Monday, August 8, 2011

The Working-Man's Mr. Darcy

I finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854-55 serialized novel, North and South, last week and spent one glorious weekend with the BBC interpretations of her Cranford and North & South.

I lifted the title of this post directly from the character biography on IMDb, but only because it was so perfectly in line with what I had been thinking: Although Ms. Gaskell was writing forty years after Ms. Austen, one cannot help but compare her romantic hero, Mr. John Thornton, with the latter's paragon of Regency romance. Having more of an intriguing perpetual scowl than sigh-invoking love-look, John Thornton is a serious manly man who never had time to cultivate the formalities of romantic attachments yet still had the serious (mis)fortune to fall hard in love with a young woman who always spoke her mind.

Richard Armitage as BBC's Mr. Thornton.

Original love-god, Colin Firth as BBC's Mr. Darcy

Sadly, unlike Mr. Darcy—who had the literary orphan advantage—Mr. Thornton had some mommy issues which disturbed me immensely, and yet, not even this strong ick-factor was enough to relegate him to the bin of unworthy man-boys which so plague modern literature, not to mention modern life.

While I, perhaps more than most, do enjoy a good “I am so intense I could consume you with my eyes” willful stare, the best part of Mr. Thornton was his unapologetic drive to create a successful cotton mill business on his own terms. Using principled efforts to ensure that his mills not merely survive, but thrive during the nascent industrial revolution and workers’ strikes, Mr. Thornton, much like Donna Summer's heroine, worked hard for his money. Being questioned by a friend regarding his treatment of his workers and his strong objection to acts of parliament and all legislation affecting your mode of management,” Mr. Thornton answered:
You know the proverb, Mr. Hale, "Set a beggar on horseback, and he'll ride to the devil,"--well, some of these early manufacturers did ride to the devil in a magnificent style--crushing human bone and flesh under their horses' hoofs without remorse. But by-and-by came a re-action, there were more factories, more masters; more men were wanted. The power of masters and men became more evenly balanced; and now the battle is pretty fairly waged between us. We will hardly submit to the decision of an umpire, much less to the interference of a meddler with only a smattering of the knowledge of the real facts of the case, even though that meddler be called the High Court of Parliament.
This early industrialist saw the big picture, which really means that this mid-19th century novelist seemed more or less to adopt the trader principle and understand the destructive intrusion of government in such matters

Gaskell deserves her resurgence in popularity for that alone.

While there was a magical influx of cash at the last minute, Mr. Thornton was sadly resigned to accept his defeat as the product of his efforts. The last scene in the movie better captured what I thought was the book’s short shrift of the love story’s resolution, but the book better described Mr. Thornton the trader, the master, the man.

Miss Hale kisses Mr. Thornton's hand. The End.
You can read the entire book here and listen to it here.

Here is a pretty funny blog post (from which I copied many pictures) that “isn't anything but a thinly veiled excuse to post lots of pictures of pretty people and kissing,” so I like it.
Miss Bennet kisses Mr. Darcy's hand. Almost the end.

(Thanks to Diana Hsieh and Lady Baker  for the recommendation.)

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