Margaret Hale: I have seen hell and it's white.The way in which the British gentry tended to look down on those who engaged in trade has always amused me. My ancestors in County Cork were forced to engage in trade after their castle was confiscated by Oliver Cromwell. They had to eat, so they went to work. Being from a long line of hard-working and thrifty Irish and Scottish craftsmen, coal miners, blacksmiths, and farmers has instilled in me the deepest respect for manual labor. I know that engaging in trade is not the end of the world, having done it myself.
~North and South (2004)
However, to an English gentlewoman such as Margaret Hale, the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South, moving to a factory town in the north of England, where she has to rub shoulders with persons who engage in trade, is the fate worse than death. Not only does John Thornton the mill owner engage in trade, but when Margaret first claps eyes on him he is shouting in a coarse manner as well as kicking and punching some blithering idiot half to death. Margaret does not realize that the blithering idiot with the pipe could have easily caused an inferno in the cotton mill which would have led to many deaths. She only sees that John Thornton is a bit on the rough side and therefore decides then and there that he is first, last, and only NOT a gentleman.
Now I have never read the book upon which the BBC production of North and South is based, although I have read Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Mrs. Gaskell is a genius when it came to making subtle characterizations of complex personalities amid scathing social commentary. Her social commentary is by no means subversive or bitter but rather shows how venial faults in even the most sterling characters can have adverse consequences for many. Margaret sees how her gentlemanly father loses his living as a clergyman, reducing her family to penury, simply because he no longer agrees with the Book of Common Prayer. Her brother likewise brings shame and scandal by running off to sea on a lark, an adventure which swiftly becomes an unmitigated disaster.
On the other hand, the mill hand Nicholas Higgins proves himself not only to be the support of his family but a prince among men. Margaret seeks out the poor Higginses in their hovel in order to be their Lady Bountiful. The Higginses, however, give Margaret the emotional support she needs through so many upheavals. In the meantime, Margaret becomes so desperately attached to the factory owner John Thornton that she cannot bring herself to acknowledge the intensity of her feelings or his. Her regard for him increases as she sees that he tries to be a fair employer, having overcome a childhood of extreme hardship in order to provide for his family. She realizes that people cannot be put into all the neat little categories in which she had originally arranged her world. As her eyes open, so does her heart, which makes North and South one of the most powerfully romantic and memorable television films of the decade.