If I had to hazard a guess, I would suspect that a larger percentage of readers of this blog would recognize the name of Elizabeth Gaskell compared to the general population. I was introduced to her novel North and South during a Victorian English class in college, but prior to that I had little knowledge of her or her work. While she was friends and co-authored several stories with some more famous Victorian counterparts such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (Woman in White), she never achieved the same level of fame. The subjects of her writings were inspired by the real social, economic and political impacts of the industrial revolution on various classes, but she was also well-known among her peers for her biography of Charlotte Bronte, authoress of Jane Eyre (another Petticoat Junction favorite by default!). If interested, there is a free version of the biography available here – a future blog post in the making!
For those of you who are not acquainted with the plot of the North and South, think Pride and Prejudice à la Victorian period (complete with a rejected marriage proposal based on a misunderstanding!). Both of the main characters – Margaret Hale, a clergyman’s daughter who moves from a quaint country village to industrial Milton (based on the town of Manchester where Gaskell lived as a minister’s wife), and John Thornton, a mill owner who grew up in Milton – believe their respective upbringings to be superior and play a constant social dance based on their stubborn refusal to consider otherwise. Through a series of events however, the book chronicles their realization of how their prejudices have wrongly blinded them and helped them learn valuable lessons, not the least of which is that they are perfect for each other (doesn’t it always seem to work out that way?).
Thornton, played by Richard Armitage, is everything a Victorian hero should be – dark, brooding and handsome (and let’s add smouldering for good measure!). For those BBC American fans (and, let’s face it, where would period drama lovers be without the BBC?), you might recognize Armitage as Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s henchman, on Robin Hood (not bad period drama either!). You can really feel Thornton’s inner turmoil as he struggles to reconcile his feelings for Ms. Hale and the economic pressures brought upon by the industrial revolution. I also see some of the same inner conflict taken on by Darcy when deciding to reveal his love for Elizabeth, although Darcy never has to worry where his money is coming from!
However I am less convinced by Daniela Denby-Ashe’s portrayl of Ms. Hale, but then again maybe that is my own prejudice speaking. To me she can never compare to Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennett, a character which I idolize more than most in period dramas, and in Denby-Ashe’s case, I simply cannot say the same. I struggled to register the same depth of character as I did in Armitage’s portrayl of Thornton, and I could not find it. It may be I place higher standards on the female characters of period dramas because I expect them to rise to a certain bar created by Ehle, and thus maybe I am too easily disappointed. She plays a good role, but in my opinion does little to stand out from the other female leads in BBC period dramas.
One side role worthy of note is that of John Thornton’s mother, Hannah, a strong female character which is taken on by Sinead Cusack. She has an immense sway over her son to a point that is fanatical. You can sense the desperation she has to hold on to all of her property, both physical (the mill and the money it makes) and emotion (control over her son and daughter).
If you have never considered Elizabeth Gaskell’s work before, this is not a bad way to ease yourself into it. I also have watched the BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters, another Gaskell novel, but still feel stronger about North and South as a more accessible period drama (Cranford is not bad either, but possibly more to come on that later!). While economic considerations may play more of a larger role in the story than some period drama fanatics would like, the intensity and passion felt by certain characters for their cause, whether it be love, family or honor, is not something lost on the viewer.