Sunday, February 26, 2006

Book Review: North and South

Okay, after having raved about the BBC mini-series, I figured that I'd actually give the book an actual review.

I finished the book a few nights ago, and I have to say... I actually enjoyed it. I was quite surprised as I tended away from Victorian Literature in general as I was under a very false impression of that genre being depressing.

I had read Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy back in my university days and hated it. The book was so bloody depressing, and I wanted to smack Jude more than a few times, the idiot. Plus, I had impressions of Victorians as being prudish and uptight. (Read boring).

Synopsis of book (from Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South examines the nature of social authority and obedience and provides an insightful description of the role of middle class women in nineteenth century society. Through the story of Margaret Hale, a southerner who moves to the northern industrial town of Milton, Gaskell skillfully explores issues of class and gender, as Margaret's sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to the mill owner, John Thornton.

What I learned about Victorian England from reading the book (and cursory research from the Internet):
  • England had a large booming cotton industry
  • There were actually unions in England at that time (I thought it was a North American phenomenon)
  • There were other Christian denominations in England other than Anglican (John Thornton was thought to be Non-Conformist, whatever that means)
  • Victorians weren't necessarily prudish people, they just didn't allow to show certain emotions publicly.
  • There was great proliferation of pornography available to the upper class gentlemen. (Not in the book, simply a point of interest)
What I liked about the book:
  • Getting a glimpse of the cotton trade and unions in England during the 1850s
  • Seeing the relationship between Mr. Thornton and his mother
  • Characterization development. I found the characters to be very interesting, and quite well developed
  • Lots of romantic bits
What I didn't like about the book:
  • The ending was way too short and abrupt (I blame Charles Dickens for that)
  • There are some depressing parts, especially when seven people die within a span of a few chapters. It almost felt like plot devices to advance the story
  • Margaret, although having to endure a lot silently, annoyed me at times (see below)
What I didn't get about the book:
  • I felt that while reading the book, I'm certain that there were sexual/religious references that I'd completely missed as I don't have the same mentality as a middle/upper class Victorian, so that did take a bit away from the enjoyment of the book.
  • If Margaret was so thoughtless to risk her reputation by throwing her arms around John Thornton, why didn't she just tell him how she felt? It certainly would have made things easier. Again, unless I'm totally missing out on some Victorian impropriety. (Okay, by the time she realizes that she's in love with him, she thinks that he's not in love with her any longer, but still...!)
All in all, I give it 8.5 out of 10. It would be higher if Mrs. Gaskell didn't have to feel the need to kill so many of her characters in a short span of time, and if Margaret didn't cry so much. And she cried a lot! I wanted to smack her!

A bit on the BBC mini-series. There are three main deviations from the book:
  • At the beginning, Mr. Thornton is seen beating a worker for smoking in the factory, and Margaret sees this (this is also the first time she meets him in the story). It's to impress upon the viewer that Mr. Thornton represents the North, and Margaret, at first, resents the North and everything about it (Including Mr. Thornton). Although effective, I felt that the beating was a bit excessive as it went a little longer than just trying to make a point
  • A visit to the Great Exhibition (thereby setting the adaptation a couple years later than the book).
  • The ending. It happened on a public train platform and not in the privacy of a drawing room. There was a lot of hot kissing. Nuff said. =P
I give the BBC adaptation 8.5 out of 10. Why not full marks? I have complaints:
  1. The story really didn't pick up for me until the end of Episode 2, the Proposal scene. The story did drag a bit until that point (and this point will seem contradictory to point #2).
  2. The adaptation went too fast for me to really pick up what was going on the first time around. I had to watch it again (not that I'm complaining) to start picking up subtleties.
My personal opinion, the story should have been an hour longer, there's so much sub-text going on in the book that gets lost. Having said that, I realize that the scriptwriter had a tall order to compress everything into four hours.

Acting was great. My favourite characters were Mrs. Thornton (played by Sinad Cusack, Jeremey Irons' wife), and Fanny Thornton (Jo Joyner really hammed it up). All in all, a good watch for an afternoon.

1 comment:

LuvDemBrooders said...

Hi there!

Google just referred me to your post about "N&S" and I just wanted to let you know about a wonderful message board devoted to "N&S", 19th century literature, and also Richard Armitage who portrayed John Thornton in the adaptation.

It was started in Feb 2005 by refugees from the original BBC mbs and is chockful of fun, witty, smart women (not girls) from around the world who've converged to share their thots about both the book and the adaptation.

The RA boards have proven to be very interesting also as the members have followed and discussed in minute detail his other roles, both noteworthy and not!

The producer, director, screenwriter, composer, and Richard himself have been in contact with various members which has also provided everyone with some insight into their vision of "N&S."

As I am a known and accepted droogling fanRAbid after seeing him infuse himself into JT, I will spare you my usual effusive and lengthy diatribe about this fine actor.

Anyway, whether or not you consider yourself to be a member of the "Armitage Army" or merely an interested party, I think you would enjoy reading some of the amazingly detailed discussions on the "N&S" board...especially on some of the older threads.

Here's the link:

Hope to see you there sometime!

BTW, I nearly forgot to say that I really enjoyed your analysis of both the book and the adaptation. I've read and re-read the book ten times since last August and find something new to savor nearly every time I pick it up again. I really feel that the screenwriter and the whole production staff, crew, and cast did an excellent job of transporting us into Gaskell's 19th century setting.

RA Rulez!