When I recommend North and South to someone, Mr Thornton is usually in the back of my mind. I believe North and South makes a great read for those who, like me a few years ago, have read Pride and Prejudice until they know it by heart, thus losing some of the instant romantic feelings associated with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Perhaps Mrs. Gaskell’s novel is a little slower than Austen’s, because she tries to pack in more different subjects and has her characters expound upon them. For me that works rather perfectly, because it combines a) romance, b) social history, c) religion, and d) the role of women. But I do truly believe that the romance, in itself, is quite as gratifying as watching Darcy and Elizabeth.
Usually, when I have to sum up Mr. Thornton’s appeal I summarize it as “Mr. Darcy meets Mr. Rochester”. Thornton is a little rougher around the edges than Darcy was. He has something Byronic about him except that he doesn’t keep a wife in his attic which makes him more universally appealing, I guess. And he is a self-made man, which, in this setting and in case of Margaret Hale, instantly puts him in an underdog position, which you know will just leave you rooting for him.
But the storyline overall clearly echoes Pride and Prejudice more than I guess any other novel. Especially when you take into consideration the two proposals, the woman taking the lead in the second proposal, and the storyline of overcoming pride and prejudice (perhaps more on the side Margaret than Thornton).
I remember the first time when I read North and South I was comfortably settling into the southern-England setting and I expected Henry Lennox to be the inevitable love interest. I could not understand why Margaret would say yes to him as she seemed to enjoy spending time with him so much. Now, when I read that scene I am instantly prejudiced against him, and at first I wondered why. Was it because I knew Mr. Thornton was bound to arrive? But that could not explain why I was convinced Henry Lennox wasn’t right for Margaret. Having read the fourth part, I realised that these sections must have been why. Even apart from the knowledge that were she to marry Lennox, Margaret would end up having to cater to Edith’s wished all the time, it was Henry himself that I couldn’t stand in this last part. Sure, he helped her, but his ulterior motives got on my nerves. And his convictions about the North, about Margaret who would surely make him a good wife as if she were some decoration, and the hints of him thinking her more desirable now that she had money. Ugh.
As for Thornton, this time around I was at first a little puzzled by how I formerly seemed to instantly love him as a love interest. Oh yes, there is something to swoon over in many scenes between Margaret and Thornton; the bracelet which is almost erotic, the “saving him from the mob scene”, the way Thornton seems to return to that scene in his mind [and we get to witness it], etcetera. But there is something that bothered me about first-half-of-the-book Thornton too, and that is his believe in self-sufficiency. The fact that he became a self-made man (which is admirable) does not mean that everyone who does not simply doesn’t try enough. I admit, I was raised a socialist and so political convictions are a part of this way of viewing Thornton, but I couldn’t help but want character growth in that department for him. While, as I mentioned in a previous post, I admire how he respects the individuality and freedom of his workers, I felt Margaret and Thornton both picked extremes while surely there was some middle ground to be found. And I’m very happy to say that he does.
Mr. Thornton works for me because like Margaret he has his own character growth to go through. From working himself up he is on the brink of losing it all again. In the middle of this situation he has begun working together with Higgins to set up a dining hall for his workers. And when he is on the brink of losing everything, he takes responsibility for everyone involved, and does not risk the livelihood of the people who work for him on the off-chance that he might save himself. Mr Thornton, as he is in the end, is so obviously Gaskell’s perfect man in the sense of respecting everyone’s individual life and yet taking responsibility and caring for others. How could you help but fall for him a little? And in the middle of all of this you are allowed to feel sympathy for him because you are, I think, a more direct witness to his feelings for Margaret (these scenes are all just a little bit more sensual in the non-explicit sense) than you are of Mr. Darcy’s for Elizabeth.
I admit the last scene, those two pages, feel a little short to resolve such a large part of the novel’s plot. But are not they the most amazing pages? I admit I reread that scene 3 times because I wanted more, but also because it makes me feel all the feelings, time and again.
Or perhaps these are all rationalizations of the fact that right after reading North and South for the first time, I watched the BBC miniseries. And there I saw Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton, which made all the sense in the world to me. I cannot un-see Armitage when I think Thornton. I cannot forget those two magical scenes best summarised for those who have yet to view the series as “look back at me” and “train station glance”. If you think Mr. Thornton is swoon-worthy in the novel, please do yourself the favour of watching the miniseries. I promise you guaranteed swoons. And a rougher version of Thornton (which the jury is still out on). I also promise you that the scene at the end is, perhaps, a little more satisfactory. And I promise you that if you want to discuss watching, I’ll be readily available to do so.
So yes, I am a bit of a fangirl when it comes to Mr. Thornton, or the romance in North and South in general. It went so far that for years the lines “pack clouds away” and “a much better rate of interest” have had a definite romantic ring to me. And whenever a song features the lines “a train station glance” I think of a certain scene in the mini series.
To confess your quirks and obsessions is always a bit of an embarrassment, so please do not judge me harshly.
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