As much as I love Jane Austen, one of my best friends loves Elizabeth Gaskell equally as well. I admit to having read only three Gaskell pieces in my time: Cranford, North and South, and Mary Barton. Last Christmas Season, I reread Cranford, but it has been many years since I have truly studied Gaskell’s works. However, recently, I agreed I would reread North and South, and my friend Jas and I would have a two-person book discussion. (Unfortunately, I’m a bit behind in my reading for I am working on several new novels). Gaskell’s brilliance lies in her ability to negotiate the relationships between the social classes, while adding Unitarian values of freedom, reason, and tolerance.
That being said, first, permit me to clarify one major misconception regarding North and South. That delicious scene in the mini-series where Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) spies on John Thornton (Richard Armitage) at his factory, and the air is filled with the cotton fibers, is NOT in the book. The director, Brian Percival, and screenwriter, Sandy Welch, have followed in the traditional romantic period dramas of the late 1990s and early 2000s. They have done to John Thornton what Andrew Davies did to Mr. Darcy; they have turned Thornton into a “sex symbol.” And like many women, I APPROVE!!!!
So, you may ask, why discuss Gaskell’s North and South on a blog, essentially dedicated to the Regency era and Jane Austen? Well, the problem lies in the fact I see Darcy and Elizabeth and Pride and Prejudice‘s influence in Gaskell’s passages. I am not suggesting Ms. Gaskell “borrowed” her ideas from my Miss Jane. On the contrary, the fault lies with me. I see Austen’s influence in story line after story line, most recently in Heyer’s The Quiet Gentleman, as well as a novella that smacked of Persuasion, with a hero sailor removed from his love for eight years and the heroine appearing dowdy looking upon his return.
As to North and South, take, for example, in Chapter 7, “New Scenes and Faces,” I imagine Darcy realizing Elizabeth’s power over him when I read, “Mr. Thornton was in habits of authority himself, but she seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once. He had been getting impatient at the loss of his time on a market-day, the moment before she appeared, yet now he calmly took a seat at her bidding.”
From the same chapter, Thornton’s first meeting with Miss Hale could easily have been the one that occurred between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. “She sat facing him and facing the light; her full beauty met his eye; her round white flexile throat rising out of the full, yet lithe figure; her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve; her eyes, with their soft gloom, meeting his with quiet maiden freedom. He almost said to himself that he did not like her, before their conversation ended; he tried so to compensate himself for the mortified feeling, that while he looked upon her with an admiration he could not repress, she looked at him with proud indifference, taking him, he thought, for what, in his irritation, he told himself he was–a great rough fellow, with not a grace or a refinement about him. Her quiet coldness of demeanour he interpreted into contemptuousness, and resented it in his heart to the pitch of almost inclining him to get up and go away, and have nothing more to do with these Hales, and their superciliousness.”
From Chapter 10, “Wrought Iron and Gold,” Thornton and Margaret have a heated discussion over the merits of living in the North versus residing in the South. I was reminded of Darcy and Elizabeth saying, “And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.”
“And yours,” he replied, with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them.”
John Thornton and Miss Hale says, “You do not know anything about the South. If there is less adventure or less progress–I suppose I must not say less excitement–from the gambling spirit of trade, which seems requisite to force out these wonderful inventions, there is less suffering also…. You do not know the South, Mr.Thornton,” she concluded, collapsing into a determined silence, and angry with herself for having said so much.
“And may I say you do not know the North?” said he.
Later on, when Thornton means to shake Margaret’s hand in farewell, but Margaret is unfamiliar with the custom, I am reminded of Elizabeth’s refusal to dance with Darcy at Sir William Lucas’s house, and of Elizabeth’s initial “first impression” of Darcy. “When Mr. Thornton rose up to go away, after shaking hands with Mr. and Mrs. Hale, he made an advance to Margaret to wish her good-bye in a similar manner. It was the frank familiar custom of the place; but Margaret was not prepared for it. She simply bowed her farewell; although the instant she saw the hand, half put out, quickly drawn back, she was sorry she had not been aware of the intention. Mr. Thornton, however, knew nothing of her sorrow, and, drawing himself up to his full height, walked off, muttering as he left the house– ‘A more proud, disagreeable girl I never saw. Even her great beauty is blotted out of one’s memory by her scornful ways.’”
From Chapter 9, Thornton explains to his mother that Miss Hale has not set her sights on him. “‘Well! I only say, take care. Perhaps our Milton girls have too much spirit and good feeling to go angling after husbands; but this Miss Hale comes out of the aristocratic counties, where, if all tales be true, rich husbands are reckoned prizes.’
Mr. Thornton’s brow contracted, and he came a step forward into the room. ‘Mother’ (with a short scornful laugh), ‘you will make me confess. The only time I saw Miss Hale, she treated me with a haughty civility which had a strong flavour of contempt in it. She held herself aloof from me as if she had been a queen, and I her humble, unwashed vassal. Be easy, mother.’”
Although the situation is reversed: Thornton is rich, but of the working class, and Miss Hale is poor, but of the genteel class. Despite her poverty, the lady does not view Mr. Thornton as a possible suitor, but he is enthralled with her with his first glance. In fact, Chapter 11 is entitled “First Impressions.” Must I say more???