Friday, February 25, 2011

Looking Beyond "NORTH AND SOUTH"


In the past year, I have become increasingly obsessed with costume dramas based upon British literature. My obsession has not only focused upon movies and miniseries based on the many movie and television adaptations, but also on various British novels. Ranked near the top of the list of my favorite stories is the 2004 BBC miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”.

Adapted by Sandy Welch from Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, ”NORTH AND SOUTH” told the story of a former clergyman’s daughter named Margaret Hale, who follows her uprooted parents to the Northern city of Milton; and John Thornton, a cotton mill owner who ends up befriending Margaret’s father and falling in love with her. Anyone familiar with Gaskell’s novel and the four-part miniseries would know that both Margaret and John endured a series of misunderstandings, quarrels, their relatives, external crises, and a marriage proposal gone wrong before they end up happily engaged. Yet, the question remains . . . what happened to the couple following the wedding? Did they end up ”happily ever after”?

Lately, I have become aware of a growing number of sequels based upon Jane Austen’s novels. This should not be surprising, considering the obsession that has surrounded the late 18th/early 19th century author for the past fifteen years. Most of these sequels tend to be follow-ups to the novelist’s most famous work, ”Pride and Prejudice”. I have never experienced any inclination to read any of these sequels in the past. And if I must be honest, any inclination remains dormant within me. But in the wake of becoming a fan of the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries, I found myself wondering if any writers or fans have ever considered writing a sequel to Gaskell’s novel.

I have come across some fan fiction based upon the novel. But most of these stories tend to focus solely on Margaret and John’s romance. Yes, I realize that it was the story’s romance – and especially Richard Armitage’s image as John Thornton – that made the miniseries become so popular with television viewers during the past 6 years or so. But for me and a good number of other fans, ”NORTH AND SOUTH” was more than just about the romance and leading actor. The social upheavals and culture clashes that permeated the story allowed an interesting glimpse into mid-Victorian English society and the differences in class and region. If someone ever decided to continue Margaret and John Thornton’s story, how would he or she do it? Would that writer merely focus upon the romance or follow Gaskell’s example by continuing the exploration of Victorian society? I personally believe that to write an effective sequel to ”North and South”, a writer would have to consider the following:

*the strong wills and temper of the two protagonists
*the protagonists’ family members
*the protagonists’ friendship with Nicholas Higgins and the union movement
*historical backdrop of the cotton trade in mid 19th century

Below is a more in-depth look into these topics:

Margaret Hale and John Thornton Relationship

I am certain that many fans of Gaskell’s novel and the 2004 miniseries sighed with pleasure . . . and relief when Margaret Hale and John Thornton finally acknowledged their love for each other by the end of the story. But one has to consider certain facts. One, love alone cannot always sustain a successful relationship. Two, despite the improvement in their respective characters, the cores of Margaret and John’s personalities will remain constant. One should anticipate future storms in the Hale-Thornton marriage.

Family Relations

Since the novel and the miniseries ended with Margaret and John’s engagement, fans can assume that the pair will eventually become husband and wife. Which means that they will have to deal with their respective in-laws.

One would be inclined to assume that John would not have to deal with in-laws on a daily basis, considering that Margaret’s parents were dead, her cousins living in London and her brother Frederick living in Spain. Margaret, on the other hand, will have two in-laws to deal with – John’s younger sister, the silly Fanny; and his indomitable mother, Mrs. Hannah Thornton. Considering John and Mrs. Thornton’s low opinion of Fanny, the latter should prove to be more of a problem for them, instead of Margaret. The worst she would have to contend with the occasional inane comment from Fanny or the latter’s barely concealed jealousy of her older brother. Mrs. Thornton might prove to be another matter. I doubt that John’s mother had not forgotten Margaret’s rejection of John’s first marriage proposal or the mild scandal regarding Margaret’s appearance at the rail station with her brother Frederick. And the older woman has never been fond of younger one. Considering her personality, I would not be surprised if Mrs. Thornton ends up developing a slight resentment toward Margaret’s financial rescue of Marlborough Mills. One can easily look forward to fireworks between Margaret and her new mother-in-law.

As I had earlier pointed out, there would be a strong possibility of John avoiding any conflict with any of his in-laws, due to the deaths of Margaret’s parents and the scattered locations of her surviving relations. But the possibilities remain. After all, Margaret does have close relationships with her Cousin Edith Shaw Lennox and Aunt Shaw, who live in London. The chances of her and John making family visits to the south remain strong. The London family would probably be disappointed in Margaret’s marriage to John and her second rejection of Edith’s brother-in-law, Henry Lennox. And judging from the Great Exhibition scene featured in the miniseries’ third episode, they did not seem enamored of John. Although Margaret’s brother Frederick lives in Spain, both she and John could afford to pay him a visit. But I wonder if that visit would prove to be congenial. Frank had clearly expressed his contempt for John as a “tradesman” in the miniseries’ third episode. I doubt that one rebuke from Margaret would have changed his opinion. And I can foresee a chilly response from Frank, for his new “tradesman” brother-in-law.

Overall, in-law troubles for both Margaret and John strike me as very plausible in a sequel.

Nicholas Higgins and the Union

I wonder if many fans of both the Gaskell novel and the 2004 miniseries would view Margaret and John’s friendship with worker/union leader Nicholas Higgins as a possible source of future conflict. I believe it is possible. Higgins is a strong-willed character with firm ideas. I simply cannot see him permanently giving up his dreams of a strong union for Milton’s mill workers, despite the setback featured in Episodes 2 and 3, and his friendship with John Thornton. And knowing John’s feelings regarding unions and his own strong will, I cannot see him supporting any future efforts to begin one. There could be a chance of a future clash between the two men if a new union is pursued. Margaret might find herself in the middle of such a clash, considering her closer friendship with Higgins and her love for John. Such a storyline could prove to be very interesting in a sequel.

Cotton Trade and the U.S. Civil War

Although I am not certain, I suspect that many fans would never associate the topic of slavery and the U.S. Civil War with Gaskell’s novel or the miniseries. Yet, I do recall a scene in which John and other Milton cotton mill owners had engaged in a conversation about purchasing cotton from countries other than the United States. John insisted that he would continue purchasing American cotton, due to its superior quality. If someone ever decided to write a sequel to ”North and South”, I wonder if the author would set the story a few years following Margaret and John’s engagement. Or would the author allow their tale to continue into the 1860s? If the latter does happen, chances are Marlborough Mill and other mills throughout Great Britain will suffer the effects of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865).

That particular war managed to deprive many British mill owners of raw cotton for their factories. In return, the British cotton manufacturing business suffered a major economic depression, due to the Confederates’ policy of withholding cotton in exchange for diplomatic recognition and aid from Great Britain. Since the Confederacy never received official recognition or aid, the British mill owners suffered.

Not only could the growing issue of slavery and the American Civil War should have a profound effect upon the Thorntons’ profits. Both issues could be used as potential conflict between Margaret and John. I would not be surprised if concern for his mill would lead to John developing an anti-abolition or pro-Confederate stance. And considering her sympathies toward Milton’s mill workers, I could see Margaret developing a pro-abolition or pro-Union stance. However, a part of me suspects that many writers would go out of their way to avoid the topic of slavery, the Civil War and their effect upon Britain’s cotton manufacturing industry. Since Gaskell’s novel and the 2004 miniseries embraced social issues, it would be a pity if this never happened.


If there is one thing I enjoyed about Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel and its 2004 television adaptation was that both turned out to be a well-written saga that combined romance, family strife and social issues. I believe that this combination could be repeated in a sequel to ”North and South”. This sequel could continue the exploration of Margaret Hale and John Thornton’s relationship through their own personalities, family connections, their friendship with Nicholas Higgins and the economic repercussions of slavery and the U.S. Civil War on Britain’s cotton industry and Northern England’s economy. I could go as far to say that a sequel to ”North and South” has the potential to be just as fascinating as Gaskell’s original novel. However, with so many sequels and spin-offs to Jane Austen’s novels still being written, I suspect that such a novel will never be written.

1 comment:

trudy said...

There are now two published sequels to North and South available at Amazon. One is 'A Heart for Milton' which does consider the impact of the Civil War in the Epilogue. The other is 'Northern Lights' which may deal with changes at the mill wrought by Thornton with Margaret's influence.