Friday, June 16, 2017

Film fan or book buff? Elizabeth Gaskell's 'North and South'

Why not Both?

It always annoys me when people grumble about a film adaptation of a famous book.  They complain that the screen play differs from the original, that not every precious word uttered by their hero/heroine is included and search diligently and gleefully for any discrepancies in the historical settings.  What is not taken into account is that these are two quite different mediums of expression; the written word where elaborate descriptions can be included and conversations recorded in detail, and the visual, sounds and evocative expression of film.   A film is constrained by time and the producers demands and though many modern writers may feel equally constrained by their editors and publishers, most classical novels had liberty to ramble on at length.   Our educated ancestors desired long tomes and wordiness, lacking as they did the joys of television, cinema or dvd's to amuse themselves in spare moments. 

I recently re-read Mrs Gaskell's North and South as my literary tutor had set this book for our little group to study.  I agree with her, a first reading tends to be a little hurried, pages skipped in the desire to see how the story pans out.  Good books should always be read again when time has helped the contents to be mentally digested, the thrust of the story now half remembered with that delicious vagueness that time casts over it so that all appears as if new.  A second, even a third reading, will bring out passages missed or forgotten.  In Gaskell's novels, the central love story, on first reading so gripping, can then be seen in its context of the social turmoil of the times.  And her novels were certainly born in times of great turmoil in Britain.  We think we have divisiveness, poverty and problems now.  In the mid 19th century Britain had a great and rich industrial and colonial empire and yet the poverty and misery of the manufacturing towns was appalling, the contrast of rich and poor beyond belief.  The smugness of the idle rich and even the educated, who liked to shield themselves behind the idea that it was all God's will and a punishment on these wretches  - for some unexplained reason - is mind boggling to us now.
Charlotte Bronte

 The Chartist Movement had grown rapidly and there were problems such as the Luddite Riots which subject appears in Bronte' s book Shirley.  Her treatment of the strike and the manner in whcih her heroine saves her lover are simliar to that in North and South.  But Bronte had somewhat similiar heroines for whom love was their prevailing passion, the characters in Gaskell's novels are varied and though they fall in love, it is not the driving force of the story. 

Manchester in 19th century

Gaskell felt the unfairness of it all deeply and became a strong defender of the problems and sufferings of the Lancashire poor, spilling forth her feelings and compassion in her first novel, Mary Barton, published in 1848.   This appeared at about the same time as Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and the two became firm friends.  Both authors were amazed at the reaction to their books; the anger of Gaskell's circle of friends dismayed her and her attempts to remain incognito were easily flushed out as Milton was so obviously Manchester where she lived.  Some chose to think she parodied them in her exposure of the middle class and wealthy mill owners.  They felt she was being one sided in portraying only the misery of the poor as driven by circumstances and starvation and the 'gentlefolk', as tyrants who ignored their plight in the comfort of nice homes, laden tables, smart clothes on their backs and pleasurable pursuits.  Nothing indicated the problems faced by the manufacturers, managers and mill masters who had the rise and fall of markets to consider and all the worries of keeping their businesses afloat in uncertain times.  They had all the responsibility while the workers just had to work hard and accept the problems if things went wrong.   Gaskell realised that the two sides simply did not communicate their problems to one another and in North and South, she redressed this by showing both sides of the question through the characters of  Mr Thornton, the master of Marlborough mill, with Higgins, the intelligent and hard working Union man who strives to unite the workers in order to demand a fairer wage. The two men begin to listen one to the other and gain some middle ground of compromise and ways of working together instead of in enmity.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell was born on the 29th September 1810 in Chelsea, London.   Her parents were members of the Unitarian Church and she met and later married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister.  The couple moved to Manchester to take up duties there amongst the many Unitarian churches of that area.  Unitarianism was a radical breakaway from the Anglican Church and did not see Jesus as divine but rather as a prophet of God.  A somewhat arid belief system, lacking as it did in mystery and feeling, it believed in the power of reason, education and freedom to think and question while women were considered as equal as the men.  Elizabeth, as a minister's wife, was to see both the comfortable middle class side of Manchester and also move amongst the poor and downtrodden.   Like Dickens she wanted to write about the terrible conditions she saw and was better fitted to do so because she actually lived amongst them where he had only visited such areas.   Dickens had by then established his magazine Household Words and invited her to include her story. Along with Dicken's  Hard Times, a similar type of social indictment, it was published in monthly instalments, thus tending to have 'cliff hanger' chapters which certainly gave plenty of melodramatic excitement.  In some ways, this style suits particularly well an adaptation to television series.

Their relationship began well but ended in difficulty as both were strong minded characters.  Gaskell refused to let Dickens rule her to much, sticking to her own ideas of how North and South should appear in its serialised form.  However, she did take up his idea that it should be called by the far more appropriate and thematic title and not Margaret Hale as was her original intention.  Dickens could be demanding and did subject her to some editorship, pushing her to finish North and South, which he felt was becoming far too long.

To quote Gaskell's own preface to the published edition ". . . the author found it impossible to develop the story in the manner originally intended and more especially was compelled to hurry on events with an improbable rapidity towards the close. . ."  But she also admitted that the tale was obliged to conform to certain conditions required by a weekly publication.

The Book: Full of Contrasts

 There is no doubt that this is a long book by modern standards but it never drags for me.  The characters in Gaskell's stories come alive through the keeness of her observation, the style and language is colloquial for she was interested in the Lancashire dialect, but easy to read.  There is drama but somehow more down to earth and less overwrought than Jane Eyre, a story which Gaskell found puzzling.  Her life and nature were very different to that of Charlotte, happy as she was in her husband's love, her children and pleasant home life.    Gaskell was a born storyteller, loved by many friends and admirers, socially in demand for the ease and interest of her conversation.  She loved to quote anecdotes, enjoyed gossip and stored up memories and ideas in many short stories which at first she wrote to amuse herself and escape from the demands of her busy life as a mother and minister's wife.   Though there is plenty of drama in her stories, they never seem unreal or impossible.  

North and South is a book where one feels Gaskell achieved a balance in her self and in her own mind.   She was a Libran, sign of the scales and lover of fairness equality and reason. It's title and the chapter headings are all a contrast of opposites.  The characters too are all in contrast to one another. We have Margaret Hale, a gentleman's daughter, reduced to lesser circumstances purely because her father feels it necessary to leave his calling as a Vicar. Mr Hale is thus an educated, thinking man with the luxury of a conscience, he has choices and the ability to survive despite a lowered income and expectations.  In contrast to educated, gentrified Margaret with her southern manners and notions we have a straight talking northern lass, Bessie Higgins, the daughter of an intelligent man but whose only choice in his life is to work like a slave in the mills and keep his motherless children.  Yet he too can be proud and refuse charity.  Bessie is nineteen, the same age as Margaret, but already sick and dying of a terrible lung disease (pneumoconiosis - which can be contacted even now by those working in the textile industries).   Margaret is struck by the contrast in their lives and attitudes.  The two girls form a deep, loving friendship and understanding.  In the book Bessie, constantly yearns for her death, believing fervently that she will be going to Heaven and a happier afterlife while her father is agnostic.  Higgins is thus opposite to Mr Hale who tussles with his beliefs but does not lose his faith in God. 

Then there are the contrasts of Mr Thornton's proud, strong, stately mother to the weak, complaining, dissatisfied mother of Margaret, his silly idle sister, Fanny, to the industrious and dutiful Margaret Hale.  And, of course, the whole contrasting change from the beautiful fields, lanes, cottages, roses and fresh air of Helston, the southern home of the Hales, uprooted as they are to the dark, dirty, smoky, greyness of Milton.   Thomas Hardy spoke of the feudal attitudes and agricultural problems, but this book addresses a different set of people, the rise of the modern industrial, manufacturing man, proud, unyielding, equally harsh in the treatment of his workers though he may himself have risen from their ranks as Thornton did. There is also the contrast of the noise of the mills and the constant whirring of the machinery, the busy crowded streets of the city to the peace of the countryside which the Hales have left behind them.  It is so beautifully done.

The book has often been compared to Austen's Pride and Prejudice and it does indeed contain similar themes such as Margaret's hostile, proud attitude and repressed dour character of Thornton.  But he is a self made man, not from landed gentry as Darcy is and frankly, I prefer his character and the struggle he has had to undergo to rise in the world.   He is allowed pride in his achievements where Darcy's are merely inherited.  Margaret is a less cheerful and vivacious character than Elizabeth Bennett, her life much harder.   But again, there is much to admire in her tenacity and strength in misfortune.  The pride between the lovers is on both sides as well as the prejudice. Both novels have two proposals and in both the hero is rejected before his truth worth really impresses itself on our heroine.   Both heroines have ineffectual mothers and somewhat absent fathers. Thornton's mother opposes the union as much as Darcy's aunt, Lady de Burgh.   But whereas Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners, witty and charming, North and South is dramatic, passionate, intense and explores deeper themes of inequality and social injustices.   It is a novel that is physical, brutal in parts, the sexuality unusually clear for a Victorian novel,  depicted through subtle moods, Margaret's physically saving of Thornton from the striking mob, scenes of anger, jealousy.  Intriguingly there is also a constant reference to hands and handshakes or the refusal of touch (hands are mentioned 237 times!) and the touching scene when Thornton watches Margaret pouring out tea and is fascinated by a bracelet that falls down her soft, white arm as she moves and which is constantly pushed back again only to fall back once more.  

TV Adaptation: Amazing scenic effects

Television is generally the best means to adapt a famous classical novel.  It can span four, six or more parts and the story can be more inclusive of the dialogue of the original book.  However, it is still time limited.  So how to adapt successfully without losing the force, feeling and cohesion of the original?   It is wonderful to be transported visually into the days of yore, to see one's favourite characters spring to life before one's eyes.   If this is well done, the book becomes even more compelling to the mind and heart, fixed in one's consciousness. The BBC adaptation which I watched was made in 2004, the screen play by Sandy Welch and directed by Brian Percival.  The cast were superb.  

In both the film and the book it is the characters of Thornton and his mother, Higgins the worker that remained with me.

Sinead Cusack as Mrs Thornton stayed in my mind perhaps more than any other actor.  She conveyed pride and dignity, strength and devotion and her attitude towards Margaret isn't too surprising in the circumstances.  She and her daughter, Fanny, see her as aloof and haughty, misunderstanding her southern attitudes.   Richard Armitage as Thornton, the mill owner, was handsome, brooding, dark, a little Heathcliffe-ish.  He is not so fierce and cruel in the book.  But the scenes which depict him as harsh and unyielding to poor, weak, Boucher are far more likely to have been acted by such a man in truth.  Plus, we have to recall the Mrs Gaskell upset her friends greatly in her first book Mary Barton where she showed the misery and plight of the downtrodden workers and attacked her own class by so doing.  In N and S she was careful to show both sides of the question and tamed Thornton's attitude somewhat.

Margaret Hale is well played by Daniela Denby Ashe though I felt she wasn't quite my image of the character - but that's personal.   The actress conveyed her sadness, intelligence, inner strength and feeling beautifully.  And Brendan Coyle as Higgins gives a magnificent portrayal of that kind, proud, strong man, one of the noblest characters in the book.  We see all the characters in the novel change and grow from their Pride and Prejudice attitudes to become softened, more feeling, more open and inclusive of each other's views. This change of feeling has to be shown in four one hour shows.  Thus it has to be condensed into visually striking scenes that can say a great deal more than whole passages in the book.  I feel it was admirably done.

"I believe I've seen Hell: it's white.  It's snow white"

This TV adaptation excels in the visual above all and this can be dramatic and immensely moving in a direct manner which may elude one through mere words.  The opening shots of the titles...which in themselves are very visual with the North in sturdy, block like, dark letters, the South in gentle, curling scripts, already begin to introduce us to the contrasts of the two areas.  We open with evocative music and a scene of the mill interior, the grinding of the machines, the monotonous, steady mechanical movements of the workers, working in unison, in and out, in and out with the long weaving engines.  They have in essence become a part of the iron monster they wield, individuality lost as they move in monotonous rhythm with it.  The air is like a snowstorm as cotton flies around them everywhere, settling on clothes, machines, floor, and entering their lungs. This scene is not in the book, in fact we never enter the mills at all and I doubt Mrs Gaskell ever did do so.  But she knew of the effects of such work.  It is a stunning scene and the sight of the little children employed to crawl beneath the machines to retrieve cotton, then hastily moving out before the machines clank their way back again is deeply moving as well as horrifying.  It sets the tone for the whole story.

True, the TV adaptation doesn't stick totally to the book, how could it?  It's a long and detailed book, some say overly long.  For instance, Mr Bell,  Mr Hale's Oxford friend and the owner of the mill properties, has to physically appear early on and plays a bigger part than he does in the book which I think works well.  The film shows plot movement through brief scenes, snatches of conversation and expressions indicating how the characters feel.  Much is conveyed between the lovers in long, throbbing looks, between all the varied characters in facial expressions of haughtiness, disgust, pain, gladness (I love Fanny's curling lip and sneering face).  Little shots here and there contrast the teeming, busy streets of the city, the rich and poor houses, the ragged participants with their starving children during the strike, the groaning banquet at the Thornton's home where the masters discuss how to squash the strikers and keep the mills grinding.

The ending of this four part series is the one most talked about.  In Gaskells story, as I have said, the ending was a little hurried and to my mind out of character.  Suddenly Margaret Hale, our brave, sensible heroine, who usually spurns men's sexual admiration and advances, becomes coy and quite daft, hiding her face in her hands and acting like any Victorian maiden.  The film ending, while keeping her a little shy and charmingly apologetic for the fact that she was, in essence, saving her man again, was far more visually dramatic, romantic and delightful.  This is after all a romantic story as well as a social one.  I feel sure Mrs Gaskell would have approved.   We ladies loved it!

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.