Wild North and Romantic South

(A review of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell)

The one thing he does, after losing a business he works hard his whole life to build, is to go to Helstone. Bitterness of rejection from a year ago still remembered in his heart, he goes to Helstone for the first time in his life. He wanders around, knowing she is not there. Does he hope to find consolation somehow from a place once so dear to her?

She, having transformed from “… look down upon him from her imaginary height” to “… suddenly find herself at his feet”, goes to Milton to rescue him. But she misses him.

He takes a north bound train to go back to Milton and she on a south bound train to London. Midway, both trains stop at the same station. Here by a thread thin chance, they meet again.

These are the ending scenes of BBC’s 2004 TV adaptation of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the most romantic TV dramas. It is British actor Richard Armitage’s break out performance and won him “an army” of enamored female fans, the “Armitage Army”. At the center of all the attention, Richard Armitage modestly attributed the success to Elizabeth Gaskell. Well, if you have both read the book and watched the TV show, you know both Richard Armitage and his fans are right on. Coupling handsome Richard Armitage and Elizabeth Gaskell’s intensely magnetic John Thornton created just the license to swoon.

Old fashion or not, on top of my list of greatest romantic novelists are Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Gaskell. Is it any wonder that these authoresses achieved these feats at the peak of the Romantic Movement or during the subsequent Victorian Era and before the Age of Realism completely set in? Is it mere coincidence that the world had seen by far the greatest romantic music composers in the same era? To me, the Romantic Movement, which by the way is not about things romantic in the popular sense, is as important as the First Industrial Revolution as a critical turning point in human history, in that its liberating influence on human society’s emotional, intellectual, artistic and philosophical development has revolutionized the way human beings see themselves and the world around them and has in turn spurt innovations of all kinds.

Elizabeth Gaskell of course accomplished much more than creating one of the greatest romantic dramas. Her characters are a rich, colorful spectrum cross social classes and her treatment of dialogues demonstrating various characters’ languages and tongues adroit. I especially admire her delicate portrait of her characters’ internal worlds and contrast of their temperament and dispositions. Skill and effort in this area set the classics like this and the rest apart. Most of the novels and movies these days give too much attention, if not all, to actions, thrills and sensations, not the depth of characters. You go through it quickly if its plot holds you and you are done with it forever, for there is nothing else left to go back to.

North and South is socially conscious. Margret’s change of heart towards gentry and agrarian centric South and seemingly chaotic and industrial North, admitting “the South has its fault and the North has its virtue”, is demonstrative of the current of change and transition. Although Thornton himself refuses to get involved, deeming it gambling, many those around him including his brother in law are becoming venture capitalists. The strike brings the poignant conflict between the masters and workers front and center and its fallout tragic to some. Elizabeth Gaskell offers hope though through the improved relationship between Thornton and Higgins, a worker and union activist.

The TV program enhances the story smartly by rearranging some of the blocks and changing some scenes. I find the TV version of Higgins more intelligent, the contrast between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Thornton and between Margret and Fanny more vivid on TV, book version of Mr. Bell more witty and humorous, the TV version of its ending mostly brilliant. In fact I rate it most romantic scene. But it is one of those stories that you can enjoy both reading the book and watching the TV show.

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