04/06/2011

AN ACADEMIC VIEW OF BBC NORTH AND SOUTH - PART II

This is my second post in this series. After sharing with you the most interesting points in Margaret Harris's Taking Bearings: Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South Televised in a previous post, I'm now going to do the same with another essay.  The author is Dr David Kelly , he is Senior Lecturer at Sydney University, Department of English and  wrote "A View of North and South" in 2006.  
The opening pages are an interesting reflection on the theme: has the mini-series become the novel of today? 
"The home entertainment revolution has had a profound effect not only on our viewing but, perhaps surprisingly, on our reading habits. ...No doubt part of the attractions of the mini series for readers is that it has certain affinities with the novel - especially the classic realist novel - which give it  a number  of advantages over the feature film when it comes to the adaptation of literary classics... the television series leaves the viewer with a sense of aesthetic complexity and completion". (pp. 1 - 3) These and other thoughts on the different approaches to a classic either  of a feature film or of a long-running TV series were prompted by Dr Kelly's watching North and South (but not having read North and South!)


Once he delves into the analysis of the filmic text, Dr Kelly states:

"While Elizabeth Gaskell wrote one of the mst famous of all "Condition of England" novels, at first glance  North and South appears on the small screen as a period romance. (...) The title alone seems enough to alert the viewer to the kind of story it will unfold: like pride and prejudice, or sense and sensibility, we might expect north and south to be attributes embodied in the lead characters as impediments to the romance plot. (...) Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) is handsome indeed and bears a likeness to Lydia in the celebrated BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (1995), while charismatic Thornton (Richard Armitage) is dangerously good looking and bears a considerable likeness to Colin Firth's Darcy in the same series, whom he outscowls, which is no mean feat".

But soon after this misleading hint to an easily predictable P&P-like plot, Dr Kelly starts demonstrating how different and more complicated than that the story narrated in the series is:
- soon we realize there is a serious motive for the Hales' forced removal other than Margaret's fleeing an unwanted suitor (Harry Lennox)
- with its emphasis on the gazing eye, the text frequently alerts us to perspective, the partiality of one's own view, and the play of the image in the  eye of the beholder (the thematic device of the partial view in all senses is carefully crafted into the texture of the film itself)
So little by little, our scope enlarges to a broader view following Margaret slow discovery of the new shocking reality she has to cope with in Milton and we catch a glimpse of her maturing personality at the end of the first episode :"I believe I have seen hell -it's white. It's snow white". At this point , we are no longer sure we are in front of a traditional period romance and start expecting something greater:
"It is not what it appears" says Margaret to Thornton when he calls on her during her brother's furtive stay in England, and indeed it is not. Against this background of the known and the unknown, the actual and the apparent, the narrative unfolds a romance plot inextricably implicated in and  complicated by the politics of industrial relations and the clash of views between masters and workers and north and south. (...) Margaret comes to achieve a mature understanding of social conditions in Milton and through this, a true understanding of Thornton's motives and actions ... More than this she seems to come to an understanding of something about human life, effort, relations, and aspirations which the south could never have provided" (p.11)
Then Dr Kelly comes to some interesting literary connections analysis the symbolical presence of the snow:


The snow that falls on Milton in th last episode recalls the snow white hell of Margaret's earlier horrified response to the cotton factory, but which now generalizes that earlier imagery of the factory fluff and metaphorically reveals a truth of the human condition. The snow falls on all alike, as it does in Joyce's "The Dead" (Dubliners, 1914), where the symbol of snow, the struggle of the factory floor is revealed as not unlike the struggle of existence, but this is a truth that remains hidden to the South and its sunny radiance. (...) 'You mustn't leave Milton for the South', Margaret will tell Higgins, 'you could not bear the dulness of life'. (p.12)

So he concludes :
"...there is much to provoke and question our own ideas on the morality of wealth, the exploitative processes of industry, the place of the social ideal, and the plight of the wretched of the earth. The romance does not sentimentalize these themes; rather, in its difficulties, disappointments, and hesitant aspirations, it metaphorizes the problematic reconciliation of practical imperative and moral idea. It's a strange courtship which flowers only at the last moment... The gaze and the handshake, insistent motifs throughout, become its means of achievement, just as they might be its cause of frustration when the gaze is unobservant and the offered hand is ungrasped through custom and prejudice. The end and the eye, and through them the heart - these are the means of connections in a divide society: to look and to know, to reach and to grasp, to agree and to connect. 'Only connect'."  (p.13)

I love several things in this analysis by Dr Kelly: 1. at last a male point of view on this period series and not a scornful dismissal at all 2. I love the literary connections (i.e. with Joyce's The Dead and E. M . Forster "Only connect") 3.  I love  how he analyses the motifs and the imagery: the snow/cotton fluff , the gaze and the handshake, the device of the partial view. Thanks a lot, Dr Kelly. It's been very interesting to see North and South from your impartial, literary trained eyes.

13 comments:

bccmee said...

I've always been intrigued by customs and perceptions. After spending a great deal of time in villages in a small Central American country where everybody knew everyone else, upon returning home, which was in Seattle at the time, I felt reverse culture shock.

I imagine this was how Margaret felt when she returned to "proper" London. Margaret had one world-view until she experienced another way of life.

PoliCBA said...

Very interesting analysis. And Dr. Kelly hasn't even read the novel, what makes it more astonishing. Maybe the mini-series has become the novel of today indeed. Such a great mini-series at all (especially because of a certain actor, right?).

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@bccmee
Margaret does experience a hard series of shocks and losses once in Milton. I've always felt life gives her very harsh lessons in order to make her grow and improve. But she is generously rewarded in the end, isn't she?
It seems your personal story helps you sympathize with Margaret a lot. That always happened to me while reading the book. While when I first saw the series (ignoring who the actor playing the lead was and even not finding him so physically attractive), I found myself siding with Thornton. Watching the final scene I was so moved because I was feeling HIS feeling. Strange enough. I’ll stop here or I’ll risk to write a piece longer than Dr Kelly’s. And I must have said this story a few times already, haven’t I? ;-)
@PoliCBA
Well, I think RA's performance of Thornton has added great charm to this series.Though he denies that, it was he who provoked the BBC chat forum collapse because of the flood of hits and comments. His performance was remarkably stunning. He was perfect as brooding John Thornton.
Of course, for many of us watching N&S has been the start of a very special journey, thanks to which we've learnt a lot, met wonderful enthusiastic people, been lit up by great emotions and gratified by sharing our admiration as well as sympathy, friendship and love.

Thanks a lot to both of you for your contributions. Have a very special weekend!

Summer said...

I find Dr. Kelly's analysis very interesting and profound. I also find it fascinating because it's the point of view of a man and an scholar. It's uncommon for a man to praise a Costume Drama series, in my personal experience I haven't found a man interested in watching one, they think of them as a chickflick thing.
I think the novel and this wonderful series adaptation, stand on their own as the very best in their genre.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Summer
You are right. It is quite uncommon to have a male point of view on costume drama and that made this essay very special to me too.
Thanks for dropping by and commenting. MG

phylly3 said...

I am fascinated and thrilled with your guest's very literary (and male) point of view. It validates the very reasons I love this drama so well, because it is so deep and layered and so much about the human condition at a certain point in history, but that is still very relevant today.
At the same time as I agree with his praise of this miniseries, I suspect he is also demeaning Pride and Prejudice as being somewhat more shallow than N&S. I don't think that is quite fair, because (as we know) P&P is quite deep, but in a much more personal way. It is concerned only with a certain strata of society and delves deeply into family relationships within that microcosm. Also it is a bit of a parody, and humour is certainly something that N&S is lacking.
Humour is almost always viewed by "critics" as something less important than drama.
Anyway, this is just my way of saying I love both productions and both books. I see their similarities and their diffences but I don't necessarily think one is "better" than the other.
Thanks for this this post MG. I really enjoyed reading it!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Phylly 3
You know how much I love Austen too. I totally agree with your points. The two novels are very different, anyway they are often compared. The P&P reverse plot line is just one tenth of what you find reading N&S. P&P is a masterpiece in its genre, N&S is a wonderful Victorian novel so many still have to discover. We are still waiting for a translation here in Italy.
Thanks for your comment, P.!

lunarossa said...

Hi MG, I'm sorry to admit that after watching and then reading N&S, P&P did not seem as good to me any more. Although there shouldn't be a comparison between the two novels, because they are very different, N&S just took away the pleasure of reading P&P for me. I suppose this is just my personal reaction but it made me think deeper. I think I like N&S more because there is more social engagement, I find the characters more sympathetic and deeper and all in all more engaging. Ciao. A. (couldn't post from Explorer on blogger, but I had to use Firefox!!!!)

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@lunarossa
It seems Firefox is the one that doesn't create troubles at leaving comments here. Glad you found a way to leave your opinion on this post. I agree with you, I like N&S more than P&P and Thornton more than Darcy. And of course, this does not mean I don't love Austen's work. I do. A lot!
Thanks, A.
Hugs
MG

maribea said...

Hi MG I will try again. Let's see if can add my post to share with you my love for N&S.
Cheers
mariabeatrice

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@maribea
Wow! You've made it. So, you see? It's a question of browser. You can't log in with Explorer. Strange enough, but that was the problem. Have a nice evening. MG

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your interesting analysis. It certainly gave me a new perspective on the BBC production of North & South.

Incidentally, your link to Dr. David Kelly's 2006 article takes me to the Margaret Harris' paper.

sparkhouse said...

This was very illuminating....to think I have watched N&S numerous times and never connected things such as "The gaze and the handshake, insistent motifs throughout, become its means of achievement". Very interesting stuff. Thanks.