Although I would be hard pressed to pick one BBC period romantic drama that is my favorite, North & South is in the top three. It contains the single most romantic moment ever filmed in period costume and, after all, isn’t the romance why those of us who love these things keep coming back for more?
Shockingly, I had never heard of this novel, or Elizabeth Gaskell for that matter, until I watched this miniseries on the BBC. I recorded it because, well, the BBC always does period drama well and I decided that it couldn’t be all that bad. All that bad? I fell in love with it from the first. It sat on my DVR until I could buy the DVDs; I estimate I have watched it more than a dozen times.
Admittedly, Mrs. Gaskell owes a great deal to our beloved Miss Austen. The plot is Pride and Prejudice redux, but so are so many others. It is a wonderful story, told and shot beautifully with two actors that have just the right amount of chemistry. This review will assume that you have know the series and, therefore, will contain spoilers. As I said, however, it is a plot you have most likely come across before.
I have been wanting to post this review for the longest time, but have been procrastinating because I wanted to read the novel that was the source material. It is very nearly unreadable. I finally gave up and skimmed it for the good parts, but even they were few and far between. All hail, once again, Sandy Welch. I have said before how brilliantly she is able to adapt for television. This show may very well be her crowning achievement.
The first hour is spent introducing us to the characters with whom we will spend the next four hours and kicking off the drama. Played by Daniela Deby-Ashe, Margaret Hale is a woman of her time, yet also incredibly modern. Right from the start, we get a sense of the kind of young woman Margaret Hale is. She is confident, strong, reliable, and able to face life’s challenges head on. In the first ten minutes, we see her turn down a marriage proposal from a man she doesn’t love.
Forced to leave the only home she has ever known, Margaret moves to Milton, a large manufacturing city in the north. As she is looking for a house, she meets Thornton, played to perfection by Richard Armitage. The first time she, and we, see Thornton, he is towering above the mill he runs looking impressive and, yes, incredibly handsome. Our first impression, however, is soon tempered by the fact that he is brutal towards one of his employees, beating the man in front of Margaret.
This is the first of many instances in the first hour in which the differences between the genteel south and the working north are highlighted. The people from Milton whom we meet, Nicholas Higgins, his daughter Bessie, and Mrs. Thornton in particular, are all proud and hard-working. They value their individualism and they abhor charity. Margaret, desperately lonely and looking for a friend, keeps inadvertently offending those she meets.
She invites herself to the Higgins’ home offering to bring a basket. Both Nicholas and Bessie laugh at her, spurning what Margaret sees as a gesture of good will. Not one to be easily thwarted, Margaret does go to visit and she and Bessie take the first steps towards friendship. The woman who would more obviously be her friend, Thornton’s sister Fanny, is silly and vain. Margaret realizes that she has more in common with the working class than the middle class.
Margaret and Thornton spar continually. Unlike the others of his class whom we see, Thornton wants more out of life than just being a mill worker. He hires Mr. Hale to teach him classics and he is intrigued by Margaret and her views. She, however, is unable to move past her first sight of him and is barely civil to him.
Everything begins to change in the second hour. The mill workers all strike and, as a result the workers are starving and the mill owners are becoming desperate for a way to send everyone back to work. Margaret refuses to allow the workers’ pride dissuade her, but she has learned about northern pride. She quietly leaves food and money.
Her charity gets her into trouble with the mill owners. At a dinner party, the other guests all round on her when it is discovered what she has been doing. Ever fearless, Margaret stands her ground, insisting that there is no just cause in the world for a child to starve. As Thornton watches her stand up to the room, we can almost watch him fall in love with her.
Her fearlessness, however, leads her into great danger and trouble. As the desperate mill workers attack the Thornton mill, she runs down and tries to mollify the mob. This scene shows us that there is still a large gap between Margaret and Thornton. She is trying to placate; he is sternly holding his ground. The mob goes after them, injuring Margaret. The end result is that the workers are shamed enough to go back to work. Ironically, Margaret’s intervention works.
Thornton is so overwhelmed by what she has done that he decides to propose to her. The proposal scene at the end of the second hour rivals the first proposal in Pride and Prejudice. Margaret is shocked and not remotely interested in this man she still sees as rough and in trade, and exactly as Elizabeth does, she accuses Thornton of not being a gentleman.
Thornton reacts by shouting at Margaret. He tries to assure her that he loves her, that he is not proposing simply because of what happened at the mill. They argue fiercely and, although Margaret refuses to even consider his offer, she is not unmoved. There is a great deal of passion in their conversation, on both sides.
The third hour opens with a heartbroken Thornton and a distressed Margaret. Thornton turns to his mother for comfort. Mrs. Thornton is a fascinating woman. She knows herself and her children well and is able to see all three of them for who and what they really are. She does tend to think a bit too highly of her son, and her reluctance for him to marry is a touch creepy, but it is easy to understand what Thornton sees in Margaret. He already loves an incredibly strong woman who is unafraid to speak her mind.
It is during the third hour that we see just how strong Margaret is and we watch this young woman fall in love with a man who is now out of reach. The third hour is filled with death and with partings. During each, Margaret is the one who is strong, who comforts those around her even while she grieves herself.
When Bessie dies, Margaret comforts Nicholas. When her mother dies, Margaret comforts Frederick and her father. When Boucher dies, it is Margaret who goes to tell his wife when both Nicholas and her father refuse to do so. It is also Margaret who goes to the station to see Frederick off to London. Once again, she is saying goodbye to someone she loves, probably for the last time.
Thornton sees her at the station and assumes that Margaret does not love him because she is in love with someone else. The irony is, of course, that Margaret is falling in love with him. Throughout the course of this hour, we see her defend Thornton to Henry and she even tells Frederick that “he is a gentleman.”
When Thornton defends Margaret and backs up her lie, even though he doesn’t understand the truth, the transition is complete and Margaret looks at him with longing. But, as she tries to break through to him and thank him, he tells her in no uncertain terms that he did what he did for her father and that he no longer loves her. The stricken look on Margaret’s face is all we need to see to understand how deep her feelings now run.
For a love story, Margaret and Thornton spend very little time together in the fourth hour. Instead, each faces life’s slings and arrows and each ends up being able to see the world from the other’s perspective.
Thornton hires Higgins and quickly sees what Margaret saw in him. The two learn to respect each other a great deal and even begin to like each other at the end. I love the scene where Nicholas plays Cupid, telling Thornton how wrong he’s been about Margaret without ever telling him. The look on Nicholas’s face as the penny drops is absolutely priceless.
Margaret, meanwhile, loses her father and gains a fortune. She returns to Helstone to learn what we all must in our twenties -- the wonderful places we remember from our childhood are not necessarily so wonderful when seen through the prism of adulthood and life experiences. Instead, she finds herself drawn back to the north and back to the man she loves. What I love about the fact that Margaret will fund the return of the mill is that she and Thornton will come together as equals.
But first, we must have the denouement and the way these two come together is simply wonderful. There was an awful lot of griping on the internet when this series came out about the fact that Thornton is not wearing a tie and that a couple of that class would never have behaved that way in public.
To which I say, who the hell cares? I choose to believe that both are so swept up in the fact that they are finally with the other that they forget where they are. Plus, what a delicious irony that they should behave in exactly the way that both Thornton and his mother falsely condemn Margaret for through most of the third hour.
As wonderful as that scene is, it is not my favorite. For me, the best moment not only of this drama but of any BBC miniseries ever, is when Margaret leaves Milton in the snow. Thornton watches her go and pleads for her to turn around. Of course she doesn’t. The camera stays on Thornton for an eternity and we watch as his heart breaks. I’m not sure what it is about this scene, but it gets me ever single time and I always will Margaret to turn around. She never does.
There are many aspects to this series that I have chosen not to write about as this post is long enough as it stands. The music is a treat; the other characters are interesting; I love the way Margaret wears her hair; I could go on and on. Just trust me -- this is one of the great ones.
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.