Thursday, April 26, 2012

New discoveries: North & South

Sometimes I get so lazy with culture. It's easier to watch favorite movies over again, and reread favorite books and authors, rather than venturing into new territory and risking disappointment and wasted time. But every so often, I find something I absolutely love, and I wonder why it took me so long to discover it.

My latest discovery? North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

For those of you unfamiliar with Elizabeth Gaskell (honestly, I majored in English and had only a passing familiarity with her name until this past year), she's the author of several novels, including Mary Barton (1848), North & South (1854-5), and Cranford (1851-3), which most UK residents are familiar with, as it was turned into a beloved BBC drama starring Judi Dench (though I have to say, I don't quite get the appeal...). Gaskell was well-known in Victorian circles, entertaining Dickens and John Ruskin, the American author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and was apparently a good friend to Charlotte Bronte.

North & South reminds me of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, except much darker, and with a strong social justice streak. The pride in this case is an assumption that our way is the best and most moral perspective, and discounting the humanity of those we don't understand. The story revolves around the industrial town of Milton (a fictional stand-in for Manchester), and poverty, class, and the formation of manufacturing unions. And a romance between Margaret Hale, a southerner and minister's daughter, and John Thornton, a northerner and manufacturer.

Margaret's first view of Thornton's mill
One of the things I like best about the story is that there is no moral high ground, and no character who is proved completely right. Every point of view is respected and questioned (not only those of Margaret and John, but the union leader, a strike-breaker, an Oxford academic...). As someone who's traveled frequently, lived abroad, and struggled with my own prejudices, that deeply resonates with me. Plus, North & South must've been very controversial for its time, with its focus on unions, as well as questioning organized religion, law, and social niceties.

Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins 
And then there's the movie version! To be honest, I enjoyed the book, and anxiously flew through the pages, but I didn't love it. At times it felt dense, and I wasn't sure exactly what Gaskell was trying to say. But a friend heartily recommended the movie, so I've spent the past week sneaking in an hour whenever I could (it's a four-hour mini-series).

And it's the movie that made me fall in love with North & South. It elucidated the themes clearly, simplified the dense descriptions, and yet hardly changed any of the plot. Plus, gorgeous cinematography! Who knew a cotton mill could be such a thing of beauty? And the acting! Richard Armitage is indeed both threatening and smoldering. And I recognized at least half the cast from other British dramas (Brendan Coyle, Mr. Bates of Downton Abbey, plays the strike leader). I'm not sure which is better; perhaps I wouldn't have loved the movie so much if I hadn't read the book.

Regardless, all of that is to say, I'm grateful to my friends for suggesting North & South (one suggested the book, another the movie), so I figure I should pass that wisdom on. And as soon as I can find the time, I'll be re-reading the book, and perhaps sneaking in a few more hours of the movie as well.  Or at least, until my next new discovery.

What gems have you discovered lately? Any other North & South fans out there?

Note: Things have been pretty busy lately (no, I haven't just been watching North & South on repeat... really!), so I'm planning to take a break from the blog until at least the end of May. In the meantime, stay well and keep writing!


  1. I like to read the book first, before I see the movie. I did that with Middlemarch before the PBS series was on air. Of course, in this case, the series was so condensed (it had to be considering how long the book is), reading the book first was almost a must to understand the series.

    Enjoy your break! (Eat a tomato sandwich!!)

    1. You know, I've never read Middlemarch, though it's been on my TBR pile forever and I've heard such gushing things about it. I got about thirty pages in once, and it just wasn't the time / place to commit to such a big book. Maybe that should be my next project...

      I AM planning on that tomato sandwich, as soon as we start getting some proper tomatoes here!

    2. That's so true about being in the right place and time for a book—especially Middlemarch. But when you are in that space in time you will love it!

    3. That's good to hear, thanks, Andrea!

  2. I didn't know about this one. I love the cover, though.

  3. Oooo, how did I not know about this? I love Gaskell's Wives and Daughters. I've watched the mini series many times. I may have to head to the library today for North and South. Thanks so much for sharing!!

    I was hooked for a long time on Catherine Cookson's movies. Our library only has so many of them, and I've seen them all multiple times. I came home with two of them again last week. My daughter says "Again? You've seen these a million times." I don't think I'll ever get sick of them.

    1. How interesting! One of my local friends who reads my blog just offered to let me borrow her copy of Wives & Daughters! Though I think I might read the book first. Regardless, very glad to now have the rec from two people!

      Isn't it funny how some stories become such comfort? I've actually never read or seen any of Catherine Cookson's stuff, though. Another thing to check out!

  4. Absolutely love North-South movie and the music (Thorton's Walk & I've Seen Hell) top of my list . . . but, I've yet to read the books. Sounds like I should. :)

    1. Hah! Now that you mention it, I WAS humming the theme music for days afterwards! I'll have to watch it again and pay closer attention! I hope you get a chance to check out the book!

      How funny to discover all these people who share my love for North & South. Yay!


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