A Setting and a Theme
for Margaret of the North
The mid-1800s was a great time for upheavals in Europe. While England was industrializing, particularly in the north, Paris was undergoing revolutions in art and urban planning. This setting is part of what attracted me to write Margaret of the North, a sequel to Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South and its retelling on the 2004 BBC miniseries of the same title..
The artistic, social, and cultural changes in Paris—as opposed to economic emancipation via manufacturing—provide both a backdrop and a parallel to the "softening/mellowing" effects Margaret Hale has on John Thornton. They help fuel Thornton's transformation from one driven largely by a quest for fortune, respect, and fame to someone who truly appreciates “careless days of ease” and the more humanistic regard that comes with that ease.
This temporal setting gave me a chance to place John and Margaret in Paris, for their honeymoon, where they encounter Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s extensive reconstruction of roads and buildings. This massive redesigning of urban spaces would change not only the look of the city but also the way people lived.
John and Margaret go to art shows where, led by Édouard Manet, artists immortalized the life of ordinary Parisians (instead of classical subjects in mythology and religion). These paintings changed art forever, ushering in Impressionism. Modernity in art echoed the modernization in industries. John and Margaret witness this period of upheaval upon arrival in Paris and as they walk from rue de Rivoli to and along the river and various streets. They see neighborhoods where the working class live—sometimes in similar dire conditions that Margaret saw in Milton. They admire famed monuments, parks and gardens, passages and galleries, and historical structures that the hotel concierge would point out to visitors to the city. But their most affecting moments take place as they sit in cafés. There, they join the ParisIan café culture, rendered vibrant with lively conversations, impromptu debates about artistic and sociocultural topics, and cafe concerts.
The Paris experience helps cement internal changes in the main characters which, in turn, support the main theme of Margaret of the North. Drawn from Eizabeth Gaskell's interest in a woman's role in a rapidly modernizing society, this theme is evident in Gaskell's original title for her novel: Margaret Hale. The original title did not pass the judgement of Charles Dickens, however. As the novel's first publisher—serializing it in a journal he edited—Dickens preferred to focus on the cultural and socioeconomic clashes between North and South England, a theme more appealing to the male-oriented society of the 1800s. The title was changed to North and South.
Margaret of the North resurrects Gaskell's intent to depict a character who did not fit the typical Victorian mold. It follows Margaret, after marrying John Thornton, as she contends with modernity, industrialization and the age-old complexities of human relationships in a harsh bustling Northern city. Intelligent,independent-minded, and passionate about her own concerns, she whittles away at Victorian repression, curbs a niche and an identity for herself, and becomes a modern woman while she remains true to her feelings for the man she loves. Through active involvement in bettering the lives of mill workers and their children, she crosses over to a masculine public world and, in so doing, challenges the private sphere of feminine domesticity.
The tender, sensitive, loving side of Thornton is evident throughout the novel, as well—not only in his encounters with Margaret but also in the growth of his caring for his workers. A blurring of roles happens for both Margaret and Thornton, leading them into a new way of meeting each other more as persons rather than rigid role players.
Gaskell’s novel has been described as a romance in an industrial context when, in occasionally violent strikes, the working class fought for their rights against tyrannical masters.
Margaret of the North is a sort of Victorian bildungsroman (coming-of-age or into-maturity novel) couched in romance. The romance is not only in the tender and passionate loving relationship between the main protagonists. It is also in the adventure and excitement of a woman's journey into a fully evolved, involved individual at a time when all social, cultural, and economic forces worked against her. Margaret of the North unabashedly serves up the guilty pleasures of a sweet and lasting romance—but a romance situated in changing times, changing social and sexual roles, and even artistic upheavals. It is an homage I mean to pay Ms. Gaskell.
The novel has been written so it can be read as a standalone; i.e., without having read Gaskell’s book or seen the BBC miniseries. Having said that, it will probably resonate more forcefully for those familiar with the series and/or the book.
Two lucky readers who comment on my blog will be randomly selected to win ebook copies of Margaret of the North. Good luck!"