Last week I detailed my Classic Crushes: who from classic literature I find irresistible. Pirate Penguin told me about one of her crushes that, for her, trumps Austen's leading men: Mr Thornton from Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. She urged me to track down the BBC adaptation, and I'm ever so glad I did.
The title refers to the industrial north and wealthy south of England. Margaret Hale, the heroine, moves with her family from the south to the fictional town of Milton, modeled in Manchester, after her father, a minister, disagrees with an edict from the church. She hates the smoke and close confines of the city, and the cruelness of the masters towards their workers. One such master is Mr Thornton, played by Richard Armitage. If Armitage, Colin Firth (as Austen's Mr Darcy) and Timothy Dalton (as Bronte's Mr Rochester, 1970s adaptation) were pitted against each other in a scowling competition, it's difficult to say who would come up trumps. Armitage's severe nose gives him an advantage, but up against Firth's arrogant sneer and Dalton's cold blue gaze and shock of black hair, I don't know who to put my money on!
The beauty of a good scowler is that when they actually smile, it's like the sun coming out and you swoon all over again.
Like Rochester and Darcy, Thornton has his soft and lovable side, and is of course improved and redeemed by the strong-willed heroine. It takes a woman, of course, to write a man we will all fall so violently in love with. Apparently Byron does it quite well too, as these sorts of men are called "Byronic", but I'm yet to read any of his work.
North and South has a great deal more conscience and social awareness than most nineteenth-century novels I have read/watched BBC adaptations of. The central theme is the romance between Hale and Thornton, but there's also a great deal about working conditions at the time and the misery that the industrial revolution caused for the working classes. There are some brilliant shots of the inside of the cotton mill, the air thick with snowflake-like cotton that all the workers, including young children, breathe in on a daily basis for long hours.
I knew I'd seen Armitage in something recently. He played the vicar's dishy love interest on The Vicar of Dibley several years ago. Too freaking cute.
North and South is one of the best costume dramas I have watched. It's perfectly cast, has beautiful cinematography and one of the most heart-wrenching moments I've seen. Highlight for spoiler: the moment in episode four when Margaret departs Milton for London, and Thornton is looking for any sign that she loves him and whispers, "Look back at me" as her carriage pulls away. Gah! Tears and hand-wringing.
Thanks again to Pirate Penguin for turning my attention to North and South! My appetite for more costume dramas is thoroughly whetted. Are there any more I should know about?