Costume drama heaven: Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

Several weeks ago, when I was flat on my back and effectively unable to do anything that required being in a standing position, I watched a few of my favorite BBC costume dramas.  There’s something so marvelous about being able to slip away to a world of manor homes and long sweeping dresses and aristocratic men with pocket watches and all kinds of tangled human relationships that somehow become miraculously un-tangled by the time the four or six hours are up.  Those miniseries are always so pretty, too, with their ivy-covered cottages and English estates and sweeping green lawns dotted with people holding parasols.  Whether it’s Pride and Prejudice or Emma or Daniel Deronda or Wives and Daughters or Cranford, these stories are a chance to escape into some gorgeous candy-box world for a time.  Call me shallow, but I love the beautiful scenery of these films at least as much as I love the compelling characters.

That’s why it’s kind of a surprise that I like North and South as much as I do.

North and South is the  BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel of the same name.  (It is, by the way, not the North and South miniseries about the American Civil War, the one starring Patrick Swayze. We’ll call that “the American North and South.”)  It’s the story of a young woman named Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) who moves with her parents from the gorgeous rural south to the industrial north, a town called Milton, whose very existence is centered on the town’s mills.  The contrast between her family’s genteel southern existence (charming red brick vicarage with roses around it) and their more challenging time in the North (the town of Milton is dirty and bustling and full of poverty) is  the main engine of the story.

In Milton, Margaret makes the acquaintance of John Thornton (Richard Armitage), one of the mill owners, who makes a terrible first impression on her and whom she comes to regard as a heartless master who cares about the bottom line more than about the good of his workers.  Thornton, though,  is far more complex than she gives him credit for being (naturally – otherwise, it’d be a lousy story).  The two make snap judgments about each other, find themselves on opposing sides of the huge workers’ strike, and – of course—end up falling in love.  I’ll stop there, as I don’t want to give too much away, but trust me: It’s a darn good story, one that echoes Pride and Prejudice in how it features two strong-willed characters who come from different backgrounds and have to fight against their own prejudices in order to come together.

That said, it’s utterly unlike P and P in its visuals.  The vast majority of the story takes place in the dirty, frankly depressing Industrial North, with its slum quarters and clanking mill machinery.   Overall, this series offers very little in the way of attractive scenery (unless you count Richard Armitage, that is).   But somehow, that doesn’t matter.  Watching this miniseries, I was completely captivated by the story and the characters.  Margaret Hale is a totally lovable heroine: independent, compassionate, resilient enough to make a home in a totally different world than the one she left.   The chemistry between the two actors is palpable, and the ending scene – well, it’s easily one of the most romantic things I’ve ever seen on film.   (Blasphemy alert: I actually think Richard Armitage’s portrayal of John Thornton may surpass Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy in brooding romantic intensity. )

Also – and this is where the Labor Day connection comes in – it’s nice to see a costume drama that looks so closely at the experiences of the working classes.  Margaret befriends some of the mill workers and enters into their struggles, and what results is a social commentary that gives this story a certain heft.  (Much as I adore Jane Austen, she just doesn’t go there in her stories.)  And since we’re living in a time in our own country where there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor,  the story has a certain contemporary resonance.   In North and South, both sides – the mill workers and the mill owners – have to learn to see the other as human.  The only real progress comes when they do.

It’s a truly marvelous series, for Labor Day or any other time.  Just be sure you have a four-hour window in which to watch it all.  Once you see the first episode, you’ll be hooked.

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