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  • Writer's pictureKurt Keefner

North and South, An Industrial Synthesis

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

In this 19th Century novel and 21st Century mini-series, a minister’s daughter finds her independence and an industrialist becomes more enlightened. Charlotte Brontë meets Ayn Rand.

The Industrial Revolution was one of the most important periods in human history, when intrepid entrepreneurs, using the latest science and technology, dramatically increased the productivity of human labor and ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity that lifted all classes of society. It was also a time of dangerous, dirty working conditions and occasional famines.

Writings of the time usually focused on the negatives more than the positives. A genre of literature emerged, called the industrial novel, that dealt with the problems of the age. The most famous of these books is Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, with its rationalistic schoolmaster and heartless hypocrite of a mill owner. Such novels were usually sympathetic to the poor and indifferent or hostile to the industrialists.

Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale

Matters are different in an industrial novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. Entitled North and South, it deals with the conflict — and potential harmonization — of the gentrified South of England with the industrial North.  The novel was published by Dickens in 1855 and the mini-series was first broadcast by the BBC in 2004. (A 1975 mini-series was made starring Patrick Stewart as the industrialist.) There are many amateur trailers, presumably made by fans swooning over the romance, so please make allowances if you go searching for samples on YouTube.

The heroine is Margaret Hale, daughter of an Anglican parson who has given up his clerical position in a rural southern parish because he can no longer in good conscience serve the Church of England. (Exactly why is not made clear and is not the point.) He moves his family to the town of Milton-Northern, an industrial city based on Manchester.

The shock of the move is terrible for the Hales. Margaret’s mother, always delicate, starts to die slowly in the smoky air. Margaret is lonely and alienated and falls back on doing good works, befriending a family of mill workers named Higgins. Mr. Hale must earn a living by tutoring. One of his students is a leading manufacturer of cotton fabric named John Thornton. Mr. Thornton had to leave school at about the age of fourteen when his father died in disgraced debt. He has worked his way up to a position of success and now, at age thirty or so, would like to continue his education. Here is Gaskell’s first description of Thornton’s appearance:

Richard Armitage as John Thornton

“…the straight brows fell low over the clear, deep-set, earnest eyes, which, without being unpleasantly sharp, seemed intent enough to penetrate into the very heart and core of what he was looking at. The lines in the face were few but firm, as if they were carved in marble, and lay principally about the lips, which were slightly compressed over a set of teeth so faultless and beautiful as to give the effect of sudden sunlight when the rare, bright smile, coming in an instant and shining out of the eyes, changed the whole look from the severe and resolved expression of a man ready to do and dare anything, to the keen, honest enjoyment of the moment, which is seldom shown so fearlessly and instantaneously, except by children.” (Oxford edition, p. 80)

You can see why so many female readers are in love with this character. Whatever flaws Mr. Thornton may have, and he does have some, this is not the face of some mere money-grubbing, worker-exploiting scoundrel out of Dickens.

Our author Mrs. Gaskell, despite her Christian values, which are frequently in evidence, clearly did appreciate the type of the industrialist. Here she has Thornton hold forth on the inventor of the steam hammer (who was in reality a friend of Gaskell’s):

“And this imagination of power, this practical realization of a gigantic thought, came out of one man’s brain in our good town. That very man has it within him to mount, step by step, on each wonder he achieves to higher marvels still. And I’ll be bound to say, we have many among us who, if he were gone, could spring into the breach and carry on the war which compels, and shall compel, all material power to yield to science.” (p. 81)

There are other passages almost as good as these two. Unfortunately, there is also a passage where Mr. Thornton attributes his success to his Teutonic blood. It’s not clear whether he means this in a racist manner. I think he is more making a comment about the English character.  He seems to be contrasting the culture of the north, the part of England least touched by the Norman Conquest, with the luxury-loving gentry of the south.  Most of Thornton’s speeches do not make it into the mini-series, but Richard Armitage leaves a magnificent impression as the mill-owner.

Thornton is not without problems. He does not much relate to his hands (i.e., his workers) on a human level, but regards himself as their rightful despot during their working hours (while respecting their independence outside of work). In fact, the term used to refer to the owner/boss is “master.” Gaskell calls him willful; an example of this would be that he would not obey a law lessening air pollution, even though it would work to his financial advantage, because he resents the attempt of a distant government to rule over a business about which they know very little. (He had installed the pollution-reducing device before the law was passed, however.)

The central event in the story is a strike against all of Milton’s mill owners. Thornton brings in Irish strike breakers, which proves to be a bad idea, because they can’t operate the machines properly, and their presence provokes a riot among the starving workers in which Margaret is injured defending Thornton. The riot scene in the mini-series is very exciting, and in both novel and mini-series Thornton stands up to the mob in a granitelike display of courage. Although Thornton is very brave through the whole affair, his judgment is bad and he damages his business. Clearly he needs to change.

But the point of the story is not to one-sidedly humble the willful industrialist. Margaret needs to change too. While Thornton needs to overcome his pride and relate to his workers as human beings, Margaret needs to overcome her passivity. The life of a pampered and controlled girl in languid southern society proves stultifying to her. She thrives on the energy and purpose of Milton, even though she feels great sympathy for its less fortunate citizens, in keeping with her natural inclinations as a Christian.

Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins

The general direction of the story is a convergence of disparate types. Thornton and Margaret approach each other, Thornton and his hand Higgins (played by Brendan Coyle with just the right mixture of respect and impertinence) build a human relation that inspires Thornton to reach out to his workers and respond when they reach out to him. Thornton becomes an enlightened capitalist. The story is almost “dialectical” in that it concerns the resolution of seeming opposites: master and hands, male and female, life as exertion vs. life as appreciation of beauty, North and South.

This is an exciting way to present ideas. One nice thing about the resolution of opposites in this story is that it is conveyed entirely by events and not by editorializing by the author.  This shows how a novel can have intellectual without overtly intellectual material.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression of the story by going on about Thornton. He is not the primary character; Margaret is. The novel is more about her family and the Higgins family than it is about him. But for me, the main draw is the manufacturer, who thankfully is allowed more stage-time in the mini-series than in the novel.

Margaret and Thornton have a wonderful antagonism-blossoms-into-love relationship, right out of Jane Austen. The ending is incredibly romantic without being overblown, at least in the novel.  In the mini-series, the ending, while sweet, is not literally believable. I prefer North and South to Jane Austen, even though Austen writes better, because the characters in the former are, or want to be, productive and not just want to marry well.

I found North and South to be quite readable by nineteenth-century standards. It’s not long-winded, as Hugo can be, nor idiosyncratic like Dickens and Dostoevsky. It does have some of the period’s scarlet blushes and hot tears, however. Gaskell’s psychological insights are quite keen. One thing I liked about it was her ability to see everybody’s point of view, without being relativistic or all-forgiving in a Christian way.

I very much enjoyed the mini-series and it would be worth watching, even before reading the book. It has certain advantages and disadvantages compared to the novel. The major advantage is the visual realization of Milton and of Thornton’s mills, into which Gaskell never ventures. The power looms and the cotton fluff in the air are beautiful, although the breathing of the fluff is shown as unhealthful. The acting, especially by Richard Armitage and Sinead Cusack as Thornton and his mother, is very good.

On the negative side, Daniela Denby-Ashe is a little miscast as Margaret, too cherubic and pious-looking, not as proud and statuesque as the Margaret of the novel. And Thornton’s character is somewhat re-written to be more brooding and even violent, which he is not in the novel. Call it the Brontë-ization of Elizabeth Gaskell, making Mr. Thornton more like Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff. It’s a legitimate re-interpretation of the character though, and I have not felt a need to choose either book or miniseries over the other.

North and South is a wonderfully balanced look at the Industrial Revolution, which tries to resolve the difficulties of that era without result to socialism or government regulation.  At a deeper level it also tries to show how the human types of the time can realize personal harmony and growth by establishing personal relationships with one another.

If you enjoyed this review, you might also like my collection of essays on the subject of authenticity, Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American LIfe

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