I love a flawed character. I think that started around the same time that I started specifically looking for truth and authenticity in art. I loved Ed Sheeran’s first album because he wrote about the pain of losing a child (“Small Bump”) and a girl with a drug addiction (“A Team”). I love Once Upon a Time partly because classic heroines like Snow White and Belle are complicated and sometimes make bad decisions. I loved Disney’s live-action Maleficent because it reinterpreted the motives and history of a classic villain. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that goodness always wins, but I like when art reflects life’s messiness. If Snow White is still Snow White when she makes mistakes, then maybe it’s okay to stop pretending to be perfect.
Last year around this time, I wrote about the danger of waiting for a Perfect Mr. Darcy to come along. This year, I want to talk about another classic romance that I like more than Pride and Prejudice.
You might have heard of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South. You might not. It was published around 40 years after Pride and Prejudice by a woman who was friends with Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.* Like her friends, Gaskell wrote novels about social problems. North and South was a story about industrialization.
The novel follows Margaret Hale as her minister father quits the Church of England and her family flees their comfortable Southern country home for a city in the North. Because he can no longer preach, her father begins to teach rich men in the city. One of these men is John Thornton, the New Money guy who rose to the top and now owns one of the major factories in town. Thornton falls in love with Margaret immediately, but she Does Not Like Him because 1) she sees him beat up a worker, 2) her best friend works in the mill, 3) she’s Old Money, and 4) both of them are proud.
It’s a story about social dynamics. Margaret’s family has always been middle class. She grew up with certain social customs and manners, and she’s disgusted by this man who doesn’t know how to respect her in the way that the other men from her class respect her. She’s used to her old standard of living, and it’s difficult adapting after her father publicly renounces his faith. She’s a sympathetic character, but she’s proud. She believes that she’s better than her father’s new friend Mr. Thornton because she’s educated and respectable and actually likes the working class.
North and South is a romance novel about social classes and a union strike at cotton mill. Actually, I don’t know that “romance novel” is the best description, but since I’m comparing it to Pride and Prejudice, I’ll use it anyway.
Pride and Prejudice and North and South are both novels about people disliking each other before falling in love. Both feature flawed characters. Elizabeth Bennet and Margaret Hale are both women who are, well, prejudiced against their respective love interests. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Thornton are both men who are proud of their circumstances. Everyone has to learn to look past their own noses and learn from each other.
I think it’s easy to forget that Elizabeth Bennet is indeed proud. We forget that she decided to hate someone because he said that she wasn’t pretty enough at a party. She only thought nice things and fell in love with him after he 1) revealed that her favorite flirt friend Mr. Wickham was a scoundrel, 2) said he was shy, and 3) paid off the scoundrel to stop shaming the family.
I love how North and South is so clearly a story about two flawed people. It’s hard to read it and not think, “Oh, they’re both wrong here.” I love how both characters have to grow. Much like reality, no one person gets to stay stagnant. They argue, they accuse each other of murder, it’s great. And they both get over themselves.
This Galentine’s/Valentine’s Day, instead of marathoning the six hour BBC Pride and Prejudice, marathon the four hour BBC North and South.
Here’s a fan trailer for the miniseries starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe. It’s fan-made because the BBC hasn’t put an official trailer on Youtube, but it’s worth posting anyway just so no one gets this miniseries confused with the American show with the same name about the Civil War.
*Casual. I can only imagine their dinner parties.