I recently watched the 2004 BBC miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a novel that was published in Household Words. According to some quick Internet searches, it appears that Charles Dickens thought Gaskell’s novel was too long (seems hypocritical considering how long all of Dickens’s novels are…), and Dickens was the one who suggested a name change from Margaret Hale to North and South.
Upon watching the four-part series, I thought the adaptation successfully focused on and complicated themes that we’ve been discussing throughout class this semester. There is a heavy emphasis on “North” (industrial town) versus “South” (pastoral idyll). While the repeated mentioning of the distinctions are a little much at first, the last part features Margaret Hale, who initially moves from the South to the North at the start of the series, going back to the South and realizing that things aren’t necessarily better there and that she can’t return there to fix all of her problems. The pastoral idyll is juxtaposed with the industrial town, but neither is superior to the other.
Another way I thought the adaptation complicated themes we’ve discussed is the way it features labor workers and mill owners. John Thornton, the mill owner, asks Margaret, “Or that you assume 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 employees to an early grave?” Although I didn’t read Hard Times, I remember our class discussion focusing on this idea of mechanizing people and their relationships with one another. I liked that North and South suggests that the romantic and emotional component of a human being can exist in the cold industrial times.
This story gives us a more sympathetic read of mill owners than Gaskell’s other novel, Mary Barton. We see Thorton struggle over financials; he also forms friendships with his mill workers and even ends up losing the mill. The fact that Margaret’s money is what bails him out at the end makes their situation even more special, although I assume a woman having that much inheritance and control wasn’t realistic of that time. However, North and South assigns flaws and redemptive qualities to men and women of various socioeconomic statuses, and it was a refreshing change of pace from some of the more cynical, anti-hero literature we’ve read in class (while still featuring a number of big deaths, which I’m beginning to think is a Gaskell signature).