Elizabeth Gaskell's nineteenth century novel, North & South, is a passionate tale of love across the social divide of the agrarian south and the industrial north of mid-nineteenth century England. It is a book which tells a great love story while it brings the reader into the social context of the Industrial Revolution and how the impact of suffering and class struggle upon many ordinary people. The BBC produced, in 2004, a four-part mini-series based on the novel, also called North & South. It stars Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe, both of whom are superb British dramatists.
Margaret Hale (Denby-Ashe) is the daughter of a middle-class English parson who looses his faith and can no longer follow the Prayer Book with confidence. Hale's dad decides to leave the ministry and relocate to northern England to take up teaching. Margaret's life is so fundamentally changed that she is forced to begin a whole new life in Milton (a fictitious town which is meant to be the city of Manchester). Milton is a mill town and the whole society is in the throes of the Industrial Revolution of the 1850s. Margaret is shocked by her new surroundings and the gruffness of the Milton people. She reserves her greatest contempt for the mill owner, especially a wealthy man named John Thornton (Armitage). Thornton is the outgoing owner of a cotton mill and a "self-made" man of the world. Thornton becomes a pupil of Margaret's dad but Margaret finds him vulgar and uneducated. She makes her disdain known to him, especially when he mistakenly proposes marriage.
Eventually Margaret changes her mind about the mill workers by getting to know them personally. She takes up their cause and fights against their poverty and disease. The problem is simple: "How will she relate to the mill owners, whom she despises, especially when she begins to change her mind about John Thornton?" The story is packed with human passion, relational tension and class warfare. And it ends up being a great love story in the process.
I sat down to watch the first episode earlier this week and expected to watch one per night. At midnight I finished watching the last of the four episodes. Honestly, this was one of the most engaging period dramatizations I have seen in a long time. I loved it. I highly recommend that you see it, especially if you want to see how love can transcend class and social differences and how people can learn to care for people that they once despised. There are four 57 minute episodes in the series and there is an interview with Richard Armitage included, as well as some deleted scenes. It is a great visual feast.