North and South: Book vs Mini series Review

North and South is a rare thing - a classic and an easy read. That was what I told myself the first time I read it, after first seeing the mini-series as a teenager. This time round - an English literature degree and many more classics later - I stand by that opinion. I liked it even better this time.
North and South is a Victorian novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, originally written as a serial for Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words. It was serialised by the BBC in 2004 starring Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton, which brought it to the attention of a whole new adoring audience, including me. I expected the book to disappoint, but it didn't. The screenwriter, Sandy Welch (Emma 2009, Jane Eyre 2006) did a brilliant job of adapting it - and it actually sticks really close to the book.

The book has been called 'an industrial Pride and Prejudice', or 'Pride and Prejudice for socialists' and there's no denying Elizabeth Gaskell owes Jane Austen a lot. But it's a tried and tested formula isn't it? And Jane Austen basically stole the plot from Much Ado About Nothing anyway. I love Pride and Prejudice, but aside from some similarities in the structure of the romance, this book is a whole different animal. Right now I can't decide which I like more. This is definitely an easier read, but it's not as perfectly put together as Pride and Prejudice. It's not as funny and there's a lot more death, but then the characters feel so real and it gives you so much to think about... I'll stop comparing them now. North and South is the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman uprooted from her quiet, comfortable life as a vicar's daughter when a question of 'conscience' causes her father to leave the church and take work as a private tutor in the Northern industrial town of Milton. There her prejudices against tradespeople are challenged by Mill owner John Thornton, who has brought himself up from nothing, and as she begins to learn and love the North and it's people.

The romance between Thornton and Margaret is great. I like the way you get to see into his head so much, not just Margaret's. I love the contrast between the brusque way he is to others, not giving much away, while in his head he's so romantic and melodramatic, although he tries not to be. In the TV series I originally found Margaret a bit annoying, but watching it now I like her a lot, same in the book. She's very strong and independent and I love her principles and her spirit. The way she is with the friends she makes among the working people really won me over this time. The first time I read the book I was pretty much there for the romance, this time I was interested in all the politics of it too, the conversations she has with Mr. Thornton and with Higgins (who is my favourite character.) In a lot of classic fiction - and modern fiction too - poor people are always represented as victims or villains. But I love how in North and South, Nicolas and Bessy and Mary - and even incidental characters like Boucher and his wife and a kind neighbour who helps out during a tragic event - are all drawn in as complex a way as the middle class characters. They're not stereotypes. The only thing that did grate on me was the casual racism towards the Irish. Being of Irish descent myself it pulled me out of the story a couple of times. Oh and they're funny about the Catholics too.

The religion in fact, is the only thing that, to me, stops this book feeling entirely like a modern story. (Other than the occasionally melodramatic way the romantic talk is written 'oh Margaret! My Margaret!' etc.) Bessy is pretty much a totally different character in the book - all that talk about the book of revelations and wishing she was with God already. She's more fun in the mini-series. Margaret sometimes comes across as a bit pious too, as people nowadays don't take kindly to being preached to (if they ever did). And I did struggle to understand why she was so hung up on that lie she told the policeman (she could hardly have done otherwise with the Fred situation, surely God would understand that?)  But the religion did interest me this time around. I didn't feel preached to by the author at all, which I  appreciated, and I liked how 'Margaret the churchgoer, her father the dissenter, and Nicholas the infidel' as they're tongue-in-cheek described in one scene, all have their different levels of faith and they're all presented as valid.

In my opinion the mini series was very cleverly adapted. I liked that they livened Bessy up, and brought Mr. Bell in earlier. I liked the way they set up Fred's story-line, with Margaret explaining to Bessy and how they added an extra scene with Margaret and Mrs. Thornton near the end. The ending of the book wanted fixing (Dickens was apparently pushing Gaskell for a deadline and the final chapters of the book are a bit abrupt and rushed, which is SO ANNOYING) and the series also managed this well. Other than the slight historical inaccuracy of that scene on the platform, and poor Henry sitting in the train carriage (which is hilarious, but mean.)

I only have a few gripes. I thought that odd scene with Mr. Bell at Helstone was random and un-necessary (no spoilers, but you'll know the one I mean if you've seen the series.) And what was that first scene in the mill about???? I get that they wanted to give a more concrete reason for Margaret's dislike of Thornton (modern audiences being less likely to understand the prejudice against people 'in trade') but really. Did he need to kick the man  on the floor? Shouting, yes. Maybe a punch if you were being risky. But he didn't need to put that extra boot in. John Thornton would never do that. Also that proposal scene - so different in wording yet the same in theme to the scene in the book. Very cleverly written, and overall such a great scene to watch. But, what is with that line -  "First we talk of the colour of fruit, the next of love." I'm sorry, what??? WHEN DID YOU TALK ABOUT THE FRUIT???

Overall though, I thought the min-series could hardly have been bettered. I loved the casting particularly Mrs. Thornton (whose scenes with John always make me laugh, and are pretty much taken verbatim from the book) and Fanny (Jo Joyner makes so much of that role.) Also shout out to the guy who plays the policeman - he's since found fame in Game of Thrones, but everytime I watch that episode I think 'what a great actor.' You can literally see everything that's going through his mind. Obviously I love Brendan Coyle's Higgins (he went on to be typecast in Larkrise and Downton, but this is the best of those roles) Margaret is great and Richard Armitage, despite being the wrong physical type for Thornton... well he's just lovely, isn't he?

Basically, I love both the series and the book. After this re-read (which for some reason I found really emotional and involving this time - and it also made me laugh more) I think the book is my favourite of the two. But the series is maybe the place to start (and is currently on Netflix!). Both highly recommended.


  1. You make me want to re-read or re-watch this and I just rewatched this with my husband earlier this year!
    My biggest peeve with the miniseries is that opening scene with Thornton in the mill as you said. Absolutely unnecessary. I watched the miniseries first so that was the image I had of Mr. Thornton and it was so hard to like him again. Thankfully I read the book and came to love him.

    1. Aw, other than that one Mill scene he's so loveable :) I saw the series first too, so I still picture all the characters to look the way they do on screen - and I just try to ignore that scene!

  2. I'm ashamed to say I still haven't read this one and I really want to! I feel like Elizabeth Gaskell has the potential to be a favourite author, I just need to read her books. I do love this mini-series, though. I can't believe it's 14 years old! Richard Armitage is wonderful as Thornton and it's a shame I've only ever seen Daniela Denby-Ashe in this and My Family - she's so good in this role! So funny considering she originally auditioned for Fanny, but as you said Jo Joyner is wonderful in that role.

    I think Mrs. Thornton might be my favourite character, to be honest. I'm originally from the north, so to see a story like this that treated northerners as more than stereotypes was so refreshing and Mrs. Thornton is such a badass. I love that Thornton is essentially the man that he is because he has an amazing mother.

    Great post! Thanks for reminding me that I really need to read some Gaskell.

    1. Thanks :D I love Mrs. Thornton too although she would be the mother in law from hell! I really want to read some more Gaskell as well, I loved the TV series of Cranford so that's on my list. Can't believe it's fourteen years since North and South was on TV, that makes me feel so old :(


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