North and South

(or how I shamelessly fan girl over John Thornton)

I consider myself to be a Victorianist, so I couldn’t start my column without writing on a Victorian book.

Obviously, spoilers ahead.

North and South is a favourite of mine. Published in 1854, it was met with a lot of criticism as it was unheard of for a female author to sympathize with the workers and write in favour of their rights. Fun fact: Charles Dickens was the editor of North and South and thought it to be too long (and on second thought, I really don’t know how this fact is fun for anyone…). One of the most prominent underlying themes in North and South is that of authority or, more precisely, how authority can be challenged. The academic in me can spend hours upon hours explaining all the major themes that can be found in the book: social justice, pride, religious insecurity, marriage and love, power relations, gender dynamics etc. The academic in me, however, cannot currently function due to two words: John Thornton.

The main character of the story is Margaret Hale, one of the most well written female characters of Victorian literature. We follow her story as she is forced to move from her beloved hometown Helstone (South) to industrial Milton (North). Margaret hates Milton as it is noisy, gloomy and everyone treats her like a special snowflake. Milton is depressing and reminds me of a Dickensian Coketown. Helstone, on the other hand-do not let the hell part fool you-is practically paradise on earth. Obvious metaphor time: Helstone= Heaven, Milton= Hell, but the novel tries to convince us that no, do not be fooled by appearances, Milton isn’t that bad even though it’s not as idyllic as Helstone. Does Margaret’s hometown have its own John Thornton though? No, so boo Helstone!

Anyway, let’s leave the plot aside for a minute and talk about John Thornton, the career oriented mill-owner that screams new money and early capitalism. John Thornton is a proud man who knows how to work hard and isn’t willing to let go of his success. He is a self-made businessman, respected by everyone at Milton. John Thornton is the kind of man that makes me feel weird when I call him just John. He’s either Mr Thornton or John Thornton, he has the aura and authority of a man with a full name (similar case: Mr Darcy).

Surprise surprise, Mr Thornton falls in love with Margaret who couldn’t care less. The romance between the two potential lovebirds is painfully slow-built, but this is forgiven because, let’s face it, John Thornton. I wouldn’t mind if John Thornton gave me a hot and cold treatment, I would silently and gladly accept my fate. The sexual tension is unbearable, so unbearable that more than once I had to pause reading and think of my life choices. At this point, I need to add that the experience of North and South becomes even better when you take your time and watch the miniseries with Richard Armitage as John Thornton. He IS John Thornton, end of story.

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(seriously, look at him!) 

Gaskell was a smart woman. She gave John Thornton to the world, but I’m pretty sure that during her editing process she took a look at her manuscripts and thought “Oh my, he is too perfect, I should give him some flaws”. And she did, she gave him an insufferable mother that makes you think “and I thought my mother was bad!”. True, his mother represents a fading world, Thornton’s motivation, a link to his father, a strong maternal figure, but honestly, who cares? She hates Margaret, but John never says a bad word for his mum. He loves his mum and that’s why we love him even more, because he is a family man!

If you’ve read the book you know about the scene. It’s special, it’s magical, it’s the scene to end all scenes. In typical Hollywood style, John finds himself in a dangerous situation. His workers are on strike and John has hired Irish workers, but I really don’t want to talk about the plot. The workers are outside his house, threatening to use violence. After Margaret’s suggestion, he tries to talk some sense to the crowd, but with no luck. The workers are getting aggressive, his life is at stake and Margaret, acting out of pure impulse, uses herself as a human shield to save Mr Thornton and injures herself (kudos to Gaskell for the reversal of the damsel in distress stereotype!). Ok, she doesn’t exactly try to save Thornton, she mostly wants to calm the enraged workers for their own good, but this is not important. What matters is that Margaret is bleeding and Mr Thornton is holding her in his arms. He then realizes that Margaret is precious to him. He instantly thinks of carving their initials on a tree to immortalize their love and mentally spells K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Thankfully, he also remembers to save Margaret from the maddening crowd and carries her inside his house. Margaret lives, although she is a bit horrified by what she did. Meanwhile. Thornton is mentally registering for wedding gifts.

The next day, and after things have calmed down, Thornton visits Margaret in order to do what an honourable man should do: he reveals his true feelings to Margaret and asks her to marry him! In the miniseries, Thornton declares to Margaret that “I wish to marry you because I love you!”, and, thankfully, he pretty much says the same in the book. No wait, in the book he is even dreamier. He basically says “I’ve never loved before and since I’ve loved you, I will never stop loving you”. Margaret does the unthinkable, she rejects him. John is sad and goes home to mummy who declares that she hates bad Margaret.

So, there’s the scene, and there’s the almost scene. Basically, Margaret finds herself at the train station at night, a huge no-no for Victorian times. She is not alone, however, as she is escorted by her brother Frederick. Mr Thornton is convinced that Margaret is having a romantic relationship with the shady guy and he’s heartbroken. He witnesses Margaret’s interaction with this scandalous could-be suitor and I’m pretty sure he wants to go back home and tell everything to mummy. Thankfully Margaret is still chaste and honourable as the mysterious guy is her brother, but Thornton doesn’t find out until much later. Anyway, picture the setting: Mr Thornton is riding his horse, Margaret is shivering because it’s cold and, let’s face it, Mr Thornton is riding his horse. There are feelings in the air, we are expecting something, a touch, an almost-kiss, a passionate sex scene in the dark (note to self: go take a cold shower). Aaaand…nothing happens. Nothing. Happens. As far as I’m concerned, the horse deserves a medal as it gets to be ridden by John Thornton every single take (seriously, shower, now).

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(John, after he sees Margaret and Frederick kiss each other goodbye. He’s probably thinking “I would have fought a dragon for you Margaret, I would!”)

Is John Thornton dreamy? Yes he is, but in a pragmatic way. He will want to marry you to protect your honour, but he will also make sweet love to you, in an honourable way. Basically, Thornton’s key word is honour. Mr Thornton is the perfect Victorian man. He is self-made, he has his set of values, he is honourable and, according to the miniseries, he’s easy on the eyes. John Thornton is a realistic perfect man. He’s not an abusive madman like Heathcliff, and don’t even get me started on Mr Rochester. In today’s terms, John Thornton isn’t sweet and tender Mark Ruffalo; John Thornton is passionate and reformed Robert Downey Jr and if Mr Downey Jr or Mr Ruffalo are reading this, I’m a big fan, nothing personal, I’m just trying to make a point here. Thornton’s family is a bit of mess as his mother is overbearing and his sister is the anti-Margaret. In terms of his father, John Thornton is haunted by his father’s actions and suicide, much like Thorin Oakenshield is haunted by his grandfather’s doings in Erebor. Can we all agree that Richard Armitage’s career is full of wonderful coincidences?

Does the novel have a happy ending? Relatively speaking, yes. Embracing true Victorian fashion, both Margaret’s parents and her godfather die, but at least she and Thornton end up together. It’s a win. Also, Thornton undergoes a huge personal reformation as he is struck by the loss of his money. Worry not, Margaret inherits her godfather and since she is mega rich she can help the improved John.

Is it worth your time? I cannot stress this enough, YES. Also, I do urge you, go and watch the miniseries! It’s perfect, it’s Victorian and it has Richard Armitage. Seriously, what more would you want?

Can we get proper fan fiction out of it? Of course, the possibilities are endless. We need steamy Victorian sex between John and Margaret. We all know that John is a man of many talents.

Could the story become better with the inclusion of dinosaurs, vampires or zombies? Let’s face it, everything is better with dinosaurs in it but here I would vote a huge NO on dinosaurs. Instead, I would use dwarves and hobbits, but that’s just my Armitage obsession talking. Think of all the possibilities for an epic crossover. Set in Middle Earth Bilbo leaves the Shire and has to relocate to hostile Erebor where Thorin Thornton rules the place. I’m not crazy, the story is practically writing itself.

Have you read North and South? If yes, what did you think? If not, honestly, why?

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