When the Book Alone Isn’t Enough: Binging on North and South

I totally binged on North and South last week.

Let me rewind a little bit. I first read a book by Elizabeth Gaskell in university. Mary Barton is a Victorian novel examining the disparities between rich and poor. It also deals with the realities of the working class in an industrial city during the Victorian era. It was grim and sad and difficult to read but it was so great.

Then I read Cranford, another Victorian masterpiece of reality. Mrs. Gaskell doesn’t sugarcoat the future facing unmarried women of a certain age. It’s pretty grim as well.

A few weeks ago, I read Wives and Daughters which I loved. That’s when I realized that actually, I really like books by Elizabeth Gaskell and next time I was in the library, I picked up North and South.

This might be my favourite. I need to own a copy.

Margaret Hale has spent her teenage years living at a fashionable address in London, the playmate of a wealthy cousin. When her cousin gets married, Margaret returns to the parish where her father is the parson. But due to a crisis of conscience, her father leaves the church and moves the family away from their home in Helstone, to the Northern, industrial city of Milton. Here he will tutor the sons of local families while Margaret attempts to overcome her prejudices against Northerners, and especially against self-made men, like Mr. Thornton, who she doesn’t consider gentlemen.

Margaret forms an unlikely friendship with Bessy Higgins and her family. Bessy has lung problems from having worked in the mills for so long. Her father, Nicholas, is a Union man, bent on organizing a mill strike to get better wages.

So much happens in this book. That’s a bare bones assessment. People die, people travel, there’s a strike that boils over, a mutiny at sea, a cast of characters that includes a disapproving mother, an insipid aunt and a potential benefactor.

But can we just take a moment to talk about Margaret and Mr. Thornton? North and South was published in 1855, a full 42 years after Pride and Prejudice (here we go with the Jane Austen again) but while the subject matter, the customs, and definitely the setting, are all completely different, in Margaret and Mr. Thornton we find some semblance of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

Which is awesome.

Beautiful Margaret Hale is a young woman used to going her own way. Although women of her class didn’t tend to mix with working class men like Nicholas Higgins, Margaret goes out of her way to visit and befriend him, learning a lot about life in Milton. Mr. Thornton is also used to getting his own way and rigidly adheres to the customs and codes of life to which is he is accustomed. He can be quick to make judgements and when his idea of Margaret as pure and noble is challenged, he has a hard time moving past it.

These two spend the whole book clashing until finally realizing that actually, they love each other. A lot.

When I finished (it does end kind of abruptly owing, no doubt, to the fact that North and South was serialized originally and needed to be wrapped up in a certain number of installments) I wasn’t ready to let it go. So I went to Netflix and binged on the 2004 BBC miniseries. If you have four hours, I would recommend you do the same. Here’s a little taste to wet your appetite.


Twisted Austen

I’m kind of fanatical when it comes to Jane Austen. I’m one of those crazies that believes that the works of Jane Austen are perfect the way they are and do not need to be carried on or changed or told from different perspectives. Jane Austen will always be literary perfection.

I read Jane Austen for the first time when I was about 12. My mom and I had watched the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice and I fell in love. My head nearly exploded when my mom told me that it was a book. I read it, didn’t totally get it, but knew that I loved it.

Since then I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least 30 times, including one summer when it was the only book that I had with me and I would finish it, contemplate it for a minute before starting it again. It is, hands down, my favourite book. Ever.

This should help to explain my feelings towards books that seek to continue the fairy tale. There is no need. I don’t need to see what happens to Darcy and Elizabeth. I know that they live happily ever after at Pemberley. I shunned the series’ (there are a few from what I can see in bookstore perusals), I railed against Pride and Prejudice and Zombies but Death Comes to Pemberley? Intrigued me.

Six years after their wedding, Darcy and Elizabeth are getting ready to host their annual Lady Anne’s ball. The night before the big event who should come barreling towards the house in a carriage but Lydia, screaming hysterically that her husband has been shot.

What the what?

I don’t even want to tell you anything else because I do not want to be the cause of ruining any of the mystery for you.

P.D. James is better known as the author of the Adam Dagliesh mysteries but evidently she has been hoping to finish a Jane Austen sequel for many years. Any fears I may have had about another author destroying the legacy of Miss Austen were put to rest, upon reading the author’s note where Ms. James apologizes to Jane Austen for writing about such unpleasant things.

Just so you know, P.D. James is 90. This seems important because if you read Death Comes to Pemberley, parts of it might make you a little bit queasy and then you remember that a nonagenarian thought this up! A seriously twisted nonagenarian.

I haven’t finished the book yet. I’m in the middle of it. There are parts that I don’t love and there are parts that I find really capture the voice of the original Pride and Prejudice and I smile to myself thinking that maybe, just maybe, Jane Austen herself would have said it the exact same way.

I loved the beginning where P.D. James catches us up with Jane and Bingley, Elizabeth and Darcy and all the other Bennets. I love the references to other Austen novels, as when it’s mentioned that at one point Wickham worked for a Sir Walter Eliot, who’s younger daughter Anne recently married a distinguished Admiral. Those of you that know your Austen, will recognize these characters from the not-read-enough Persuasion.

Don’t go thinking that I’ve suddenly developed a taste for Jane Austen sequels. I’m not sure that I will ever get behind the idea of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Ever. But twisting a classic English romance into a devious murder mystery?

That is seriously warped. And I like it.