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North & South: Afternoon tea and moral ambiguity.


The 2004 TV miniseries based on Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, North & South, has been on Netflix for a while. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched it.

When I’m stressed, I lean toward 19th Century English period pieces. I think it's because I find them calming. Reading the novels of Jane Austen in my teen years kicked off this obsession, followed by Jane Eyre. Then, film adaptations of these works led me to Downton Abbey and North & South. And my fixation was solidified.

I think I enjoy the simplicity of the era. Walking over country lanes and rolling green hills as a form of exercise and transportation. Serving afternoon tea and calling on neighbors for entertainment and conversation. Writing and receiving hand-written letters from family and friends. The elegance and the slow, intentional lifestyle appeal to me.

It's much different from the frazzled everyday life of a busy working mom trying to write books in her "spare" time.

Hahahaha. Spare time.

In addition to the calming nature of the time, North and South is a literary package of love and devastation, moral quandaries and revolution.

Richard Armitage is smoldering as industrial mill master John Thornton, who is in love with Margaret Hale, an educated but kind woman whose class is clearly above his own. (Interestingly, according to IMDB, Richard Armitage’s parents are also named John and Margaret.)

If you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings franchise (Hobbits also have a way of slowing things down and focusing on what is important - like cheese), you’ll recognize Armitage from his role as Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarves. He lent the same intensity to that role, but in a more overt, crazy dwarf-like way. In his role as John Thornton, his ferocity was more complicated. He has a hard life, trying to provide for his mother and unmarried sister, run a mill, provide for his employees, all the while trying to maintain a threshold of emotion between himself and everyone who counts on him.

When Margaret arrives, she softens John's edges. She's from another town - seemingly another world - made up of green countryside and fragrant flowers. She's not familiar with the workings of a town forever covered in a layer of grey smoke, both literally and figuratively in the hearts of those who live there.

When they meet, John is beating a man in his mill. Margaret is angry and exasperated at the sight of such violence unit John reveals the reason for it: the man was smoking. In a highly-flammable cotton mill, this is the most dangerous thing anyone can do. He put himself and the other men, women and children working in the mill at risk. John recounts a time when he saw a mill go up in flames, consuming every life within in mere seconds. Margaret soon realizes she judged John too harshly.

The characters continue to misjudge and misunderstand each other. Customs and social behaviors are very different between the North and the South. Margaret has to adjust her views of both.

Then the strike begins, and Margaret has to help her friends on both sides of the argument.

Any moral righteousness the reader holds at this point - in support of either the mill masters or the workers - gets shaded in a smokey grey as children starve and masters prepare for bankruptcy.

Margaret and John continue to misunderstand each other. They disagree on politics. They fumble over varying customs. But they always hold each other high in regard and respect. Until, eventually, their circumstances bring them together in the end. (I would have prefaced that with a spoiler alert, but there's no general surprises in 19th Century English literature. The characters, no matter their position, always come together in the end. Except, maybe, for the selfishness of Wuthering Heights.)

I don't know how much longer North & South will be on Netflix. But I hope to continue to watch it long into my stressful nights, when I can see Margaret and John dance in their ethic battles, holding in the love they have for each other in dignified restraint.

And, of course, serve afternoon tea.

#northsouth #RichardArmitage #JohnThornton #MargaretHale #englishliterature #whattowatchonnetflix

© 2023 by MICHELLE WILLIAMSON