Monday, September 10, 2018

North and South

A couple of months ago a friend loaned me her DVD box set of the BBC drama North and South. It's been more than two decades since I read the book in high school, and all I remember is that it was bleak and depressing, and that I had to write an exam on it. So I'll admit, I left the DVDs sitting for ages before I finally thought I should get it over with and watch them so I could give them back to their rightful owner. I am extremely grateful to that friend for making me watch North and South. (Thanks, Andrea!)

The advantage of two decades having passed is that I no longer felt like I needed to sit an exam at the end of it, and the story felt completely new. For the life of me, I couldn't remember how the story was going to end!

At seventeen I didn't appreciate Elizabeth Gaskell's artistry. Now, as an author and writing teacher, I finally understand the skill that went into creating this book (and yes, maybe the BBC, Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage had a lot to do with bringing it to life for me too).

When I teach writing, I teach that character growth and change are the core of every story; that the transformation of the characters is what hooks readers. The skill of this novel is that it isn't only the main character who experiences a transformation, but rather three central characters: Margaret Hale, John Thornton and Nicholas Higgins. These three characters are inter-twined, each affecting the other and bringing about change in one other.

When I read this book in high school, I was taught that it was a 'social novel', all about the industrial revolution, class, and a society in change. Even though I went to an all girls high school, no one thought to mention that it was, first and foremost, a Romance. And no one made a point of the fact that Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her book about a strong female main character long before it was fashionable, or even acceptable. Maybe that was a good thing; maybe our teachers wanted us to think that it was quite usual for women to be the central characters in good literary fiction, that women had just as much right to respect in literary works as men.

I'm not so naive now. I know that even today, in the 21st century, books with female protagonists are dismissed as less important than those featuring men. And any book even remotely tainted with the label of Romance is seen as inferior and somehow unliterary and insignificant.

How anyone can believe this, when authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell have been creating books like this for more than a hundred years, is beyond me. North and South is primarily a love story. But it's also social and political commentary, with a hefty side dose of philosophy. It's deep and tragic and moving and thought-provoking. It is the proof that there is nothing inconsequential about Romance, and that women absolutely deserve their place on the literary stage.

Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and the ultimate brooding hero, John Thornton (Richard Armitage)

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