04/05/2011

AN ACADEMIC VIEW OF NORTH & SOUTH - PART I

Any excuse is good to watch again and read again Gaskell's North and South. This time it was my good friend K/V's fault, ehm... merit. She sent me two essays written by two different university scholars saying: "See if they can help you with your lessons"
Titles: 
2. A View of North and South by David Kelly (very soon, in a second post)
Sigh. Did she really want to help me with my lessons? 
Mmm...maybe. Fact is, she knows me too well and I couldn't resist. Result is, I GOT DISTRACTED from my duties and start reading them.  Practical evidence of the fact, here's my post about them.
Jokes apart, these essays are interesting. Why didn't we study period drama when I was at university,  I wonder?




Taking bearings: Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South televised by Margaret Harris
Where can I start telling you about my very academic, informative readings?  Let's try from the very beginning. Essay 1, page 1. OK? Don't worry! I'm  not going to give you a lesson , promise. I'd only like to share with you the key points of this essay. Moreover,  you'll "see" lots of ... Mr Thornton!
In the introduction, Margaret Harris, praises Elizabeth Gaskell's boldness and transgressiveness to publish novels like Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855). Then she relates data about the huge success of BBC North and South television adaptation (2004):
It is the transgressive and confronting Gaskell that viewers encounter in Sandy Welch's script and Brian Percival's direction of the 2004 BBC-TV version of North and South, her fourth novel.(...) This production was hugely successful, topping the BBC's poll of viewers to determine Best Drama of the year with a decisive 49.43% of the vote. (pp. 1-2)

Going beyond the initial statement referring  to the series as a visual fullfilment of Gaskell's boldness and trasgressiveness, Margaret Harris's academic analysis of the TV series is based on a rather traditional comparison adaptation/novel which aims at answering two questions: How is North and South to be read in the 21st century? And, in particular, what kind of a reading of North and South is this BBC adaptation? (p. 4)

Anyhow, let me first quote something she says , which reminded me of my own approach to BBC North and South:
Having read and taught N&S many times over the years, I awaited the mini-series with some apprehension, fearful that it would be at odds with my way of seeing the novel, on a scale ranging from gratingly to infuriatingly. Almost immediately, this N&S not only reassured but won me. The moment came early in the first episode when Margaret opens the door onto the factory floor, to reveal the vista of machines clattering away and scraps of cotton whirling like snowflakes. (...) In a letter to her cousin at the end of the episode, Margaret is to comment "I believe I have seen hell-it's white. It's snow white" (p. 5)

You have surely noticed the way Mrs Gaskell always shows or tells - usually both - what her characters are feeling or how she pushes on the emotional development and change variously and continuously . Chapter 10 can be taken as an example. Margaret Hale compares "the difference of outward appearance between her father and Mr Thornton, as betokening such distinctly opposite natures" (N&S, p. 80). John Thornton observes the graceful comfort of the Hales' dining room and  Margaret pouring tea. What of this scene in the series? 
The camera emulates Gaskell's account of his fascinated watching of Margaret's bracelet slipping down her arm ...The sequence plays out the irresistible physical attraction Thornton feels for Margaret and to a lesser extent the interest she feels in him, alongside their explicit difference of opinion on issues of social organisation, articulated in dialogue appropriately condensed for the screen. That Thornton, though serious and committed, is not deadly earnest is nicely registered by his wry turning aside of Mr Hale's excessive insistence on the classics as providing a model of heroic simplicity (Not a bit! , exclaimed Mr Thornton laughing , N&S p. 85) by which to live. Margaret's ideas are independent, formed by her experience of the circumstances in which she finds herself, and progressively modified by
closer contact. For instance, in this scene Welch has Mr Hale reprimand Margaret for not shaking hands with Thornton, saying that she has given offence: a good instance of the adaptation's needing to spell out a point differently from the interiorized reaction provided in the closing paragraphs of the chapter (pp.85-86). Again when Margaret does shake hands, at the Thorntons' dinner, she comments as she offers her hand "See how I'm learning Milton ways", where the novel has Thornton think "He knew it was the first time their hands had met, though she was perfectly unconscious of the fact"(N & S, p.161)
Welch's script displays consistent responsiveness to and respect for Gaskell's text in these small and effective modifications. Indeed there is a kind of empathy evident throughout, though she does not always work so closely to her source.  (pp. 6-7)
Now let's see what Margaret Harris thinks of two of the most controversial additions Welch provided to her script respect to the original text by Gaskell: 1. the scene in the mill, that is , Margaret  first meeting with Thornton inside his factory and her seeing him violently beating one of his workers (see picture below) 2. the meeting between Margaret and Thornton at the Great Exhibition in London.

She admits:
...It would be easy to say, as some did, that the addition is gratuitous and needessly violent. I took it that Welch was wanting to show that Thornton is not to be taken at buttoned-up face value, that passion lurks beneath his well-controlled demeanour... Thornton's restraint and discipline are hard won, and this early scene helps explain the tensions brought about by his attraction to Margaret Hale. It is not a vulgarizing addition, though it is certainly discomfiting, demonstrating a significant aspect of the character that is intimately connected with his being a businessman and of the North. (pp. 7-8)
Harris also considers the Great Exhibition scenes  "an important addition" ,  especially because in them, the development of understanding in Thornton and Margaret can be grasped - and graphed- in their interventions. She tends to verbalize her responses more than he does. Action is sometimes necessary for him to demonstrate his sensitivity and thoughtfulness, as in the wallpapering of the Hales'rented house, his gifts of fruit for Mrs Hale, or his sentimental visit to Helstone. (p. 11)
And again, as for the Crystal Palace Exhibition scenes,  she says: It was an inspiration to add this sequence in the adaptation, invoking significant Victorian iconography. It provides an opportunity for the characters from the South to experience manufactures at first hand...It also provides an opportunity for Thornton of the North to take his place in the society of the South and to preach his gospel... It is notable that many contemporaries saw great social significance in the way the Exhibition brought the lower orders into contact with the upper and middle classes, all gazing in wonder at various exotica. (p.12)

After analysing the presence of the railway system in Gaskell's novel and its adaptation, as well as recognizing some Brontesque features in  Richard Armitage's brooding Thornton (she compares him to Mr Rochester), Harris focuses on the closing sequence, which she considers Welch's most radical and most disconcerting change. Finally,  she honestly adds, 
...it makes sense in terms of the adaptation but violated my sense of Victorian propriety... There is something brilliantly Victorian about hero and heroine almost heading off in opposite directions, and a particular appropriateness that they should meet on what is in a sense neutral ground. But some suspension of disbelief is required. Pedantic though it is to say so,  no gentleman would travel with his shirt open at the neck (any more than women would attend funerals, as happens in the series). And for so passionate an embrace in public ...
Such pedantry is misplaced. Both Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage deliver extraordinary performances, each character taken unawares by their chance encounter, each struggling to abandon the codes of self-control that constrain them and happily yielding. The performances altogether showcase yet again the depth of English character acting. (pp.13-14)
The only change she seems not to appreciate is the rewriting of the character of Mr Bell. There you find her strictest criticism.
But, going back to the improbable finale, would you renounce to those thrilling emotions  for a faithful, truthful, appropriately Victorian prudish embrace? Margaret Harris wouldn't. Me neither. What about you?









Part II about A View of North and South by David Harris will be on FLY HIGH! soon

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I know I'm in the minority here, but I must confess I would have appreciated a more faithful Victorian ending, even if that would have meant no "railway station scene" at all.
Thank you MG for reminding me of this very interesting essay, I'll try to read more of it, although the pictures are quite distracting ;)
xx K/V

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@K/V
I still wonder how we can possibly be friends ...I'll find an answer sooner or later ...

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@K/V
And, by the way, I forgot to say that, if you want to have a very Victorian ending, you just have to open Elizabeth Gaskell's novel. You'll fight your perfect, ideal ending there. This is Sandy Welch's finale, not appropriately Victorian , but so definitely good for a TV drama.The best ending EVER!

Anonymous said...

Since we've already discussed this subject, you know we must agree to disagree, nevertheless we keep our friendship safe :D
I usually can't stand adaptations which aren't true to the novels, but somehow in this case I can forgive Sandy Welch for her pardonable lapse ;-P
x K/V

Anonymous said...

OMG no"trailway station scene"at all? A clue-nooo!
I worship every second of that movie:):)
Joanna

Anonymous said...

I love both movie and book, each is wonderful in its way. But the train scene...was when I absolutely fell in love with RA.
Great post and pics, Thanks MG.
Aldebaran

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Joanna and Aldebaran
Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I'm really glad you agree with me. I think this scene is so well played that one could believe everything's possible, even in a Victorian railway station ;-)

Claudia said...

Unfortunately I can't make a comparison between the book and the adaptation since I haven't read the book till the end. I tried more than once but I don't enjoy it entirely because of my "linguistic obstacles". Do you think, Maria Grazia, will ever be a smart publisher who will give us an Italian edition? I'm still hoping :)
Ciao, Claudia

MARIA GRAZIA said...

I agree with you, Claudia. An Italian translation, a good one I hope, is something definitely required.

Becky said...

I have to admit I do like that final train sequence (just a softy, I guess). Claudia, you might try listening to the book (it's free at Librivox). I listen to classics all the time when I'm running, which I enjoy much more than listening to music.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Becky
Hello there! Good point about audiobooks but... if Claudia's got problems with the written text, maybe the audio can sound much more difficult to decipher. Let's see what she thinks of yiur suggestin... I personally love audiobooks!
Thanks for your contribution! MG

Claudia said...

Hi Becky, thanks for your suggestion! I'm afraid that listening to the audiobook would be even harder than reading the text, because I couldn't re-read the obscure passages. I easily understand lyrics when listening to pop music, but that's a different matter. However, if the audiobook can be downloaded for free, I'm definitely going to try. I didn't know it. Personally, I love audiobooks too, although they're not so popular in Italian publishing.

Thanks again to both of you!

phylly3 said...

I love both the book and the adaptation. I usually don't like films to stray too far from the written word. In this case I saw the miniseries first -- and although I knew that the last scene was not something that would have been acceptable to Victorians, I was too much in the moment to argue with myself! The book was a revelation and I like that ending as well, but it just wouldn't have been as interesting to watch.
Nice to read others opinions. N&S is endlessly fascinating! :)

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Phylly3
Same here. I can't choose between the two endings, but I'm sure one is perfect for a novel, the other one for the screen. Thanks, Phylly!

OneMoreLurker said...

I must admit I have only read the book once and watched many times the tv adaptation :P so train station scene for me please!

I'm not totally conscious of some victorian rule's so I wouldn't know a gentleman 'wouldn't travel with his shirt open at the neck' but maybe it states JT has let go some of his natural victorian restrains and so 'allowing' the more expressive train station scene...

Thanks for give us a resume of the essay, very interesting.

OML :)

Anonymous said...

I loved reading your commentary on this paper--now I have to read it for myself! I agree with the author regarding the additional scenes as well as the criticism of the changing of Mr. Bell, whom I loved in the book. I have never thought Mr. Thornton's beating of the worker gratuitous--in fact, I think it essential to show that Thornton is a "hard" master, but hard to a purpose, and it sets Margaret absolutely against him from the outset. I also love the railway kiss at the end--despite purists cry that the characters would never act that way, by the time they kiss they have transcended the workaday world, and are in a dreamlike place called love where kissing is very much allowed :)

JaneGS from Reading, Writing, Working, Playing

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Onemorelurker @JaneGS
Glad you could find a way to comment, I'm always happy when I get your interesting contributions.
Though I've found them extremely interesting, I'm sure we didn't need to read academic essays to be convinced this series is very good. I'm just glad I've found illustrious academic experts who agree with us and wanted to share!
P.S. Impossible not to be touched by the railway station scene, purist or not.

Laura said...

I read the book both in Spanish and English because I always think Im missing something when reading a translation over the original. Then, a few years ago, I discovered the BBC version. Im not usually very happy about screen adaptions, but this one got me from the very first snow-white hell. Reading both of the essays has let me notice some things I didnt before. So thanks for that. And good to have a a male point of view of the subject.
And as for the ending, I DO want a train station scene, perhaps the most disapointing thing about the book it was that cold end. We know its Victorian, but never happened that to me before with the Austen, the Brontes, etc.
I know Im partial because of my addiction to some TDHMO but really... The script was pretty faithful to the original, can we not let it be a little naughty just by the end so we can finally enjoy the best kiss scene ever?

Sorry for my speech and the misspeling - keyboard has its own mind these days.