank at present earning very little interest. Now, my financial advisers tell me that if you were to take this money and use it to run Malborough Mills you could give me a better rate of interest. So you see, it is only  a bus matter. You would not be obliged to me in any way. It is you who would be doing me the service."
He takes her hand. She kisses his. He holds her cheek. They kiss... anyone with a pulse is melting away right now!!! While poor Henry sees all from the train. He gives her her bag just before the London train leaves. She rejoins Thornton.
T: "Coming home with me?" Their train leaves for Milton... just the two of them, and it ends as it began with her gazing out the window of a train taking her North.

I willingly confess to having watched this scene many, many, times since I first saw the series! ;o)


  1. I love your commentary, Cristina. You have done an excellent job of comparing the mini-series and the book. Each is excellent in its own way. I think the adaptation captures the spirit of the book, but plays up the advantage of the visual art.
    Mrs. Gaskell has become better known in recent years due to the adaptations of N&S, Wives and Daughters, and Cranford. She is an interesting writer, with much to say about social conditions of her time and the relations between men and women. She has the social conscience of Charles Dickens, and a bit of the romance of Jane Austen.

    1. Thanks! You're right about them making the most of the visual art... those scenes in the cotton mill with the cotton fluff floating around have their own beauty to them...

      I'll definitely have to check out her other books... with the Kindle I've been discovering quite a few interesting books from th 19th and early 20th century. I'm glad you guys pointed me in Gaskell's direction! ;o)

  2. This is one of my favorite BBC adaptations ever! I don't know how many times I have watched it, but it is certainly, like you, many, many! I have watched that final scene over and over again, but my favorite scene is slightly earlier. Margaret has gone to say goodbye and given Thornton her father's Plato. As her carriage pulls away from the mill, snow falling, we hear him say "Look back; look back at me." Armitage does an amazing job of conveying Thornton's heartbreak when she does not. It gets me every time and I melt into a puddle of sentiment.

    In one of my reviews of Downton, I talk about how hard it was for me to see Brendan Coyle as a romantic figure because of the father figures he plays in many of the other things I have seen him in. This is the perfect example.

    Great review, Cris! I may have to re-watch it again.

    1. ChrisB, you're SO right, that scene is goosebump-inducing! I kept hoping she's turn back! The story is wonderful, but I'm not sure it would have turned out as well with another actor. Armitage was brilliant in all the non-verbal communication so indispensible to making his character relatable!

      lol! I had the opposite problem with Brendan Coyle! I had trouble seeing him as a father-figure!!! (also because he's younger than in Downton!) :p

  3. I am going to read the book first and then see the series. I confess I skipped over the parts that gave away the ending, but I think I will love it! :-)

    1. I think you would definitely enjoy it DJan! Be sure to come back and tell me all about it when you're done! ;o)

  4. I've never read or seen it, but I really should, it would go very well with Hard Times for one of my OU courses!

    1. Based on the Wikipedia page for the novel it seems as if Dickens wrote Hard Times around the same time Gaskell wrote this one, because the article mentions her being worried about whether or not he was going to cover a strike or not...
      Dickens was her editor in the periodical... so I think they would probably go very well together! But then I haven't read Hard Times so I don't know... and yet another book to add to my list! :p

    2. And yes Juliette, you really should! ;o)

  5. I read your last post on the movies you saw. I have not seen any of these. I don’t like violence much. We don’t go to the movies often, so when we go we see 2 or 3 movies back to back. Last time we saw The Life of Pi, Argo and Sky Fall the same day. I liked them all but preferred Argo. I am not interested in seeing Les Miserables because it is based on the musical more than on the book, so there are no dialogues and I have also read that it was made especially emotional as the public likes a good tear jerker.

    That North and South sounds very interesting. I did not know you could read it on the Gutenberg Project – I’ll make a note of that.

    1. 3 movies in one day?!?!?! I love going to the movies but I don't think I could do that, my head would feel all mushy afterwards!

      Yes, Gutenberg Project was a delightful discovery for me! So many books no longer under copyright (so books older than 90 years I think), available for free for Kindle or other e-readers and legal!!! It's mostly in English, but I've found some Dumas and Jules Verne in French so extra happy! Not much in Spanish yet, some German... it's a volunteer thing so I expect it to grow! :o)

  6. There is an older BBC version from 1975. Patrick Stewart as Thornton. It is staid as TV used to be. Margaret seems older. They omit major part of plot regarding Leonards. The end is the same as the book but I never believe in their love and he is not appealing and seems angry rather than passionate.

    1. Patrick Stewart as Thornton?! I can't even imagine that!!!

    2. And Mr. Hale is his own son!! Tim Pigott-Smith is Frederick in this older version.

  7. I loved your comments. Loved the novel and the series. I've just watched it in December 2016... Why didn't did it earlier?! I recommend it effusively every one I can, ´cause I think is a beautiful love story and a perfect picture of Industrial Revolution society. And in the series... Mr. Bell finished his days in my country... <3 (Maybe Margaret & John visited him? ;) )
    Ah! And I can't say how many times I watched the last scene, either...


Hey there! Yes you! The quiet one in the back... I'd love it if you hung out for a bit and shared your thoughts!

I might stop by your place with an answer, but I'm more likely to reply right here so click on "email follow up comments" if you'd like to see what I and others have to say and come continue the conversation! ;o)