Faith and Fearlessness is a new, stand-alone sequel to Elizabeth Gaskells masterpiece, North and South, one of my best favourite novels ever. Ive read a few sequels and rewrites before, but when a review copy of Faith and Fearlessness was offered to me, I was immediately triggered by its premise, which made it different from the ones I had read which took the narration over where Mrs Gaskell interrupted it or proposed a variation to the original plot. Actually, at first, that same premise had me both puzzled and curious to discover more. Why puzzled? The book blurb immediately revealed that John Thornton, the Victorian mill owner protagonist of Gaskells novel, is left a broken man after the death of his wife Margaret and a new love interest is on his horizon. Now, that took me a while to digest, but when I started reading the book and I found myself back to Manchester (Milton in North and South), years  had  passed from Mrs Gaskells lovely ending and everything sounded and looked plausible thanks to M.G. Thomass writing style, which was captivating and fast-paced.
Ready to discover more about Faith and Fearlessness? Here are my questions to the author and her answers. If you have more questions for her, please leave them in the comment section.

See the book trailer!

Hello and thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, M.G. Welcome to FLY HIGH!

Well, thank you Maria Grazia for investing the time to read my novel and interview me.

My pleasure! This is my first question: why a sequel to North and South?

About 10 years ago I wrote a 14-page storyline for a historical novel. It disappeared into a bottom drawer because I was waiting for the right time to start writing it. Then, in 2013, when I ran into my former advertising boss who at 60 still dreamed about writing a novel (but actually never did) I understood that the time would never be right to write my novel. I had just moved back to Amsterdam from New Zealand and I was starting up a new business. Absolutely the worst possible time to take on another massive project such as writing a novel! But I dreaded ending up like my former boss, regretting to have never taken the time (or rather, muster the courage) to actually write a novel. And so, in the middle of the chaos of moving into my new apartment and working on my online business, I took my 14-page manuscript from the bottom drawer and started to write only to slip into writers block even before I had written the first page! I tried to write in English, then I tried Dutch, but it was hopeless. I had so carefully plotted the whole story that the process of actually writing it bored me from the very first words. For a few days I stumbled around the house, totally disillusioned. Gone was my dream of becoming a novelist, and I laughed bitterly at myself how deluded I had been. Until suddenly I became aware that, ever since I had watched North and South, I had subconsciously be wondering about Mr Thornton and what would have happened to him after marrying Margaret Hale. Somehow this issue had been playing in the back of my mind for more than two years. I had ordered North and South like Amazon had suggested when I ordered Sandy Welchs version of Jane Eyre, my all-time favourite book. I had never heard of the novel North and South, I had never even heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, even though I had studied English for two years. But after watching North and South, I had fallen in love with the story. And so, on a very stormy Friday, 6 December 2013, I sat at my desk, chucked my precious 14-page manuscript back in the bottom drawer, and started what would become Faith and Fearlessness, my sequel to Elizabeth Gaskells North and South. And now, after five years, I have completed my first historical novel.

Do you agree with Mrs Gaskell when she considered herself unsatisfied with the end of North and South? 

To be honest, in my opinion North and South is not one of Gaskells strongest novels. Its very slow; there are huge lapses of time where Margaret doesn't see Thornton, causing tension to slip away; the whole Frederick-drama is clumsy as it remains an isolated story with hardly any impact on the main storyline; and the end is too abrupt. However, Gaskells Wives and Daughters is a wonderfully written story and I think you can see that she by then had fully mastered the art of writing. Both her style as well as storytelling skills are of true literary quality in that later novel. But lets not forget that North and South was written and published in episodes. That is a complete nightmare to a writer, because there is no going back and restructure or rewrite. Even if Gaskell had discovered a flaw in the story or a storyline that wasnt working, she had to keep going. Dickens had forced her to stick to 20 episodes while Gaskells manuscript was a 22-episode series. She had to reduce her story and I think that is why the end is so sudden.

What did you especially like in Mrs Gaskells novel?

I love the contrast between Margaret, still living the old values of the south, and Thornton who is a modern entrepreneur and does everything to keep his mills going in an incredibly tough market. I appreciate both their points of view. I am a huge fan of the industrial era, it must have been so exciting to have all these new inventions and clever machines doing the heavy work. I also understand the dark consequences, such as extreme pollution, horribly dirty and crowded cities, and employees being worked to death just for profits sake. I think its courageous that Gaskell addressed these issues so openly which must have raised eyebrows within her own upperclass circle.

I wrote a lot about North and South here at FLY HIGH!, both about the book and about the BBC adaptation of it. What or how much did you take from each of them?

I read the book five times and watched the series three times. I wanted to write a believable sequence, using the style of 19th century female writers and continuing with as many details as possible from Gaskells novel. So I used most of the characters except Margaret, and I gave Mary Higgins (the second daughter of Nicholas Higgins) an important role. Also, I turned Mr Thornton, whose character in Gaskells novel is not much more than a rough sketch, into a three-dimensional man with a rich but troubled inner life. I stuck with the location, Manchester, where Mr Thornton still runs Marlborough Mills. In my novel youll also find the constant tension between masters and workers, which, as in Gaskells novel, erupts into a terrible riot. From the TV series I stole the heartbreaking scene where Margaret leaves Thornton on a snowy day and he longs for her to look back at him. Like many North and South fans I absolutely loved the melancholy of that beautiful scene and I brought it back in my own novel.

Now I must ask you about something that has a special place in my heart, very close to Gaskells novel. What do you think of the 2004 TV adaptation of the novel?

It depends when I watch it. The first time I was blown away. Then I read the novel, and after that watched the series again, which I then found disappointing as it seemed nothing more than a summary of the novel. A few years later, while reading the novel more or less continuously, I watched the series again and loved it again, now seeing how cleverly Sandy Welch had translated the story into a compelling screen play. On top of that, all the leading roles are played by incredibly good actors who went on to play in award-winning series and movies, and they take Gaskells story to a whole new level. Its the same with Welchs Jane Eyre: the story is beautiful, but the casting of her version is absolutely the best of all the versions out there. Since then I have watched all series written by Sandy Welch and she became a true hero  to me.

Lets talk about your decision of starting the story after 3 years and with Thornton a widower. Why? As I said in the introduction your decision puzzled me and I guess itll be the same for many other fans.

Ive tried to read some sequels to famous novels, and I never got past the first page. A story should provide drama to keep the reader intrigued, but whats the drama in the life of a happily married couple? Still, fans who try their hand at writing a sequel, like to focus on the honeymoon and lots of lovemaking, and then on to married life, which, from a storytelling perspective, offers no drama. As a professional writer I must think of my audience: how can I draw them into my story so that they will continue to read? In order to capture my readers attention right away, I started with the worst possible scenario for Thornton: he has lost his beloved Margaret and is left a broken man. And that is where the reader is whisked into a series of dramatic events that challenge Thorntons strengths to the max and nearly kill him. The story hooks the reader from the very first page and doesnt let go until the final page. But North and South fans dont have to fear that they wont get their married life fix. But instead of telling the story chronologically, which is not very exciting to write or read, I have weaved a lot of backstory into the storyline, so that the reader, bit by bit, finds out about Thornton and Margarets limited time together and what happened to them when they were married. The reader has to piece that history together which makes for interesting reading.

Can you explain to our readers your choice of Faith and Fearlessness for the title?

I should explain a bit about my background when it comes to the title of my novel. Im born in The Netherlands but Im of Dutch-Sardinian descent. I graduated in Advertising Copywriting and after that worked in agencies in Amsterdam for a few years. Then I started my own agency. Working for my own clients was great but also very stressful, and for ten years I was struggling with my health to the point of suffering from autoimmune disorders and serious depression. In 2006 I quit my agency. I simply had to change myself and create a healthier life. I was very fortunate to be introduced to mindfulness and never looked back. I wrote two bestselling and internationally published books on mindfulness and I now run both a Dutch and English website on mindfulness, helping people around the world to create a stress-free, fulfilling life. Naturally, I wanted to incorporate mindfulness into my novel since it saved my life. Faith is one of the most powerful principles of the mindfulness philosophy and it helped me conquer the many fears I suffered from. Faith is so magical because with faith you dont have fear you simply trust that things will be alright. In my novel I show how subconscious fear leads to unforgiving power games, ruthless suppression and unnecessary suffering, while faith leads to respect, cooperation and contentment. So thats the mindfulness side of the title. My other great passion in life, the love for Victorian novels, is reflected in the rhythm of the title. With the Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice rhythm I honour my literary heroines of the 19th century.

You did a lot of research for the book. Where did you start from? What did you most research about?

From when I started to write my novel, I began to exclusively read 19th century novels by Gaskell, the Brontë sisters, Austen, Dickens and many more. I wanted to understand the writing style and the words which were then commonly used. I also read many books on the Victorian era, on the industrialisation of England, on capitalism and socialism. Then I travelled to London, Manchester, Burnley and York, visiting museums and libraries to get a complete picture of life in the 19th century. Ive studied each and every object in those museums, from embroidered dresses and wooden bobbins to the massive unions banners and the teacups that were used in  the different classes of historical trains. I visited the Mill Textile Museum in Burnley where many scenes of the North and South series were shot, to fully understand the process of cleaning, spinning and weaving the raw cotton and to experience the atmosphere (and the incredible noise) in such a huge factory when the looms were working at full speed. I interviewed former mill workers and I found some very rare books on 19th century life in the cotton mills, strikes and violent riots. Back home I watched numerous TV documentaries on the Victorian era and its irreversible impact on societys social fabric. I also conducted a fair amount of research into the John Lewis business model, in which all employees are shareholders and work in a strictly democratic model. In five years I learned so much about the 19th century, it was a great bonus to writing the novel.

Tell us about Helen Grant, your new heroine. How different is she from Margaret Hale?

Helen is older than Margaret, and also has a lot more life experience due to her totally different background. Where Margaret enjoyed a rather protected upbringing, Helen grew up in savage New Zealand and, upon returning to England, had to carve out a new existence without any friends. But Helen manages to build up a very successful printing and publishing company and is a self-made woman, while Margaret is living with her parents and doesnt have to work. Due to her young age, Margaret is quite proud which causes friction with Mr Thornton who had his fair share of hardship and is a man of the world. But Helen and Margaret also have things in common. Just like Margaret, Helen clashes with Thornton since she runs her company in an unorthodox way and criticises the contempt with which most mill masters treat their workers. Both Margaret and Helen feel strongly for the working class and become friends with one of Nicholas Higgins daughters. And both Margaret and Helen have a good heart and are loved and respected by the people in their lives.

What do you think of Mr Thornton as a literary hero?

Gaskells Thornton to me is quite a shallow character, we dont really get to know his motivations and inner feelings and why he falls in love with Margaret. In the novel I feel that he is merely an instrument that allows for Margarets character to fully develop and grow, rather than being a three dimensional character in his own right. What I admire about Armitages interpretation of the Thornton character is that he breathed life into Gaskells sketchy Thornton and made him a man of flesh and blood with a rich inner life. That inspired me to take Thornton as the lead to tell my story. Thanks to Armitage I was intrigued by Thornton and wanted to know how his life after Margaret would unfold. What I love about Thornton is that in his heart he is a good man, although he is also stubborn and proud. He is hardworking, generous, caring, considerate, and he believes in justice and fair play. Most importantly, he has integrity which to me is the greatest of all our human characteristics. Armitage gave Thornton depth and intelligence, which are far more powerful than good looks. I think that is why the TV series was such a hit and why we all came to love Mr Thornton.

Your novel is populated with new characters interacting with the original ones. How did you work on their characterisation?

It just came naturally. Honestly, no strategy here :-) The story developed while I was working on it and characters simply introduced themselves to me. I often felt I was just an instrument to this story rather than being its creator, because it seemed it was already there, and only needed me to find its physical shape in the form of words and sentences. It was a magical experience. I cant explain it any other way.

I know this is quite a provocation, but I challenge you to answer: what does your sequel to North and South offer that other sequels dont?

Good old-fashioned craftsmanship. Ive always been a writer: an advertising copywriter, a journalist, a content creator and an author. I have more than 30 years of professional writing experience and I have always earned my money with writing. Most sequels to famous books are written by fans and they are not trained, professional, traditionally published authors. They usually dont have what I have: the writing and storytelling skills, the knowledge of writing for a target audience, and the passion and patience to spend years on researching their subject. Maybe to other fans these books are fun to read, but I cant get through them because I always look at any copy with a professional eye. Long before I came across North and South, I wanted to write a compelling novel in the 19th century literary tradition. When the story of Faith and Fearlessness presented itself to me, ready to be written, I knew I was not going to pen down some personal fantasy about one of my favourite TV series :-) Instead I would write the historical novel that had lived in me for so many years. North and South acted as the trigger, but from then on I just wrote a fast-paced, action-packed, heartbreaking and ultimately heartwarming story for a wider audience that I, as an avid reader of Victorian literature, would love to lose myself in.

Whats next for you, M. G. ? Are you working on a new book?

Ive been trying out some stuff, yes! Actually, I want to write another sequel to Faith and Fearlessness. It will take Helen and Mr Thornton to wild New Zealand, where life is extremely tough due to Maori wars, draughts, floods and the hopelessly impenetrable terrain. In 2016 I moved back to New Zealand and in the past year I have read a good many books on New Zealands relatively young history on the struggles of the first missionaries and settlers who arrived here in the early 1820s, Maori culture, and their terribly violent tribal wars which were a constant threat to the fragile existence of the colonists. My favourite movie is Jane Campions The Piano, and after the achievement of writing Faith and Fearlessness I now feel I can write another gripping story set in this beautifully rugged country. Since Mr Thornton and Helen are so dear to my heart, I want to bring them here and see if theyre strong enough to cope.

Thats all for now. Thanks for being my guest and enjoy the winter season in New Zealand, M.G!

Thank you Maria Grazia for your great and in-depth questions. The Kiwi winter so far hasn't been bad at all, lots of sunny days!

About the Author

M. G. Thomas studied English, graduated in Advertising Copywriting and for ten years owned an advertising agency while producing ad campaigns and feature articles for major magazines and newspapers. Living in New Zealand, M. G. Thomas is now a successful internet entrepreneur, devoted teacher of down-to-earth mindfulness and an internationally published author of four non-fiction books.

Book Blurb

What if a man loses all then finds a love that cannot be?  Faith and Fearlessness sweeps the reader back to the Victorian era where Manchester mill master John Thornton is left a broken man after the death of his wife Margaret. Faced with the threat of a violent strike which will throw him into bankruptcy, he reluctantly agrees to a marriage of convenience to safeguard the future of his mills. Only when he meets the radiant Helen Grant and her excitingly unorthodox world views, Thorntons crushed heart slowly starts to mend. Desperate to hold on to this forbidden love, he chooses to hide his engagement from Helen. But then Thornton discovers that Helen has been concealing a devastating truth of her own
Faith and Fearlessness by M. G. Thomas is the long-awaited, stand-alone sequel to Elizabeth Gaskells masterpiece North and South. Set against a background of ruthless corruption, foul injustice and the unforgiving prejudices of Victorian society, Faith and Fearlessness is a pulsating story which will leave lovers of historical fiction yearning for more. 

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