The Victorian Sage

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Tag: elizabeth gaskell

The Intensity of the (Quasi-)Maternal Relation in North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-55) is known both as a love story in the Pride and Prejudice lineage, and as a social novel dealing with class conflict of the quintessentially mid-Victorian type. One of its most striking passages, though, is little remarked. It comes from late in the novel, before the final reconciliation between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Margaret is living with her sister, Edith, and her family. Margaret has a particularly intense relationship with her young nephew Sholto:

One of the great pleasures of Margaret’s life at this time, was in Edith’s boy. He was the pride and plaything of both father and mother, as long as he was good; but he had a strong will of his own, and as soon as he burst out into one of his stormy passions, Edith would throw herself back in despair and fatigue, and sigh out, ‘Oh dear, what shall I do with him! Do, Margaret, please ring the bell for Hanley.’

But Margaret almost liked him better in these manifestations of character than in his good blue-sashed moods. She would carry him off into a room, where they two alone battled it out; she with a firm power which subdued him into peace, while every sudden charm and wile she possessed, was exerted on the side of right, until he would rub his little hot and tear-smeared face all over hers, kissing and caressing till he often fell asleep in her arms or on her shoulder. Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied to her for ever. (Oxford, 2008, ed. Angus Easson, 405)

This passage is surely worthy of more attention than it has hitherto received. Margaret takes over the role of mother from Edith, and her mode of disciplining Sholto has surprisingly erotic overtones. The battle in which the “firm power” of one party subdues the other into peace is a central dynamic of North and South. Margaret is constantly through the novel being described in terms of her personal power, as in Dr Donaldson’s reaction to her:

Who would have thought that little hand could have given such a squeeze? But the bones were well put together, and that gives immense power. What a queen she is! With her head thrown back at first, to force me into speaking the truth […].  (127)

There is also Margaret’s taming of her (initially) insubordinate servant Dixon:

[S]he, who would have resented such words from anyone less haughty and determined in manner, was subdued enough to say, in a half-humble, half-injured tone-

‘Mayn’t I unfasten your gown, Miss, and undo your hair?’ […]

From henceforth Dixon obeyed and admired Margaret […]. [T]he truth was, that Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature. (48)

Throughout North and South, there is a theme of dominance in Margaret’s personal relationships: she likes dominating people, and people – such as Dr Donaldson and Dixon – like being dominated by her. In case it wasn’t made sufficiently clear in the plot, the third-person narrator states it as a general truth: “Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature.” So Margaret’s relationship with Sholto, and her power to subdue him, is an extension of this. It is an emotionally intense process for both parties: Sholto’s face becomes tear stained, while to Margaret the emotional affect is even more profound:

“Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied to her for ever.”

What exact feeling is referred to? In the context of the story, Margaret has just been separated from Thornton, and the loss informs her response to Sholto. She is to be denied both conjugal and maternal relations, and this explains why she reacts so strongly. There is a certain excess in the passage, considered in the light of a (pseudo-)mother-child encounter. Margaret is somewhat too intense about Sholto. The physicality of their encounter – tears, kisses, caresses and the final swoon into sleep by the finally subdued Sholto – along with Margeret’s use of “every sudden charm and wile she possessed” recalls the conjugal relationship more than the maternal one. In this sense, Margaret is a forerunner of Henry James’ governess in The Turn of the Screw, whose lack of appropriate outlet for affection leads her into an obsessive and emotionally destructive relation with her young charges. Gaskell doesn’t imply any emotional failing in Margaret that leads to this incident, nor does she find an inappropriacy in it as a modern reader might. Indeed, this scene is not included in the popular 2004 series adaptation, and it is difficult to see how it could have been without raising uncomfortable questions about Margaret.

margaret north and south

Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale in the BBC series North & South (2004).

For Gaskell here seems to have anticipated a piece of Freudian knowledge abut the parental relationship:

[T]he parents — or as a rule the mother — supplies the child with feelings which originate from her own sexual life; she pats it, kisses it, and rocks it, plainly taking it as a substitute for a full-valued sexual object.  (Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905; trans. A.A. Brill, 1920)

In a footnote, Freud acknowledges that some readers will find this contention “wicked” but cites Havelock Ellis in support. Had he read Gaskell, he might have found in North and South another reference point, a piece of Freudian psychology avant la lettre.

The Cold Distance of the Master: Žižek and Gaskell

A few months ago I wrote on the concept of the master, making some comparisons to the 19th-century concept of the Great Man. The master was a term associated with Jacques Lacan, but, primarily for me, with Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is preoccupied with this figure, and while Lacan was essentially a psychoanalyst, Žižek is very much engaged in political issues, so when he speaks of the master, he necessarily invites comparison with the Great Man theory of Carlyle and his successors.

In In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso 2008), Žižek once again considers the figure of the master in a brief but suggestive passage, contrasting him to the supposedly postmodern figure of the boss:

A “postmodern” boss insists that he is not a master but just a coordinator of our joint creative efforts, the first among equals; there should be no formalities among us, we should address him by his nickname, he shares a dirty joke with us… but during all this, he remains our master. […] We are not only obliged to obey our masters, we are also obliged to act as if we are free and equal, as if there was no domination – which of course, makes the situation even more humiliating. Paradoxically, in such a situation, the first act of liberation is to demand from the master that he act like one: one should reject false collegiality from the master and insist that he treat us with cold distance as a master. (202)


Jurgen Klopp. What a boss [in the Žižekian sense].


Back in Victorian England they had masters rather than the bosses described by Žižek. Indeed, the name given to the factory owners by their employees was “master”. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-5) this relation between masters and men is particularly central. Indeed, it is a relation that may be seen as the central problem of the age, when one thinks of Carlyle and Ruskin’s preoccupations with it. But it is Gaskell who provides the most fully-drawn model of the “master”: Mr. Thornton (he is also the love interest of the protagonist of North and South, Margaret Hale).



Richard Armitage as Thornton in North & South (2004)

Thornton, played by Richard Armitage in the popular BBC adaptation, is a hard man who, in the early part of the novel, is unwilling to compromise with his workers, or to listen to their views. Just how courageously intransigent he is is demonstrated in the climactic riot scene, which takes place about half way through the novel. Here, Thornton leaves his house to confront the mob, and faces down the whole lot of them through the power of his own presence:

Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood-flowing had made Margaret conscious – dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her gently on the door-step, her head leaning against the frame. ’Can you rest there?’ he asked. But without waiting for her answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of the crowd. ’Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death – you will never move me from what I have determined upon – not you!’ He stood amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same attitude as he had been in on the steps.

I have gone into this in more detail elsewhere (and also in my PhD thesis, soon to become publicly available [which event will, of course, be announced here when it arises]), but suffice to say that the sheer masterfulness of Thornton’s personality is key both to his behaviour here and its effect on the rioters and to the development of the social element of the plot of the novel. It is not that Thornton is by any means perfect, and he has himself plenty to learn at this point, but his availability for heroic status in a mid-19th-century industrial novel is that, whatever his misjudgements, he is a true master of men. So, later in the novel, when Thornton has won back the trust of his workers and the mill is back in productive mode, there is a fine balance to be struck between genuine engagement with and concern for the men, and the cold distance of the master. This is made abundantly clear in the scene where Thornton magnanimously offers blacklisted union firebrand Nicholas Higgins his job back.

So, measter, I’ll come; and what’s more, I thank yo’; and that’s a deal fro’ me,’ said [Higgins], more frankly, suddenly turning round and facing Mr. Thornton fully for the first time.

‘And this is a deal from me,’ said Mr. Thornton, giving Higgins’s hand a good grip. ‘Now mind you come sharp to your time,’ continued he, resuming the master. ’I’ll have no laggards at my mill. What fines we have, we keep pretty sharply. And the first time I catch you making mischief, off you go. So now you know where you are.’

So Thornton here has behaved in a noble and unselfish way, but this must be combined with a rather anxious assertion of continuing mastery, which takes the form of a warning about punctuality (Higgins has caused trouble for the mill owners, but there has been no suggestion that, of all things, his punctuality is a problem). It is at the point of true kindness that the master is at his most vulnerable, his least masterly. Thornton is, throughout the remainder of the novel true to this aloof persona, even when he is engaged in work for the benefit of his “hands”.

And what is the point of this act of anxious masterfulness by Thornton? It is so that Higgins knows where he is. Here is where the post-modernist boss differs from the Victorian master: the master is anxious that you should always know your place; the boss is anxious that you should never come to suspect it. But perhaps the moment of truth must eventually come for everybody: the moment when the boss reveals himself ascold and indifferent to us in our full subjectivity. This is a neighbor whose truth is not in the bonhomie with which he greets us on a daily basis, or even in the dirty jokes we tell each other, but in his ability to slip immediately and seamlessly into the role of pure corporate functionary, and with the symbolic authority bring the weight of this crashing down on us. Then, finally, we remember where and what we are, for a time.

On Reading the Opening Pages of Wives and Daughters

Though one of the chapters of my thesis is to be on Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), my reading of Mrs G. has not been very extensive. I have looked into her other industrial novel, Mary Barton (1848), but have yet to finish it – not that it’s a bad novel, but that since I’ve undertaken my PhD this has become a pattern: reading, say, half a novel and then moving on. [1] This is because it’s important to sample things, to have a wide knowledge of any potentially relevant fiction and critical writing. If the relevance doesn’t become clear early on, then it’s probably not there. Maybe a dangerous notion, but necessary when there’s so much to be read. And one can talk intelligently about a half-read book. [2] When one gets used to textual analysis, a single chapter can easily be mined for instances with discursive potential, and one can find ways into one’s favoured [3] themes in most texts (always a good shortcut to having something to say, though one also hopes to be able to respond in a more open-minded fashion).

But back to Gaskell. I happened to see a good-condition second-hand copy of the Penguin edition, with introduction by Pam Morris, of Wives and Daughters (1866) in a charity shop some time back, and bought it. It’s not a must-read for my thesis, but as a connoisseur of 19th-century fiction, it’s one I should know. The novel begins thuswise:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room—a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself “as sure as clockwork,” and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.

The first lines have the ring of a children’s story about them. The repetitions in the second sentence seem to recall the folk song “The Rattlin Bog”, called an Irish song by Wikipedia, but probably used elsewhere as well, as I remember a lewd variation being used in the Scottish film The Wicker Man (1973). But the “unseen power” is not a witch or wizard or any other characteristic inhabitant of fairy-land, but a domestic servant. Domestic servant as tyrant was a feature of North and South as well. In this novel, Dixon subverts Margaret Hale’s authority, and criticizes Mr Hale’s decision to move to Helstone, until there is a striking scene in which Margaret upbraids her sternly, with immediate results:

[Dixon], who would have resented such words from anyone less haughty and determined in manner, was subdued enough to say, in a half-humble, half-injured tone-

‘Mayn’t I unfasten your gown, Miss, and undo your hair?’ […]

From henceforth Dixon obeyed and admired Margaret […] Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature.

In the context of the worker’s disquiet and strikes that were a feature of 1850s England, this assumption of mastery by the upper-classes, and, more importantly, the suggestion that this was exactly what the lower-classes wanted – to be ruled by a powerful and decided nature – recalls the Carlylean analysis of class-relations in Chartism (1839). The recurrence of the Bad Servant who effectively tyrannizes her employers so early in Wives and Daughters seems to point towards some serious ideological baggage that Gaskell carries regarding the serving classes.

It only takes another page or two for Gaskell’s love of feudal-style social power relations to come into focus (again, this seems to me to confirm some of the things I’ve written about North and South in the chapter draft I finished). She focuses on the area’s landlords, the Cumnors:

This was no unusual instance of the influence of the great land-owners over humbler neighbours in those days before railways, and it was well for a place where the powerful family, who thus overshadowed it, were of so respectable a character as the Cumnors. They expected to be submitted to, and obeyed; the simple worship of the townspeople was accepted by the earl and countess as a right; and they would have stood still in amazement, and with a horrid memory of the French sansculottes who were the bugbears of their youth, had any inhabitant of Hollingford ventured to set his will or opinions in opposition to those of the earl. But, yielded all that obeisance, they did a good deal for the town, and were generally condescending, and often thoughtful and kind in their treatment of their vassals.

So, there’s a dynamic of obedience or obeisance leading to proper and responsible use of power; disobedience, presumbably, leading to the opposite. Gaskell seems to exult in this dynamic in her writing, and to deplore all claims to particular consideration on the part of servants. In this regard, it will be interesting to see how Mrs Kirkpatrick is treated in the novel: from a vague knowledge of the plot, I believe she is to be somewhat of a villain. She, too, is already signalled in the early chapters as a servant who doesn’t know her place, who tries by her demeanor to place herself among the aristocrats of the novel’s society.

Pam Morris’ introduction communicates a certain unease about Gaskell’s ideological position. Like most favourable commentators on 19th-century fiction, she wishes to perform a liberal and progressive reading. She admits that “[a]t first glance it might seem that Wives and Daughters is staunchly behind the dominant domestic narrative of Victorian society”, but ends by claiming that “no nineteenth-century novel contains a more devastating rejection that this of the Victorian male assumption of moral authority.” I haven’t read far enough to know if this is accurate, but the liberal reading of canonical novels is always the one performed for the purpose of modern popular(ish) culture . Morris is, in any case, more concerned with the gender politics of the novel than with the class politics I have mentioned here, perhaps because most of Gaskell’s readership is assumed to be female, and perhaps also because the progressive class reading is more difficult to sustain, though that’s not to say that because Gaskell doesn’t strike me as a progressive writer her analysis isn’t interesting. North and South has probably the most articulate and sympathetic voice of trade unionism in Victorian fiction in Nicholas Higgins. The Thornton-Higgins power-struggle at the mill is certainly dealt with with more consideration and seriousness of purpose than the Margaret-Dixon struggle, which does strike me as rather polarized.

As for myself, I don’t know whether Wives and Daughters is destined to be another barely-read book on my list or will come to be finished. It’s a long one, 650 pages in this edition. I may just let it languish in the pile for a while, and await a specific motivation, academic or otherwise, which will allow me to make a really engaged reading.  For the days of open readings, of really committing to a book for love of the activity, with no thought for practicalities, are probably gone for me. I often find it hard to concentrate on such readings, as if I should be doing something more, something that goes somewhere, aims towards something. It is only when reading can be definable as somehow related to Work that I can settle into it give it my full concentration.


[1] In fact, I may make this the subject of my next post: a list of the half-read or barely read books on my Kindle at the moment.

[2] On the subject of which I must have a look at Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which sounds more interesting than the Literature-for-dummies style title implies.

[3] WordPress’s spell check tries to insist on “favored” here, but the OED disagrees

A Publication in Between

An essay of mine, entitled “Towards a Wise Despotism: Traces of Thomas Carlyle in the BBC North & South (2004)” appears in the latest issue of the peer-review journal Between, the magazine of the Italian Association for the Theory and Comparative History of Literature. The issue is available here. My essay looks at how the social and political theories of Thomas Carlyle, generally discredited in themselves, are received when presented, unannounced, within the framework of a classic social novel of the 1850s, ie. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, taking the adaptation of North and South to be a “reading” of Carlyle at second hand. This essay is a considerably shortened version of a chapter-draft for my PhD.


See! There I am!

Lionel Asbo (2012) – Martin Amis

Martin Amis’s newest novel is subtitled “State of England”, placing it squarely in the tradition of the mid-19th century condition of England novels, Dickens’s Bleak House, Gaskell’s North and South, etc. These novels were concerned witth humanizing the working-classes for their middle-class readers, and instructing these readers in how to manage the working-classes. I have been reading North and South recently. The message of this book is (it seems to me): The poor are well-meaning and docile if treated with the right mixture of kindness and firmness, and here, embodied in Margaret Hale and the post-strike John Thornton, is how to do it. It’s not just a book to entertain; rather it purports to provide a model of dominant-class behaviour to control and placate the working-classes. It’s eminently socially engaged and consciously practical (which is not to commend the actual politics of the novel).

Martin Amis

Martin Amis

Amis’s addition to this genre is different. The upper-classes are almost invisible, or at least only appear as secondary characters. Lionel Asbo is focalized entirely on the titular character and Desmond Pepperdine, his mixed-race nephew. The former is a demonized depiction of lower-class masculinity, and the latter idealized. Lionel Asbo is addicted to porn and prison: “Porn is like prison. You know where you are” (148). Later, upon coming into a fortune in the National Lottery, he becomes a tabloid celebrity, and is lusted after by DILFs (the d is for divorcee), with several of whom he conducts affairs in which his sexual sadism is given free rein, in a post-50 Shades depiction of sexual relations. Lionel’s sadism is merely a component of the miasma of hate which surrounds him. When he tries to write a letter:

[T]he letter had an atmosphere. Lionel had hated writing it, and the words themselves had hated being written. Even the paper had hated the pen. (87)

But, then again, in Lionel’s home town of Diston, “everything hated everything else” (165). For some reason, Des Pepperdine is immune to this, and he provides a positive focus for the novel. He rises up through the social ranks, gets an education, gets a job, gets a baby with his girlfriend. The manichaean morality of the two main characters sometimes adds humour to their interaction with each other, but doesn’t make this an acute study of class psychology, or an insight into the state of England.

The least successful part of Lionel Asbo is towards the ending. Amis has added a Chekhov’s gun to the plot in the early stages, and it is clear that this is about to go off, with grave consequences for Lionel’s mood, and his attitude towards Des. In line with this, the latter part of the novel is edited like a thriller, with quick intercutting between the characters as the moment of truth approaches. Maybe Amis was already seeing the film version as he wrote. I’m not that familiar with Amis’s work, so I don’t know how much this tactic is characteristic of him, but tension-building kineticism does not seem to me to be his forte, and Asbo‘s tone has not got the reader into the zone of tension creation, so it falls rather flat. The novel works better as a comedy and as a satire dripping with scorn for a shallow, vacant, actively intelligence-hating (“What you doin there with that pen?” (6)) society – not because it provides an accurate picture of any section of that society, but because scorn has a power of its own, when well expressed, and Lionel Asbo has that power, intermittently at least.

In summation, in so far as this is directed at a middle-class audience, it is not saying, like Gaskell, “Here are the working-class and here is how we must engage with them”; rather it is saying, “Here is the working-class, the filthy oiks! Look at them! From a distance!” Yet, there is also Des, as good and kind as one of Dickens’s cardboard heroes. Perhaps he is a symbol of something, and this is the key to the novel, a prophecy of the victory of the Desses over the Lionels. But who or what Des is supposed to be, beyond a cipher and placeholder, is hard to say.

On watching the first 6 minutes of Heart of Darkness (Nicholas Roeg, 1994)

I have been reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness recently, and have of course watched the much-admired semi-adaptation of the novella, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). I also took a peek at the lesser known adaptation from 1994, directed by Nicholas Roeg, a noted filmmaker in his own right for works like Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg’s HoD is not too readily available, but it has been uploaded onto YouTube in small segments, only the first of which I have watched, six minutes in which Marlow is introduced, sitting in a boat engaging in a conversation with an emissary of “the Company”, identified as a lawyer, come to collect Kurtz’s papers, which Marlow refuses to give him. The framing device for the film, then, is not Marlow telling a story to some sailor chums as in Conrad, but, it would appear, to the Company Lawyer. The dialogue for this opening scene is taken partly from Marlow’s preliminaries to his story in Conrad, and partly from the scene related towards the end of the novella between Marlow and the Lawyer.

Company Lawyer Guy raises a toast to Empire-building

What is interesting is the way some of Marlow’s dialogue is given to the Lawyer. This is a man of advanced years, stiff and respectable looking, stocky, ponderous in his movements, with a starched collar (played by Peter Vaughan). He is a quintessential, stereotypical Victorian man of business. He is also, somewhat improbably, drinking wine from a glass while on the boat talking to Marlow. The drinking of wine signifies his gluttony, his devotion to sensual gratification; his clothes and appearance signify his unthinking conservatism and lack of imagination; his lip-pursing while Marlow talks of the evils of colonialism illustrates his unsympathetic nature. In these opening minutes, we are given one of the most famous speeches from the novella:

It’s just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale. The conquest of the earth mostly means the taking it away from those with different skin tone, slightly flatter noses than ourselves. Not a pretty thing when you look into it too deeply.

That’s all, just those lines. Another part of the speech is, in fact, given to the Lawyer, a paean to the Romans: “A brave lot they must have been”, he concludes. It is in response to this that Marlow counters with the conquest/ robbery with violence analogy. Those familiar with the novella will note that after making this analogy, Marlow makes a very important qualification: “What redeems it is the idea only” etc. This part of the speech is left out.

By choosing which thoughts of Marlow’s can be retained, which must be removed, and which displaced onto an obviously demonized representative of corrupt authority, Roeg’s HoD does something a lot of adaptations of classic texts of recent times do. The thinking behind it goes, I believe, something like this: “Conrad was a great writer and Heart of Darkness is a great book – everyone knows that. Therefore he must have had properly liberal and progressive political views, as only moral and ideological correctness is consistent with classic literature”.

Thus Conrad’s irresolvable ambiguities are ironed out, and anything questionable is A) left out or B) communicated in an obviously disapproving way that also implies Conrad disapproved of it.  This is a feature of popular discourse on what it considers classic literature: ambiguity is not an appropriate feature, unmistakeably liberal politics are. With this reading we’re back in the pre-Achebean days of HoD criticism – not that I remember those days but if Achebe is correct then the work was discussed without reference to its colonialist sympathies. Not that I’m advocating a wholly Achebean reading, either. The text isn’t really reducible to any single reading.

This is a subject that has struck me in my studies of adaptations of Victorian writers like Dickens, Gaskell, etc. It seems adapters and their audiences are constantly looking for ways to read these writers as liberal-progressives, even radicals. I’ve recently been looking at Gaskell in some depth, and would describe her as a conservative and paternalist writer; yet adaptations are constantly trying to rewrite her politics. Conrad is politically a more complex case than Gaskell, but all of these writers function similarly in popular discourse: it seems that current popular discourse can’t gets its head around the notion of great literature and conservative and even reactionary politics, so, rather than adapting possibly not great literature with the right politics, it attributes the right politics to the ready-established greats, and adapts them through that lens. This is made abundantly clear in adaptations of relevant works. This is surely something that warrants study in the near future. What I have written here is not very original observation, perhaps, but it has not been fully dealt with, either.

The Victorian Bachelor in Adaptation

Victorian novels, especially Dickens’s, tend to feature a benevolent / philanthropic bachelor-type character, who enters for the purpose of providing protection, prospects of social advancement and, often, large amounts of money to the protagonist. Someone like Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist or the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby. They may be an uncle or other relation to the protagonist, or be motivated to help simply by their overflowing niceness, and they ask nothing in return. They are singularly uncomplicated individuals, ones who tend to have no intimate personal relationships but to operate in the capacity of fairy godfathers to any deserving person who happens to come into their path. Recent adaptations suggest this character creates quite a headache, as such disinterested benevolence cannot be accepted as credible.

Andrew Davies was certainly conscious of this when he came to script Bleak House (BBC 2005). Bleak House has John Jarndyce as a central character, and Jarndyce is in the tradition of the benevolent bachelor, though with a complicating factor: he wants to get married to Esther, and traditionally this character is entirely happy with his bachelor state, and never countenances any other possibility. Dickens doesn’t really deal with Jarndyce’s reasons for marrying Esther, or the element of sexual desire that is, presumably, involved in his proposal. Rather, he has Esther (and also Ada) refer to Jarndyce as being “like a father” and other such terms. He also constantly stresses Jarndyce’s moral uprightness, and the respect all the other characters have for him, a sleight of hand obscuring Jarndyce’s real intention, as Davies sees them:

Dickens raises it, in a way, but shies away from it, as usual. Why did Jarndyce not get married before? Why does he settle on a child? Of course, she’s grown up by the time he actually pops the question, but by then she’s so obliged to him, isn’t she? […] Dickens is writing about a man who, for some reason, can’t deal with grown-up women, so what he’d like to do is groom this girl (Cartmell and Whelehan, 240).

Now whether Davies successfully redrafts Jarndyce’s character to get this across is another story. I don’t think he does. Though there are a few telling details added, they’re buried beneath the weight of Jarndyce’s overall niceness and at the serial’s pivotal points, it tends to follow the Dickens approach to Jarndyce. I don’t think anyone comes away from Davies’s Bleak House thinking of Jarndyce having groomed Esther. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting point, and this ambivalence about benevolent bachelor characters recurs in other period dramas of recent vintage.

In North and South (BBC 2004), we have Mr Bell making an implicit offer of marriage to Margaret Hale. Mr Bell is Margaret’s godfather, and her father has entrusted her to him, little suspecting (one presumes) that by “looking after” Margaret, Mr Bell has matrimony in mind. And, of course, in Gaskell’s novel he doesn’t have that in mind. Gaskell’s Mr Bell is presented without any sexual colouring at all; he’s an Oxford don, he’s never been married and the idea of it never seems to have occurred to him. Again, though, for scriptwriter Sandy Welch, this attitude on Bell’s part is unthinkable, and the need is felt to uncover the sexuality lurking under his mild and disinterested exterior.

Mr Bell's proposal

Oliver Twist (BBC 2007) – written by Sarah Phelps, who also scripted the 2011 BBC Great Expectations – is one of the more radical classic serials of recent times: a black Nancy, a Fagin who is victim rather than villain (not without precedent in recent adaptations, but the anti-semitism is explicitly tackled here), and who is also of a rotund figure, thus breaking with the conventional vision of Fagin from Hogarth’s illustrations through Alec Guinness in Lean’s Oliver Twist, Ron Moody in Carol Reed’s Oliver! and beyond. It also rejects the Dickensian portrayal of Brownlow by painting him as a paranoid and somewhat controlling individual. In this version he lives with Rose Maylie – no, he doesn’t want to marry her, but he is a morose and taciturn individual and very over-protective of Rose, being generally opposed to letting her out of the house, because she is the last link with the woman he once loved (who was Rose’s sister and Oliver’s mother– i.e. Rose is O.’s aunt in this version). So this Brownlow, as well as lacking the good temper of Dickens’s character, is also given a romantic past, and perhaps a romantic present, if we see him as having transferred his love for Rose’s older sister onto Rose herself. Actually, it’s Monks, here Brownlow’s nephew (confused yet?) who bears a predatory lust for Rose, but given the close filial relationship between Brownlow and Monks for most of the serial (until Monks’s dastardly Rose-entrapping schemes are revealed), one might well see Monks as a manifestation of Mr B.’s dark urges. It’s all very confusing, but for the purposes of this post all that’s relevant is that Brownlow is not the happy bachelor of Dickens’s novel.

Of course, the greatest of all Victorian bachelors was Sherlock Holmes, albeit much later in the Victorian era. I haven’t seen the serial Sherlock yet (!), so I don’t know if they do try to explore the title character’s sexuality. In Doyle’s stories, Holmes is depicted, I would say, as being “above” sexuality, a concept the Victorians wouldn’t have had a problem with, but that, in the context of recent adaptations, may not now be seen to be credible. Certainly not if the vid below is any indication.

*Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, “A practical understanding of literature on screen: two conversations with Andrew Davies”, in Cartmell and Whelehan, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 240.

Beating the Poor: the BBC North & South (2004)

The adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South first aired on BBC1 in November/ December 2004 was, I believe, quite well received, particularly the portrayal of mill owner John Thornton by Richard Armitage, who made quite an impression if the IMDb reviews are anything to go by. It is, of course, quite faithful to Gaskell’s novel, which is half romantic melodrama, half commentary on industrial relations, the rise of trade unions and so forth. I want to talk about one scene which jarred me somewhat, and which is not taken from Gaskell.

It is the introduction of our hero Mr Thornton, occuring a few minutes in. The heroine and the focalizer in the serial (and the book), Margaret Hale (played by Daniela Denby-Ashe), enters Thornton’s factory. The setting of the factory is given a strange wonderland quality by the wisps of cotton floating through the air like snowflakes. I’m not sure if this is intentional; obviously, such airborne materials were highly obnoxious to the health of the workers, but they sure looked pretty, in this serial at least. Anyway, she sees Mr Thornton in the distance, standing looking down over the plebs on the factory floor, smartly dressed in a black suit, striking a very stylized pose, very Byronic in fact. Suddenly, his watchful stillness gives way, he roars out “Stephens! Put that pipe out!” and rushes after a worker, presumably Stephens, then grabs him, tears the pipe from him and, in an awesome display of macho power, actually beats the crap out of him, punching him in the face and stomach till he falls to the ground, then gives him a few kicks to the torso before letting him crawl away.

Why the insertion of such an excessive scene? Perhaps it’s a particularly strong expression of the class bias of period drama. Of course, Margaret is suitably shocked by Thornton’s actions, and expresses her disapproval to him and to other characters, but really, she knows better, and so do we as viewers. The swelling strings that accompany Thornton’s entrance, the idealized pose, his conspicuous handsomeness, the open-mouthed awe in Margaret’s face as she watches him– it is very obvious that this man is to be our hero, and here he is performing an act of unbridled violence. We can’t approve of this, we tell ourselves, but always knowing: this is the hero, there’s going to be a good reason for this; and provisionally exonerating him as we await the rationale for his actions. So strongly is he coded “hero”, that his act of violence is already endorsed.

And to introduce him with this act. Before he is anything else, he is a man who subjugates his social inferiors through brutal force. This scene makes a strong statement indeed about the class values of the period drama, or at least of this particular period drama – I don’t want to over-generalize, though I think that a class bias may well be more generally detectable in this type of adaptation, albeit not so violently expressed.

And yes, the reason, when it finally emerges, several scenes later, is an infallible one. Mr Thornton witnessed the aftermath of a devastating fire in a cotton mill, seeing bodies of the 300 dead. Including children. All because of an accidental flame. Subconsciously, we already knew that.


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