‘I wish I could tell you, Edith, how lonely I am, how cold and harsh it is here. Everywhere there is conflict and unkindness. I think God has forsaken this place. I believe I have seen hell. And it’s white. It’s snow white.’
So ends the dazzling first episode of North and South, the BBC’s 2004 drama of love and social upheaval in the cotton mills of Victorian Northern England. Adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name by Sandy Welch, the genius who brought us the 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre, it was immortally designated as ‘Pride and Prejudice with a social conscience’ by someone, somewhere, and this continues to be the way it is seen by many fans.
When southern clergyman and part-time classicist Mr. Hale unexpectedly decides to abandon the church rather than reaffirm his belief in the Book of Common Prayer, he uproots his wife Maria, his daughter Margaret and their outspoken servant Dixon to Milton, a miserable industrial town in the North of England that is famed for its cotton mills. All three suffer from violent culture shock, but it is Margaret, the series’ heroine, who finds their new home the hardest to deal with. Not only must she present an outward appearance of calm for the good of her parents, she is incapable of ignoring the misery of the town’s workers, who fight starvation on a daily basis, begin to work in the mills from an extremely young age, are treated cruelly by their masters, and stand a good chance of coughing themselves to death by the time they’re forty because of the strands of cotton fluff that stick to their lungs. Her own prejudices make it impossible for her to see that John Thornton, the owner of Marlborough Cotton Mill and her father’s pupil, does not fall into the same category as the masters she comes to despise, this despite his austere demeanor and apparent heartlessness. Their consequently rocky relationship simmers with sexual tension across the class divide, Margaret dealing increasingly more hurtful blows to the feelings of a man who does not deserve it, who is not afraid to hit back, and who falls more deeply in love with her each time they meet.
North and South’s ultimate strength is the way in which the problems of the opulent rich and of the abjectly poor are given equal attention and dealt with with equal pathos. Through Margaret’s friendship with Bessie Higgins, we are given a chilling and moving insight into the everyday lives of the Victorian working poor, Margaret and Bessie’s entire friendship played out in dank, lightless rooms with scarcely threadbare blankets keeping out the cold. The actors who play mill workers are powerful and charismatic; they give their class a voice, and when these different classes collide, the viewer is never seized by the idea that one class is superior to another. The same is true of the inevitable collision between North and South, symbolised by Mr. Thornton and by Margaret. In Northern Victorian England, we may indeed feel suffocated by the smog and the perpetual lack of colour, but we eventually realise that the South is just as suffocating and claustrophobic: northerners simply aren’t interested in hiding the truth.
The series’ magnificent script relieves Gaskell’s unforgettable and too-often forgotten novel of some of its more overt sentimentality, choosing instead to emphasise the rougher, less dressed-up side of human emotion that she so successfully evokes in her prose. This is then brought to the screen by a dedicated and untouchably brilliant group of people cast with characteristic BBC brilliance from the top down.
Daniela Denby-Ashe makes an effortless transition from comedy to drama in her portrayal of one of the most important female protagonists in Victorian literature: a defier of gender roles, but extremely well-bred; a rebel against the class system but not quite revolutionary enough to escape panicking when she’s proposed to by a ‘tradesman’. Her journey is long and painful. She’s sometimes an angel; sometimes a brat; and grows to truly know herself, her world and what’s important, through love. It’s not an easy development to endure, or to portray, and Denby-Ashe pulls it off in a mesmerising performance that remains her best to date. Richard Armitage is subtle, charismatic and hypnotic in his breakout role as Mr. Thornton. Not only does he dethrone Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, but succeeds in bringing out the many facets, light and dark, of Mr. Thornton’s complex personality: surly, stubborn and iron-willed, he is also lonely, doubtful of himself and a perfectly sincere wearer of his heart on his sleeve. The walls around him crumble more and more the deeper into the story you go, and Armitage is masterful at revealing the gradual bringing to light of his emotions and his humanity without losing the austerity that has become a part of him. Mr. Thornton’s own experiences with poverty have led him to a greater understanding of and sympathy with the nature of his workers’ daily lives, but have also caused a certain hardness in his attitude towards them when they do not treat the business with the respect he believes it deserves by going on strike. This attitude is shared by his formidable mother Mrs. Thornton, his partner in the business played by a volcanic Sinéad Cusack. Mrs. Thornton has been brutally hardened by the experience of being left destitute with two children by a bankrupt husband who committed suicide, and she can often give the impression of being completely without emotion. Cusack’s immensely expressive face and voice, however, enable us to get to know Mrs. Thornton better, and to appreciate that this is a woman of enormous integrity who is utterly devoted to her children’s happiness and cares little, if anything, for her own. There is a particularly strong bond between her and Mr. Thornton, with whom she shares the experience of their early poverty. Brendan Coyle is mercurial as union leader Nicholas Higgins: fearlessly devoted to improving the condition of the working man, he’s frightening when he’s angry, an inspiring leader and extremely intelligent with a good head for business; his loving, family-oriented side brought out by his relationship with his dying daughter Bessie (Anna Maxwell Martin). It is through Nicholas and Mr. Thornton’s working relationship and subsequent bromance that the divide between merchant class and working class begins to be breached: achieving the ultimate communication across class barriers by bringing the upper class to the table completely depends on Margaret.
Gritty and harshly psychological, North and South stands alone among period dramas: utterly lacking in Jane Austen’s delicate prettiness, its passion more grounded in cold reality than any of the Brontës; it’s Dickensian social misery without the quirks, but still has an aura of hopefulness about it through its two protagonists who set the rules for their changing world.