Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Adaptation week: ‘North and South’ and a torrent of talking.

619650xWARNING: contains MAJOR SPOILERS for both the novel and the 2004 BBC TV dramatisation.

Confession time: I did not have this piece all ready prepared for this week. I’ve been content to watch Adaptation Week unfold with fascination, to see what might be left to say about an adaptation of a loved and admired literary work. I’m very interested in the reactions to the wide range of treatment my fellow foxes have given to their chosen titles and themes in what has been a hugely successful week for Vulpes Libris. We have effectively covered so many of the issues with adaptations:
• We should consider the written original and the visual adaptation each a work of art in its own right; both can be enjoyed side by side, sometimes for the same, sometimes for different reasons
• A great adaptation is one that captures the spirit of the original while understanding what works and what doesn’t when you point a camera at it.
• Good choices make for a great adaptation, however far it takes you from the original; and the reverse – a lousy adaptation can be the result of bad choices, however faithful.

So, now we’ve covered so much ground, this leaves me free for a case study. This is my own story of the impact that an unheralded BBC period drama which turned out to be a truly great adaptation in many ways, had on my life.

It will not be a substantial review of either North and South the novel, or North and South the TV adaptation, not a detailed ‘compare and contrast’, though I’ll make some observations on both. Apart from anything else, I haven’t got room to say everything I have to say about either. I started talking about them both nearly five years ago, and though I’ve slowed down I haven’t really stopped since. I am not sure that I am capable now of writing an objective review of either the novel or its adaptation for television, because the experience of watching Sandy Welch’s dramatisation of North and South on TV in 2004 has had such a profound effect on my subsequent life. It doesn’t seem possible for anyone to write a sentence like that, but it happens to be true. I would not be a writer about books and reading, I would not have a lively and enriching life online with friends across the world, I certainly would not be a Bookfox, and it is possible I would not be doing the job I am now doing, if it had not been for watching North and South, in November 2004.

Period Drama is a TV staple, giving viewing pleasure to millions; it can be seen as safe programming; an annual autumnal treat for many, excruciating tedium for some, and scandalous treatment of much-loved icons for a few. Every few years, a series takes light, fires the collective imagination and goes global. Some of us are old enough to remember the phenomenon of The Forsyte Saga; in recent memory, Andrew Davies’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice is the landmark. I still from time to time see the iconic Radio Times image of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy (smouldering, natch) pinned to noticeboards or locker doors, nearly 15 years on. It must be deeply frustrating to the programme makers – what is the magic ingredient? Can you extract and bottle it? Why this one, and not David Copperfield? Or Vanity Fair? Where do we find our next paradigm shift?

No period drama offering in the 8 years after Pride and Prejudice had the magic potion. There were one or two good productions, but a feeling of flagging energy set in, a slightly desperate casting around for ‘products’. Even as a keen consumer, I was losing interest, and wondered if the annual treat was coming to an end (if indeed it still was a treat).

The BBC’s offering for 2004 was Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, adapted for TV by Sandy Welch, directed by Brian Percival. At that time, I had no idea how widely it was read; all I thought was that it was a novel that I knew and loved. I was so disillusioned with the last BBC costume drama I’d watched (Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, notable for an early glimpse of David Tennant as clever but completely unalluring comic relief, and for the profligate waste of the talent of Bill Nighy) that I almost decided not to disappoint myself by watching it. I didn’t know the cast: the CVs of the leads did not fill me with much joy (a Margaret Hale from Eastenders (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and a John Thornton from Cold Feet (Richard Armitage) did not appeal. More fool I for being such a snob). In the end, I relented and recorded the first two episodes. When I had an evening with nothing else to do, I watched the first episode, at first with mounting horror (I’ll come to the reasons why), then with growing respect, then with astonished recognition that I loved it so much I could forgive it all its sins. I then had to keep watching to the end of episode 2, which culminated in John Thornton’s reckless and doomed proposal to Margaret Hale. What I did next is what took me into a new phase of my life.

9780140434248North and South, for those who do not know it, have read this far and don’t mind spoilers, is a novel that explores the divisions and contrasts in the early1850s between the new industrial and the old landed, agricultural Britain, and makes an idealistic case for understanding, co-operation, exploring new and old ideas, changing one’s mind, and ultimately the breaking down of barriers. These themes are explored via a rich cast of characters and dramatic sub-plots, and they are symbolised in the love story of John Thornton, the northern cotton master, and Margaret Hale, the southern daughter of the vicarage. In the recognisable genre of state of the nation writing there is a sub-set of industrial novels. Among these North and South stands out in the deft and convincing integration of a love story with the exploration of political and economic conflict and of dissent.

In John Thornton, Gaskell created a uniquely wonderful hero. Purely because the structure of the plot mirrors Pride and Prejudice, Thornton is often described as ‘an industrial Darcy’, but there is much, much more to him than that. He embodies self-creation, enterprise, progress and innovation, and self-improvement. He is at home with ideas, as well as commerce; he engages with Margaret’s intellect while, as a complete innocent, being powerfully attracted to her physically. He takes a tortuous journey towards a dream of industrial harmony in parallel with a journey towards emotional fulfilment. Likewise, Margaret is an admirably strong heroine; however prejudiced she is against him, his class and his values, she too is at home in the world of ideas and debate and cannot dismiss him as negligible, while, gradually and against her will, he is the cause of her sexual awakening (which as written by Gaskell is a masterpiece of veiled passion). Once I’d walked a mile (a mile? More like a hundred yards) in Margaret Hale’s shoes, I adored him too. I’d never shared with anyone my hero-worship of John Thornton, and it never occurred to me that I might not be the only person thinking ‘mess with him at your peril!’

So, having got to the end of episode 2, mirroring Margaret Hale as we both watched, stunned, as John Thornton stormed out of the wreck of his first marriage proposal on the words ‘I understand you. I understand you completely’, I took the step into a new life.

I went online. I searched the BBC site and found its webpages on North and South. There was a messageboard. I joined it. This was my first experience of expressing myself to strangers on the Internet. How many of these intelligent women I was chatting to with such ease were really truckers called Dave? Did I mind if they were? I gratefully hid behind a board-name and started talking to other people who were experiencing the same mix of wonder and satisfaction and curiosity as I was. The conversation united those who knew the novel and its hero Thornton and hugged him to their heart as a favourite, and those who were discovering Gaskell, North and South and Thornton for the first time. It started with admiration and wonder, then unabashed fan-worship, then moved on to throwing out questions. Some of us answered these questions and in turn asked others. We started a campaign when we discovered that there were ‘No Plans’ to release the series on DVD. Scarily articulate adult pester-power changed the mind of BBC Worldwide. But mainly, we marvelled at the performances and the production – particularly Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Thornton. Our story was picked up by The Times, and we were hailed as a new breed of fan.

In the end (to cut a long story short) we crashed the message board.

The BBC decided that too much of the licence fee would be spent on uprating the message board for the new rate of traffic and on moderating (in all senses, technical and otherwise) our raptures, and so we were the cause of a change of policy and a bonfire of BBC message boards. The forum C19 (see sidebar for a link) provided a lifeline, we all decamped, and the conversation continued. We made contact with Sandy Welch and with Brian Percival, compiled our questions to them, and relished their responses (prototype VL-style interviews, in fact). As North and South had showings overseas, more viewers became caught up in it, googled Richard Armitage, found the right one, found C19 and started talking. We held a 26-week group read of the novel, and a group viewing of the series. We picked over the social and historical context, we had wild fallings out over such topics as Thornton’s sexual history (never Margaret Hale’s, I remember observing, ruefully). We are still talking, people are still finding North and South and joining in. I have made wonderful friends, some of whom I’ve met, some of whom I probably never will, to whom I never have to explain myself – we have so much shared experience already.

So – what gives this adaptation its particular magic properties? A superb script by Sandy Welch captures what is important about the novel, presenting us with some huge liberties, but definitely true to the spirit. A superb cast revelling in the quality of the characters they were asked to portray: as well as the leads, Sinead Cusack as Hannah Thornton, Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins stand out, but all were utterly committed, and it shows. The production design was radically different from usual; the environment created was truly original. This was not ‘Periodshire’, lazily reaching for Lacock again, and spreading more hundredweights of loam over the main street. This was ‘Darkshire’, and the locations chosen to represent the secular cathedrals and industrial palaces that were the trading rooms and the mills are fresh to the eye and convincing. The script tackled the theme of industrial strife, leading to the strike and its violent end and aftermath, head on, with intelligence and immediacy. The cinematography was remarkably fine; South and North were characters in the drama in a wonderful sort of pathetic fallacy: the South was all golden and green and bathed in sunlight. The North was near-monochrome; black, white (‘I have seen Hell, and it is white, snow white’, as Gaskell never wrote, but should have), greeny-grey, ‘fustian’; the sun hidden behind a pall of cloud, or smoke, or both. When Margaret returns to Helstone and her childhood home, her eyes have been opened by her time in the North. Her memories are misleading her. There she finds poverty, ignorance and sadness, and a lot less energy devoted to change. Gradually, the golden light on the green hills is de-saturated, and a sinister gloom dims the sun, as she recognises how far she has travelled from that place.

Holding it all together is a definitive portrayal of John Thornton. I am afraid that I am going to risk taking issue with Richard Armitage here. In the wonderful interview he gave to Vulpes Libris, he elegantly sidestepped any notion that he had been the inspiration for writers. What about viewers – why was I hooked? Echoing Moira, I have to say that I think he had just a little to do with it. His Thornton exudes power through a sense of pent-up energy and movement, relentlessly active, commanding and demanding respect. He is a man of few but telling words (unlike Gaskell’s Thornton, who scarcely shuts up). He looks like the Thornton of the novel, and the Thornton in my head. He has found the Darkshire accent. It is hard right now to imagine anyone bettering this portrayal. His achievement is part of a quality package – it would have unbalanced a production that had less strength in depth, but the strength is there, and it does not. So, now I am a fan. I shall always be grateful to Richard Armitage for loving the role of Thornton as much as he did, for understanding and empathising with the character so well, for doing the research, for getting under his skin, and for conveying all he found in him through a landmark performance.

No wonder we found so much to talk about.

What of the initial mounting horror, and the liberties, and the sins I readily forgave? Well, within a minute of Thornton appearing on the screen, Sandy Welch makes a truly bold decision: Thornton, Gaskell’s man of honour, ‘tender, yet a master’, becomes a man of violence. In front of Margaret Hale, he attacks a delinquent worker, knocking him to the floor and kicking him viciously when down. Within this script he has his reasons, but the sense of shock is extreme, it is so wildly out of tune with the novel. Why do this? Well, I worked out for myself, and Sandy Welch confirms her reasoning, that somehow it has to be established that Margaret is to despise him. Go back to the novel, and we have an establishing scene that will not work if you point a camera at it. Margaret meets Thornton, who has come to see her father, in a hotel, and they bore each other witless for half an hour. Margaret discounts him, hardly notices him, Thornton feels belittled by her and wishes he were somewhere else. It is a wonderfully subtle scene on the page, but something else is needed on screen. This choice however was hugely controversial.

The other enormous liberty is the end. There is a chance meeting on a railway platform somewhere in the middle of England. There is an éclaircissement. There is a passionate (off the scale) kiss in public (not hidden by any distractions like a passing circus parade, for instance). All the strait-laced Victorian extras completely ignore this event, and a ubiquitous woman in a brown dress does not belabour them with her umbrella and call the constable. Somehow, this scenario is made all the more implausible by the fact that the hero doing the kissing has taken off his cravat. But … it is so beautiful, and now we have two wonderfully passionate endings to enjoy: the novel and the drama.

I’ll leave it at that. There are other choices that I find debatable, notably the treatment of Mr Hale’s Doubts, but this is a case study not a charge sheet. None of them fatally detracts from the overall achievement in my eyes. But they do give us something to talk about ….

How does this adaptation stand up to five relentless years of watching, talking, analysing, enquiring? Because it is such a strong package, of script, cast, production, performances, it survives really very well, although no TV series is really designed to be dissected to this extent. Issues of editing and continuity do crop up in repeated viewing and can be intrusive thereafter. The novel had its difficulties too, mainly owing to its origins as a serial in Household Words, and the pressure that Dickens put on Gaskell to keep within his editorial confines. Gaskell herself wryly said she thought the novel should be called ‘Death and Variations’; accordingly, the third episode of the drama is relentlessly devoted to one demise after another and loses some of the momentum of the other three. But survive it has, and when it was re-shown recently on TV, all the old pleasure in watching it returned.

The major reason for me to love this adaptation is the place that it has taken me in my life. Because of North and South I have rediscovered fandom when I thought I was too old for it. That felt uncomfortable and embarrassing at first, but now I am learning to embrace it. I am part of an online community of friends. I have learned how to share what I feel about books I’ve read and films and dramas I’ve seen. I have taken this insight of how being online and interactive can enhance the experience of books and reading into my professional, as well as my personal life. I have rediscovered my enquiring mind, and started to ask and answer questions, sharing knowledge and insight with new friends. I’ve felt empathy with my northern forebears, and have been inspired to find out more about their world.

And all through a BBC period drama. But not just any old one – North and South. I wonder what the next great rediscovery will be? My hunch is that no-one will be able to plan for it or predict it. Try too hard, and success eludes you.

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell was first published in 1854. It is available in numerous editions, popular and scholarly.

North and South, script by Sandy Welch, Director Brian Percival, starring Richard Armitage as John Thornton, Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, Sinead Cusack, Pauline Quirke, Brendan Coyle, Tim Piggot Smith, was first broadcast on BBC1 in November 2004, and issued on DVD in 2005.

29 comments on “Adaptation week: ‘North and South’ and a torrent of talking.

  1. annebrooke
    July 26, 2009

    Wonderful article, Hilary – I am now inspired to rush out and buy the DVD and go read the book – which to my shame I have never done ….



  2. Hilary
    July 26, 2009

    Thank you, Anne. You won’t be disappointed, I promise!

  3. Liz Hanbury
    July 26, 2009

    Hilary, what a fabulous piece. You’ve so eloquently articulated most of my feelings towards North and South, the novel and the adaptation. What amazes me is the way the BBC N&S continues to draw in new fans from around the world – it’s magical ability to produce that ‘wow’ reaction in viewers and send them scurrying to find out more. Richard’s portrayal of John Thornton is a definitive one IMO. He had more than a little to do with the success of the adaptation and our response to it ;0) As for that beautiful, passionate kiss on the railway platform – arguably THE best screen kiss, ever – I’m delighted that Sandy Welch et al chose to take that particular liberty and keep the woman in brown, the constable and victorian moral outrage in the background 🙂

  4. RosyB
    July 26, 2009

    I really have to watch this series and read this book I am coming to realise. That so many people seem to be evangelical about it…Must be something there. I know a lot of people hooked into both the both and the drama.

    I watched the first episode I think but missed the others in the original screening. But this made me laugh a little:

    “This was not ‘Periodshire’, lazily reaching for Lacock again, and spreading more hundredweights of loam over the main street. This was ‘Darkshire’, and the locations chosen to represent the secular cathedrals and industrial palaces that were the trading rooms and the mills are fresh to the eye and convincing.”

    Because coming from Edinburgh I couldn’t help seeing that a lot of the panoramic views of the grim monochromic North was my own beloved city – with some computer generated chimneys slotted in. Also, wouldn’t the grim industrial North have been red brick primarily? Sorry. That, I know, is a very quibbly quibble. And I don’t blame them for using Edinburgh – as it’s stunningly atmospheric.

  5. RosyB
    July 26, 2009

    I know a lot of people hooked into both the book and the drama (not “both the both” -urgh)…I was trying to say. 🙂

  6. Hilary
    July 26, 2009

    Heehee – that must have been rather disconcerting, Rosy! I’m glad I didn’t get the jolt of seeing my home town spread out before me, standing in for some other place altogether. Seriously, this is Darkshire, where the art director does not have to say he’s sorry. Is it redbrick Lancs? No, it’s Darkshire. Millstone grit Yorks? No it’s … . There were some very interesting decisions made with the colour palette of the whole piece. Red was almost entirely absent throughout, from the South (where everything was gold, yellow and bright green) and the North (black, white, grey, drab green). Only in ‘London’ was the whole colour wheel used. A very interesting unifying device, I thought.

    Tried not to be too TOO evangelical, obviously failed, sorry!

  7. Ashling Cranford
    July 26, 2009

    I really need to get my hands on a copy of the book. As of yet I’ve only seen the drama. I often wonder if it’s better to fall in love with the screen versions before the books?

  8. rivercup
    July 26, 2009

    Hi Hilary,

    Wonderful torrent! I’m in awe of the way you have so elegantly summed up what is the appeal of Mr Thornton “He embodies self-creation, enterprise, progress and innovation, and self-improvement… He takes a tortuous journey towards a dream of industrial harmony in parallel with a journey towards emotional fulfilment.”

    I fell in love with the adaption about a month ago and have since found c19. Noone I know in my real life appreciates the adaption like other c19 members. When I read their comments it feels like i’ve rediscovered pieces of myself scattered across the world.


  9. hrileena
    July 26, 2009

    This is one of those rather rare cases where the series led me to the book, rather than the other way round. I don’t know how far that affects my reaction to the liberties they took; but I think it was quite obvious that, given the absence of an omniscient narrative voice, they would have to find some other way to establish Margaret’s initial prejudice against Thornton. The wonderful thing is that they found a way which worked convincingly within the screenplay, and allowed us simultaneously to sympathise with Margaret’s dismay, even as we understood that Thornton had reason to do what he did.

    You say Thornton in the series is “a man of few but telling words (unlike Gaskell’s Thornton, who scarcely shuts up)”, and I agree. I would add that Thornton’s volcanic temper is more evident in the series, whereas in the book he is almost always in control, if not of his temper, at least in his expressions. But obviously, that would not work on screen: a tightly controlled but garrulous hero would never do.

    Finally, this tendency people have to describe North and South (both book and series) as a “Victorian Pride and Prejudice” (both book and series) always irks me — unreasonably, I’ll grant. I know it is meant as a compliment, and given that P&P (both book and series) is so good, it is a great compliment. However, I can’t help but think that this description ignores all those aspects of the story, unrelated to matrimony and therefore to P&P, but nevertheless integral to the plot of N&S (both book and series),which materially contribute to make them the wonderful works they are. But then that’s just me, being impossible to please.

  10. Steph
    July 26, 2009

    What a great piece, Hilary – you do all kinds of justice to both the book and the adaptation, and the experience of watching the latter. And you and I took that “step into a new life” at exactly the same moment.

  11. Bar
    July 27, 2009

    I really enjoyed this piece – you echoed so many of my thoughts, feelings and revelations about N&S , book and series. I too had never approached “fandom” before seeing this wonderful tv series. I knew the book and was more than a little shocked by the sight of the restrained (in the book) Mr Thornton kicking the bejasus out of a poverty stricken worker. As this version developed I relaxed a little and accepted that this was a necessary revelation for the screen version Margaret, and us.
    I must admit to being still horribly diasppointed at the loss of both the original ending (just imagine those words with that voice and those eyes) and the book version of the mob scene (again, those words, that voice and those eyes) but the station scene is a wonder of passion in anyone’s book (TW,TV, TE).

    Great reading, thank you

  12. Rosy T
    July 27, 2009

    Wonderful post, Hilary. You have summed up the adaptation – and what it unleashed – to perfection. Thank you.

  13. Marg
    July 27, 2009

    Fabulous piece on one of my favourite series ever. I found the series before I found the book, which is quite unusual for me, and whilst I definitely did notice the differences, I do think that having listened to Higgins in the mini series made the read easier.

    Whilst the kiss at the end would never have happened, it is probably my favourite romantic moment in film. I love the end of the book as well though. The humour conveyed in that moment shows me that truly the initial antagonism has passed and John and Margaret have found their bond that will continue for the rest of their lives!

  14. Alison Priest
    July 28, 2009

    Hilary Ely? Truckers called Dave? (someone else has used this phrase before).

    I wonder who is the writer behind this pen name. Perhaps someone with connections to East Anglia.

    Sadly, after being completely bowled over by the adaptation of North and South in 2004, I have long fallen out of love with it. Sandy Welch’s lack of understanding of the characters, in particular Thornton, has rendered it unwatchable. And, luckily, it has not had a long-lasting life changing effect either.

  15. Hilary
    July 28, 2009

    Alison, I blog on Vulpes Libris under my real name, am a Midlander born and bred, with no connection to East Anglia or that beautiful city. I smuggled in a C19 in-joke. I’m very intrigued that you recognise it, rather like a masonic handshake, and am happy to see you here and greet you for old lang syne.

    I am delighted that you have felt able to come here to express a contrary view – rather refreshing that this has not turned into a total love-fest!

  16. Lisa
    July 30, 2009

    Hilary, this was a stunning piece. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. As you know, I was a huge fan of both book and TV drama. Like you I was doubtful that the new N&S would live up to my hopes – I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy it more than the fabulous 1995 Pride and Prejudice, but I did. I started writing short stories after watching N&S, then did the Creative Writing M.A. and was hooked! Never stopped writing since. It was indeed an inspiring production!

  17. Leah
    July 30, 2009

    Hilary, I am new to this and have never before posted comment on any web site so please bear with me.

    After reading your article on North and South I was compelled to speak and say thank you and WOW you have put into words (better expressed than I could) just how I and many others feel. Oh I wish I was there with you in 04 but alas I came upon this Gem a year ago.

    The way Gaskell puts into words the feelings of Thornton is incredible—“It would have been a relief to him if he could have sat down and cried on a door-step by a little child, who was raging and stroming, through his passionate tears, at some injury received…his greatest comfort was in hugging his torment…He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain…” (Doesnt that just tear at your heart???) and RA captures that emotion so precisely-you can see and feel that “miserable bodily pain” when Margaret rejects him and he walks out into the street. RA truly as you said “got under Thornton’s skin” he really nailed Thorntons personality. (I believe I just gushed a bit) but Sandy Welch did a great adaptation. I could go on and on but I will spare you.

    You spoke of “fandom” it took me awhile to admit but I have reached that point—my book is very worn and my DVD is in close second. Again thank you for your article and great web site and for opening my eyes to a community that loves North and south as much as I. I think I have found my voice and am ready to take the next step and share.

    I agree with comment on the book ending with “his voice and his eyes” yes that would have been nice to see but I am glad to have both endings.

  18. Hilary
    July 30, 2009

    Thanks so much for all the wonderful comments. I am delighted (and a little relieved) that I’ve struck a chord with so many, whether new to N&S, or 2004 veterans.

    Leah – thanks for your lovely words, and congratulations – the longest journey starting with a single step, here! Your comment took me back to my first attempt to post on the BBC message board. I wish I could say that mine first effort was as heart-felt and eloquent as yours – I’m pretty sure mine was something rather stuffy, careful and insincere (too embarrassed to write what I really felt!). I hope you enjoy many more online conversations.

  19. Judi
    July 31, 2009

    I read North & South some 30 years ago in college and barely remembered it, and missed the 2004 screening. However, several months ago began working my way through every BBC DVD available through my two library systems, and absolutely fell in love with the production. Ironically, last week chanced upon both the Annotated book, and DVD at my bookstore ( clearanced total cost less than $5 for BOTH) and promptly rewatched the DVD, read the book in a day, and rewatched the DVD again (the best money investment I have ever made). I found your review when looking for any readers guides etc. and love it.
    I have alway felt that if a book can move to to tears (the pure emotion of it) than it is a good book. And even knowing the story as I do now, this rates as one of the best. I appreciate all your wonderful insights on both the book and the movie. (and agree on Richard Armitage – he must be ranked as one of Britain’s National Treasures). Now I think I’ll pop the DVD in again.

  20. C L More
    August 10, 2009

    Thank you for an excellent article on North and South. You took the words from my mouth – almost! I have also been inspired by Sandy Welch’s fantastic screen-play, which made me re-read the book after too many years. I agree whole-heartedly with your criticism of the film ending (however empathetic I would like to be with Daniella Denby-Ashe), but I also take issue with the ending of the novel. As you say EG had been harried by her despairing editor, who admitted that he bullied her into a premature finale and Gaskell acknowledged that it showed. I also feel that the story still has legs. That era, in that part of England, is unparalleled, not even our technological revolution can match it. The mid-Victorian period, long before the age of the specialist, made everything possible and threw up huge characters like Brunel, Bright and Kaye, providing the stimulus that powered half the world. You can see that it fired me up as well and having never written a word of fiction, other than school essays and corporate-land reports, I am now 80,000 words through a sequel which ignores both film and novel endings and continues not only Margaret and John’s story, but Manchester’s as well. It’s unlikely that it will ever be published but I will be eternally grateful to Mrs Gaskell and especially Sandy Welch for introducing me to a past-time which is almost obsessional.

  21. Donna
    August 21, 2009


    Your article is wonderful and I am so delighted to have found this site just now. It was only last week that I watched North and South for the 1st time. Like you and many others, I was completely taken over by it. Everything, from the plot, to the brilliant acting (especially that of Richard Armitage), to the cinematography, to the historical setting. I am sure I’ll watch it many more times.

    My mind has been buzzing about it all week. I’ve been reading every academic article and commentary I can find about the novel (which I just finished a few hours ago); Elizabeth Gaskell; power, class, religion and gender issues of the period, etc. Although it is not out of character for me to do research on something interesting (I’m a college professor), I have surprised myself with how zealously I’ve been pursuing all of this.

    I can understand why the BBC message boards were overwhelmed at the first airing of the series. I feel so hungry to talk about the book and the adaptation myself. It must have been wonderful to have such a community of kindred spirits while watching it. My heart actually skipped a beat when I saw that you posted this review so close to my discovery of the series. It is also extremely reaffirming to also discover that I may not be such an odd duck after all.

    I haven’t explored this site or C19 yet, but I am hoping that those 5 years worth of conversations are still available. I’m eager to learn others’ views about so many of the details.

    Thanks for a great article. I like knowing that your passion for N & S remains strong after 5 years. I have no trouble understanding why.

  22. pat
    August 21, 2009

    Wonderful, wonderful! I discovered Richard Armitage while watching the Robin Hood series with my daughter. Recognizing a fine talent underneath all that black leather – a talent for acting, that is – I ordered the DVD of North And South and, through that, discovered Elizabeth Gaskell. To say “I love the book and movie” is an understatement; both works get under your skin in the best way. And I agree with so many of you – Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Thornton makes the movie. What a fine, intelligent man he seems to be.

  23. Hilary
    August 22, 2009

    Judi, ‘CL’, Donna and Pat – thank you so much for the positive comments on this article. It bears out what I was trying to express, that new viewers are still amazed and delighted by this adaptation and its signature performance by Richard Armitage, and are either drawn back to the novel, or inspired to read it for the first time. It seems extraordinary that reading and watching North and South can be a life-changing experience … but there it is.

    ‘C L’ – I can relate to the passion for research – a group of us did an extensive piece of work on a nexus of 1850s/60s cotton masters and firms, inspired by the discovery of ‘HSG’ Autobiography of a Manchester Cotton Manufacturer (1887). Have you come across it? The author’s first employer he nicknames ‘John Thornton’, and so we were away. There are many instructive parallels with quite a few differences, but it taught us a lot about the real-life context of the novel.

    Donna, (and anyone else reading this), do take a look at C19. We talk about everything under the sun now, but the N&S discussion and the N&S Group Read boards are still prominently visible, and all the discussions from Feb 2005 still there (to haunt us …). And Donna – if you are an odd duck, then so am I, and there’s a large flock (is that the right word?) of us.

  24. Maria Grazia
    August 24, 2009

    I had missed this post, OMG! But now I’m so happy I read it! I love this novel and even more its TV adaptation. It changed my life too… I’ve discovered the Net is such an interesting world searching for information about an unknown (then!) but terribly fascinating northern British actor… then I started blogging … then I went on and on…

  25. bZirk
    September 20, 2009

    I’m sorry I’m just now getting to this piece. It was wonderful for many reasons not the least of which was its assessment of what makes the North and South adaptation work so well despite its flaws.

    But I especially love the description of its effect on your life. I’m still not sure what hit me, but you did a great job of touching on it. We are kindred spirits in that, and so are a lot of others apparently. Thank you for verbalizing something I’ve been unable to do and yet have wanted to do so desperately if for no other reason than to allay this fear that I’m nuts.

  26. OneMoreLurker
    October 25, 2009

    Wonderful article, I’ve really enjoyed reading this. Nodding in lots of parts, reliving scenes and dialogues I love.

    “Within this script he has his reasons, but the sense of shock is extreme … has to be established that Margaret is to despise him.”
    I think that scene firmly puts the barrier/contrast in form of prejudice from both sides, a barrier that by each passing episode would vanish in front of you and in Margaret’s eyes.

    One of the reasons this adaptation works is it’s fab cast that portray so well the characters. I was glad to see Sinead Cusack as Hannah Thornton, Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins mentioned, they have great, powerful scenes.

    Because of this adaptation I read the book and enjoyed reading some details that as you said, are not always practical to translate into the screen. I’m now reading Gaskell’s Wives&Daughters (I have to thank this adaptation for making me discover Gaskell’s work) and I like how she writes her characters so by half the book you care very much for each of them.

  27. Pingback: The Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell, read by Richard Armitage « Vulpes Libris

  28. NovemberBride
    September 14, 2010

    All I can think of is, “WOW!”! Me too. Ditto. Everything you said. I’m a newcomer to “North and South”. I orderd the DVD, then the book this past summer. Will life ever be the same?! Only when it’s shown in the US…maybe. Thanks for the most excellent article! I’ll pass this along to my online friends as they will surely love “North and South” as much as I do.

  29. Pingback: Candid opinions from a crowded Den « Vulpes Libris

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