North and South, Great Britain Style
I love Pride and Prejudice and all those sort of period pieces, even though most of the time the characters don’t do much beyond exchanging clever conversation while they drink tea or dance a minuet. So when I heard about a miniseries about the cotton industry in the 1850s, filmed in an old textile mill in England, I couldn’t wait to watch it.
I learned of the 1850s book, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and its BBC miniseries, from one of the historical interpreters at Washington-on-the-Brazos.
I read the book first. (The whole book is available online in a PDF here.)
To summarize the plot, our heroine Margaret has to leave her idyllic country home in the South of England, and move to a new factory town in the industrial North, with her fragile and barely competent parents. Once in the factory town, she meets a mill owner and his family, union members, and members of the working poor, forcing her to face her prejudices and beliefs.
Being a good Victorian heroine, Margaret spends a lot of time being too proud to justify herself to her social inferiors, and too humble to question her social superiors, including her parents. She never actually sets foot in the textile mill. She seems to be worn out a lot, but she doesn’t seem to actually do anything that would tire her. The author seems unable to portray Margaret without using three positive character traits in a row, so we read countless descriptions of things like her “noble brave innocence,” her “courageous dignified purity,” and her “splendid proud decency.” And in true Victorian fashion, once characters have served their purpose in furthering the plot, they immediately and tidily die off.
These girls look like the epitome of noble courageous gentility to me.
But if you can skim all the descriptions, the book is interesting for the way it presents issues about work and industry. Gaskell seems sympathetic with people at all levels of society, and with the impacts that change from modernization has on them. Her characters present different viewpoints that still echo today.
She has her mill owner, Mr. Thornton, give this speech:
“’Why,’ said he, ‘the Americans are getting their yarns so into the general market, that our only chance is producing them at a lower rate. If we can’t, we may shut up shop at once, and hands and masters alike go on tramp. Yet these fools go back to the prices paid three years ago…The next thing will be – indeed, we’ve all but come to it now – that we shall have to go and ask – stand hat in hand – and humbly ask the secretary of the Spinners’ Union to be so kind as to furnish us with labour at their own price. That’s what they want – they, who haven’t the sense to see that, if we don’t get a fair share of the profits to compensate us for our wear and tear here in England, we can move off to some other country; and that, what with home and foreign competition, we are none of us likely to make above a fair share, and may be thankful enough if we can get that, in an average number of years.’ ”
from North and South, by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, 1855
I think you could just change a couple of words in that speech, and it would still be relevant.
Gaskell’s knowledge of the economy and different perspectives of her time impressed me. It didn’t surprise me that a woman of her time understood the issues, but I was surprised that her writing about them was published.
Next I watched the BBC miniseries (it’s on Amazon instant streaming, and I’m pretty sure Netflix has it too). This is one of the rare times that the movie is better than the book.
Without reading the book, it might be hard to keep up with some of the minor characters, but otherwise the miniseries is the way to go. Nothing important is left out, but the pace is much quicker. Margaret has more interaction with the world around her, even going into the cotton mill and the Crystal Palace. The costumes and sets show phenomenal attention to detail. I loved seeing the antique looms working.
Issues of equality, economy, and social awareness are layered around the central story of relationship, giving North and South more levels of interest than most period dramas.