Friday, July 20, 2007

Another excellent BBC series

This time, it's North and South, from the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. Don't mix it up with the miniseries of the same name, about the American Civil War. This is based on a novel set in England during the Industrial Revolution.

I thought the BBC had lost the knack of making these fabulous costume dramas, but this one is definitely a return to the old style. It's about a girl named Margaret Hale, who moves with her family from a comfortable life in the rural south of England, to a hardscrabble industrial milltown in the north. There she meets the stern mill owner, John Thornton, and their differences lead to clash of personalities and also romance. Meanwhile, there is industrial strife going on all around, the workers are desperate and on strike, and Margaret is shocked by the brutal poverty of their lives.

It's sort of like "Pride and Prejudice" with a social conscience.

The production values are great - the scenes in the cotton mill, with all the whirring looms and flying cotton, is quite amazing. But of course, the best thing about the whole program is Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton. I thought nobody could play a better Darcy than Colin Firth, but this guy could do it, and throw in a good splash of Heathcliff-type dark brooding smoulder as well. He's really very good.

There's an interesting detail, in that the Hales have to leave their home because Mr. Hale, who is a clergyman, can't conscientiously swear allegiance to the Book of Common Prayer, as his bishop required. That would make him a Nonconformist. At first I didn't like him much - I thought he was rather a fool, and I sympathized with his poor wife who reproached him for dragging them away from everything they knew to languish in a godforsaken filthy cold grimy industrial town (Milton is said to be modelled on Manchester in the early to mid 1800s). But I gradually began to see some reason for what he'd done, beyond the obvious explanation that he didn't want to be a hypocrite.

Throughout the story, there is quite a lot of stress laid on how different the people in the north are - very independent and prickly. Mr. Hale has more in common with them than at first appears. He's his own man, after all - he's not a go-along type who'll just follow orders and agree to what the boss says. Even though he has much more refined manners, he's very like Thornton and even the rebellious workers; maybe that's why he likes Thornton, long before his daughter will see any good in him.

There's a scene where Margaret is quizzing Thornton on how he runs his mill, and how much he pays his workers. She then asks if he doesn't care what they do with their money, and he's almost a bit surprised that she could ask such a question. He replies that it's none of his business - he's just their employer. She thinks that morally, he should be involved in their "quality of life". But that reminds me that the rural society she came from operated on rather different rules.

Remember in 'Pride and Prejudice', how Lady Catherine de Bourgh is constantly poking her nose into everyone's business? Right down to dictating the size of roast Charlotte should buy. She's an exaggeration, but it was considered that the aristocracy and the clergy had a right to supervise the lives of the lower classes, for their own good. It had its good and bad sides, of course. It could be officious, like Lady Catherine, or it could be genuinely concerned and helpful, like Emma Woodhouse in 'Emma', sending along a whole leg of pork to Miss Bates. But it came out of an older, more feudal social order. Milton society is quite different, and more independent. It also has its good and bad sides.

There's another little scene, where Margaret befriends a mill girl named Bessie. She offers to come visit with a basket, and Bessie rather sarcastically laughs, "A basket! What would we do with a basket? We have little enough to put in it!" At first I thought it was just a demonstration of her pride, though when Margaret does come, and DOES bring a basket of groceries, Bessie accepts it without fuss.

Then I remembered Jane Austen again, and what the role of a clergyman's daughter would have been. Charitable works to the poor would have been part of her job description. It was just expected that the clergyman's wife and daughters would go on regular rounds, visiting the poor parishioners and bringing them gifts. I think Bessie wasn't so much objecting to receiving some supplies, as being Margaret's "project" - bringing her things as a friend was one thing, but doing it because she was poor and this is what you're supposed to do with the poor wasn't acceptable.

Anyway, I'd heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, but only as a minor writer whose claim to fame was that she was Charlotte Bronte's friend, and wrote her biography. It's interesting that, despite her friendship with Bronte, her own style of fiction is more related to Jane Austen's - and Bronte didn't think much of Austen.

Now I'm going to read the book, and I highly recommend the series to anyone who's looking for a good period drama.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't she write Wives and Daughters? I recently watched that and thought it was very godd. Might have to rent North and South now. bridgit

3:53 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Yes she did, and I'd never heard of that either - has it also been filmed? I'll have to watch out for that one, too.

7:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I just bought it. It is not as good as Pride and Prejudice (what is?) but it was definately worth the watching. It is close to 6 hours long and I watched it straight through, but I love this genre of movies. bridgit

10:17 pm  

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