The BBC’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Katie Farr, Lancaster University

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) addresses the issue of women’s freedom more directly than any of her more-famous sisters’ novels, making it worthy of being adapted, studied and remembered. May Sinclair said that “the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England” (Gérin, 7). However, in 1848 the book was criticised for its structure and its subject matter, with its unflinching depiction of alcoholism, and a heroine who criticises the marriage laws of the time. Even Charlotte Brontë said that “the choice of subject was an entire mistake” (Brontë, lxi). This criticism has resulted in a huge gap in popularity between Anne’s major work and those of her sisters. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre enjoyed both critical acclaim and popular success and has remained popular ever since, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights became increasingly admired by critics from the late nineteenth century and experienced a meteoric rise in sales sparked by the 1939 film version. But Anne’s work remains underappreciated despite the appeal of its feminist message to a modern audience.

The difference is clear when comparing how often the sisters’ works have been adapted. The 1996 Mike Barker BBC television adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of very few adaptations made of Anne Brontë’s fiction, compared to the countless adaptations inspired by her sisters’ novels, Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847). The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lists thirteen film and eleven television titles of Wuthering Heights, and twelve film and thirteen television adaptations of Jane Eyre, and many more shorts and works inspired by the texts, including adaptations under different titles. In contrast, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has just two listings, a television series from 1968 being its only other adaptation. 

Barker’s adaptation deals well with the criticism of the structure of Brontë’s novel, which is told through Gilbert’s letters and Helen’s diary. The critic George Moore complains, “the diary broke the story in halves” (Gérin, 14). The adaptation maintains the use of Gilbert’s perspective for the first episode, without resorting to the book’s contrived framing device of Gilbert’s letters to his brother-in-law. The second episode is from Helen’s perspective, with the use of flashbacks in the first episode creating a seamless transition to the extended sequence of Helen’s history, giving the audience previews of Helen’s past before it is fully revealed.

These flashbacks are one of several methods used to represent the psychological realism of the novel. They occur at times of stress for Helen, such as when Gilbert rescues Arthur from a tree, which triggers the flashback of the child Arthur surrounded by drunk, leering faces. The flashbacks are partial and symbolic: a wine glass dropped by an unseen hand, a dead bird held aloft. They are accompanied by music which interrupts the silent background of the surrounding scenes. Richard G. Mitchell’s score conveys character emotion rather than establishing the historical period of the narrative. Haunting women’s voices link Helen’s story to the sadness and struggle of oppressed women, reminding the audience that she represents generations of women subjected to the same laws and social expectations. These audio-visual methods represent Helen’s past trauma and internal emotions, which are directly narrated in the book.

The settings also carry symbolic resonances. Wildfell Hall is old and filled with dust, but as Helen rips a curtain from the window, she laughs, “At least the light is good”. Although it is a decrepit place compared to the grand setting of Grassdale Manor (shown in the second episode), Wildfell Hall is filled with natural light, while Grassdale Manor, from which she fled her abusive marriage, is mostly shown dimly lit with candles. Whilst the light in itself conveys happiness and escape from the darkness of her marriage, it also has a material purpose in giving Helen a space in which she can paint, allowing her financial independence. We see her walking and painting in the moors, which Carmen Pérez Ríu describes as the “characteristically Brontëan space for women’s self-disclosure and freedom” (56).

The adaptation’s use of flashbacks and the perspectives of both Gilbert and Helen creates a compelling drama whilst maintaining Anne’s realist style. Anne shares the use of gothic mansions and the wild moors as settings with her sisters, but there are no ghostly apparitions like in Wuthering Heights or voices calling mystically from afar as in Jane Eyre. Anne says, “the truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it” (29). In this way, the realism of the novel is designed to faithfully show the abuse and hardship faced by Victorian women, and appeal for their freedom.

Questions for Discussion:

In the novel, Helen’s story is related through her diary entries written at the time, whereas in the television adaptation, she is writing from memory years later. How does this change the way her story is presented? Take a look at the scenes where she discovers Arthur’s affair (Episode 2, 00:42:32-00:48:30), and compare them to the same events in Chapter 33 of the novel.

In 1848 writing about sex was strictly taboo, whereas sex scenes were commonplace on TV and in novels by the 1990s. The physical relationship between Arthur and Helen is made explicit in this adaptation, including both romantic scenes such as Arthur kissing Helen’s baby bump, and scenes of attempted rape. Is this imposing a contemporary perspective on a Victorian text, or more accurately portraying what Victorian life was like for women?

Some of the humour from the novel, such as Gilbert’s relationship with his brother Fergus (see Chapter 13), has been left out of the adaptation. What is the effect of the humour in the novel? Why might the writers have decided not to include it in the adaptation?

Helen says it is “better far that he [her son Arthur] should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence with such a father” (357). What do Helen’s disastrous first marriage to a wealthy man with a country seat, and her presumably happy second one to a yeoman farmer, indicate about class status? How might Victorian ideas of class inform contemporary discussions?

Further reading:

Birden, Lorene M. “Frank and Unconscious Humor and Narrative Structure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp.263-286.

Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, edited by G.D Hargreaves, Penguin Classics, 1988.

Brontë, Charlotte. “Biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë, edited by Angeline Goreau, Penguin Classics, 1988, pp.lvii-lxiv.

Gérin, Winifred. “Introduction.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë, edited by G.D Hargreaves, Penguin Classics, 1988, pp.7-18.

Han, Catherine Paula. “The Myth of Anne Brontë.” Brontë Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 2017, pp. 48–59.

Holland, Nick. In Search of Anne Brontë, The History Press, 2016.

James, Caryn. “Critic’s Notebook; As Cameras Whir, The BrontëNovels Come Into Focus.” The New York Times, 24 October 1997.

Pérez Ríu, Carmen. “‘Don’t Forget This Is How I Earn My Living’: Internal Focalization, Subjectivity and the Victorian Woman Artist in the Adaptation of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (BBC Miniseries, 1996).” Brontë Studies, Vol. 40, No.1, 2015, pp. 44-58.

Shaw, Marion. “Anne Brontë: A Quiet Feminist.” Brontë Studies, vol. 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 330–338.

Thormählen, Marianne. “Standing Alone: Anne Brontë out of the Shadow.” Brontë Studies, vol. 39, no. 4, 2014, pp. 330–340.

Title Matching ‘Jane Eyre’, Feature Film/TV Movie/TV Series/TV Special/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, Accessed 05 August 2019

Title Matching ‘the Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, Feature Film/TV Series/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, Accessed 05 August 2019.

Title Matching ‘Wuthering Heights’, Feature Film/TV Movie/TV Series/TV Special/TV Mini-Series.” IMDb, Accessed 05 August 2019.

The BBC’s Dombey and Son

By Lydia Craig, Loyola University Chicago

Few film adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1846) exist, possibly due to the novel’s heavy reliance on metonymy, the use of specific objects or distinctive physical attributes to represent characters’ hidden desires. As Robert Giddings notes, film resists lingering narrative focus on descriptive images and physical objects (306). Though it tries to faithfully represent Dickens’s metonymy, the 1983 BBC miniseries Dombey and Son — starring Julian Glover (Paul Dombey), Lysette Anthony (Florence Dombey), and Paul Darrow (Mr. Carker) — struggles to convey symbolic features such as Carker’s teeth. Verbal metaphor in a text, while producing vivid mental images in the reader’s mind, does not always translate accurately in accompanying illustrations, nor yet on screen, as the miniseries demonstrates.

Mr. Carker’s teeth in the BBC adaptation

In Dickens’s novel, Mr. Carker’s teeth metonymically represent his insidiousness. Though Darrow’s intonations expertly capture Carker’s understated menace, the actor lacks the oversized grin betraying the feral beast beneath Carker’s cultivated façade, an instance film critic Jonathan Miller describes in a review for The Sunday Times as illustrating the “logical difference” between the viewed physical reality of film and the intellectual meaning resulting from literature (Supplement, G.9). In order to comprehend Mr. Carker’s vicious character and seductive intentions, Dickens requires the reader to persistently recall his teeth, even when they are not mentioned in specific dental detail. When Florence’s dog Diogenes snaps at Mr. Toots but does not bite him, for example, Mr. Carker offers aid: “‘If the dog’s teeth have entered the leg, Sir -’ began Carker, with a display of his own” (317). The narrative’s initial comparison between Diogenes and Carker’s teeth undergoes a revision in imagery after the dog barks at him, accurately recognizing Carker’s cat-like predatory walk. Unlike a dog, who honestly displays his opinion of others, Carker conceals his true feelings and intentions, and is therefore cunning and untrustworthy.

Phiz’s illustration, “Mr. Carker in His Hour of Triumph”

Dombey and Son, like many of Dickens’s novels, was illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne (“Phiz”). Several illustrations of Carker depict him with an impossibly wide smile, while others attempt to depict it in a more “realistic” manner, demonstrating the difficulty of even illustrating Dickens’s metonymy. In some illustrations, Phiz relies on other visual aids. Carker’s teeth experience two final symbolic confrontations with “teeth” much sharper and more powerful than his own: the table knife Edith uses to defend her virtue and the train that fatally crushes Carker. Phiz’s ironic illustration “Mr. Carker in his Hour of Triumph” depicts a standing Edith extending a bared arm tauntingly towards a seated Carker, while he averts his face, closed, sullen mouth covered by a hand (759). The BBC version does not follow Phiz’s lead, and instead stages this scene on a boat where Edith clumsily presents the knife, physically struggles to escape Carker’s restraining grasp, and is released only after threatening him with her estranged husband’s approach (Bennett).

While escaping from Mr. Dombey, Carker slips onto a railway track and is killed in full view of his pursuer’s horrified gaze. The train engine is described as an iron-toothed beast with “red eyes,” “a jagged mill, that spun him round and round…and cast his mutilated fragments in the air” (Dickens 779). A desperate but resolute woman and an unthinking machine have twice mastered and bested the teeth, speaking to the ultimate fruitlessness of Carker’s twisted designs and cruel threats. Dogs are shooed away from the remains and men remove the body from the tracks. In the BBC adaptation this scene passes quickly, with Carker seeing and realizing that Dombey has traced him to the station and desperately jumping in front of the train. There is one shot of the wheels turning, while Dombey stares in shock.

Phiz’s illustration, “Coming Home from Church”

Though this miniseries generally remains faithful to Dickens’s novel, minimizing Edith’s agency by showing Carker as physically abusive represents a departure from how  menacing and then ineffectual he appears in the text and Phiz’s illustrations. What this film’s style does accomplish however, especially in its preservation of tense and lengthy drawing room conversations between Carker, Dombey, and Edith, is to emphasize the psychological drama of being trapped within domestic spaces and roles by more powerful individuals due to age and gender. While translating the metonymy of Dickens’s text to screen may present filmic challenges for realistic cinema, film can also use space and atmosphere to capture the novel’s suspenseful tone and illustrate its subtext for the viewer.

Questions for Discussion:

Andrew Davies (BBC Pride and Prejudice) expressed interest in doing an adaptation of Dombey and Son (Singh). Given his period style, how might he represent Dickens’s metonymy? Could the use of “knife” and “tooth” imagery such as close up shots of Carker and Diogenes’ growling teeth, Edith’s knife, the train’s wheels, convey the menace of Carker’s teeth?

Director Joss Whedon (Buffy, The Avengers) has also expressed interest in doing an adaptation of Dombey and Son (Plumb). Consider the style of Whedon’s other films. How might he represent Carker’s teeth? Would giving an actor an impossibly white and wide CGI-enhanced grin like that of the Cheshire Cat (Alice in Wonderland) help translate Dickens’ absurd textual characterization from text to screen?

Besides Carker’s teeth, other examples of Dickens’s metonymy appear throughout Dombey and Son’s text, as critics have noted. Which of the other characters are represented by items, features, or characteristics such as an unusual laugh or repeated phrase? How well do these other metonymic devices transfer from text to screen in the BBC version? Do they appear at all and if not, why were they excluded?

Works Cited:

Bennett, Rodney, director. Dombey and Son. Performed by Julian Glover, Lysette   Anthony, and Paul Darrow. BBC, 1983. Film.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. 1846. Oxford University Press, 1987.

Giddings, Robert. “Great misrepresentations: Dickens and film.” Critical Survey, vol. 3, no.3, 1991, pp. 305-312.

Miller, Jonathan. “The debate of the film of the book.” The Sunday Times. 12 February 1989. Factiva. Web. 17 July 2017.

Plumb, Ali. “Joss Whedon on Dombey and Son Movie Ambitions.” Movies. EmpireOnline. 18 June 2013. Web. 17 July 2017.

Singh, Anita. “BBC period drama has gone downmarket, says Andrew Davies.” The Telegraph. 28 September 2009. Web. 17 July 2017.

Further Reading:

Altick, Richard D. “Varieties of Readers’ Response: The Case of ‘Dombey and Son.’” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 10, 1980, pp. 70-94.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. “Emblems and Ecphrases in ‘Dombey and Son.’” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 2, 2010, pp. 102-118.

Guida, Fred. “Some Thoughts on the BBC, British Silent Films, Dombey and Son, Rich Man’s Folly & The Changing World of Charles Dickens.” Fred Guida’s Charles    Dickens On Screen. 10 January 2012.

Reed, John R. Dickens’s Hyperrealism. Ohio State University Press, 2010.

Stewart, Garrett. “Dickens, Eisenstein, film.” Dickens on Screen. Edited by John Glavin. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 122-144.

Stone, Harry. “Dickens and Leitmotif: Music-staircase Imagery in Dombey and Son.” College English, vol. 25, no. 3, 1963, pp. 217-220.

Watt, Kate Varnell and Kathleen C. Lonsdale. “Dickens Composed: film and television adaptations 1897-2001.” Dickens on Screen. Edited by John Glavin. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 201-216.


“Coming Home from Church.” Illustration by Hablot Knight Brown, otherwise known as ‘Phiz.’ Dombey and Son. London, 1846.

“Dombey and Son frontispiece.” Illustration by Hablot Knight Brown, otherwise known as ‘Phiz.’ Dombey and Son. London, 1846.

“Mr. Carker in his Hour of Triumph.” Illustration by Hablot Knight Brown, otherwise known as ‘Phiz.’ Dombey and Son. London, 1846.

Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle’s Wives and Daughters

By Andrea Coldwell, Coker College

wivesanddaughtersThe final episode of Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle’s 1999 Wives and Daughters offered its viewers the happy ending that generations of Elizabeth Gaskell’s readers had missed. The adaptation garnered attention both as a new product by the team then famous for their wildly popular adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) and as a venture into uncharted territory. Though Elizabeth Gaskell’s reputation has grown significantly since the release of the series, in 1999 television reviewers labeled the novelist “overlooked.” In spite of this, Wives and Daughters was the first of several popular adaptations that reworked Gaskell’s novels to address twenty-first-century issues with roots in Victorian culture.1 While Davies and Birtwistle’s miniseries addresses many areas of common ground between the nineteenth century and the present, it is their ending to Gaskell’s unfinished novel that most notably draws together the themes of scientific curiosity, social and biological evolution, and colonization that play a less central role in the novel.

Elizabeth Gaskell died before completing the final chapters of Wives and Daughters, which had been serialized monthly from 1864 to 1866. This lack of closure has posed a challenge for readers as well as for the screenwriters. Although claims that “Davies has supplied the lost denouement with surprise and style,” The Sunday Telegraph quotes Birtwistle as noting, “We had quite a debate about it. It was clear what Gaskell wanted to happen. We’ve had to come up with the ‘how.’” The pair chose an ending that is both “happy” in the traditional sense of Victorian novels—Molly Gibson and Roger Hamley marry—and unconventional as well—the pair picks up with Roger’s comparative osteology just where he left off, on the plains of Africa (where to the shock of some audiences, Molly is pictured wearing trousers).

These choices in turn shape audiences’ views of what goes before. Scholar Katherine Byrne points out that Molly’s activities throughout the series accentuate her interest in science and learning, playing up what Byrne sees as merely “potential” in the novel’s heroine. Indeed, in the novel, Mr. Gibson puts careful limits on Molly’s education and accomplishments; she must struggle for every lesson beyond basics. Byrne also notes that the screen Molly is healthier than her novelistic predecessor, a young woman who would be unlikely to survive an African safari. According to Gaskell’s editor, Frederic Greenwood, Gaskell intended that Roger return to Africa alone and that the couple be united afterwards in England where he would become a famous professor at a university. In the novel, Molly’s curiosity about science is largely limited to reading. In the film however, her active investigation of plants and insects joins with the intimacy of sharing a microscope with Roger to transition her from interested hobbyist to budding amateur scientist—precisely the sort of mate who might travel with him to Africa rather than tying him to an English lecture hall.

By foregrounding scientific investigation as a bond between Molly and Roger, the series conclusion cements its emphasis on Victorian scientific inquiry. The series is full of commentary on the nature versus nurture question. For example, it expands on Gaskell’s hints about both how various young people have been raised and their innate characteristics. How is it that the two Hamley brothers differ so greatly after growing up under similar conditions, and what in Molly’s and Cynthia’s childhoods and educations resulted in their very different approaches to people and social codes?  For example, on the surface, it might seem that Cynthia is the better educated of the pair. However, both the novel and the series make it clear that her education is largely for show and that she lacks the thoughtfulness and attentiveness that Molly has been trained in throughout her life.

Likewise, the series builds on Gaskell’s allusions to the debates that raged in the 1830s concerning appropriate scientific mindsets and methodologies. Where Gaskell gives a title or a brief comment, the miniseries builds in a conversation, essentially annotating for modern audiences what well-informed middle class Victorians might already know, if only by hearsay. One example of this expansion occurs when the Hamley brothers come to dine with the Gibsons. Mr. Gibson comments on Roger’s paper (in advance of its presence in the novel), and Mrs. Gibson is drawn to ask about comparative osteology. In the course of his brief explanation, Roger notes jokingly that “it shows that we’re more nearly related to the great apes than some of us might care to think.” With Cynthia’s response that “you wouldn’t need to be a scientist to come to that conclusion,” his light tone points to the currency of the debate, even amongst nonspecialists. In the novel, the conversation between Roger and Mr. Gibson separates them: “Roger, who ought to have made himself agreeable to one or the other of the young ladies, was exceedingly interested in what Mr Gibson was telling him of a paper on comparative osteology in some foreign journal of science” (chapter 24). By dramatizing this as a general conversation, the series implies that this is a common topic of conversation, rather than one confined to men or even to scientists. Molly has found scientific books interesting, and Cynthia can follow the spirit, if not the details, of the argument. Far from being earth shattering, the debate over details of what would become evolutionary theory is offered as simply the dinner table conversation of the day.

As important is the inclusion of African scenes in the series, not excepting the final images of the newlyweds isolated in a desert landscape. The novel gives little detail about Roger’s experiences abroad, simply summarizing a few aspects of his letters to demonstrate that Molly cares more deeply about his welfare than Cynthia does. In addition to these summaries, the series shows Molly tracking Roger’s progress across a map of Africa and moving between letters and texts to learn more about the places and species he describes. More significantly, Roger himself is frequently shown making his way across desolate landscapes, the only European in the shot and in his party. He gazes at novel species and is gazed at in return by a group of African women. When he is ill, he is carried by members of his group, and he is also shown sitting in camp with them. While these scenes bring Africa into the series more vividly than its depiction in the novel, it is worth noting that viewing audiences know little more than the novel’s readers about the where’s and when’s of Roger’s trip. The Africa of the miniseries is still a monolithic continent waiting for European exploration, even as the African scenes ask viewers to consider the roles that African and colonial settings play in Victorian fiction.

Finally, though, these issues are tangential to Gaskell’s novel, in which, as Birtwistle points out in her interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gaskell offers an “authoritative feeling of what it’s like to be alive for a wide range of people. Nothing’s forced about her writing. She has great confidence to write about what are pretty ordinary lives in some cases.” Although readers and viewers love Molly Gibson, characters repeatedly note that she is just an ordinary girl. She’s not as pretty or instantly attractive as Cynthia, and even Lady Harriet labels her only “my favorite young woman.”  Yet, in the end, viewers see her embarked on the final leg of an expedition of a type that changed scientific thinking in the nineteenth century and, with that thinking, many aspects of social life. As a result, one effect of Davies and Birtwistle’s choices is that the series demonstrates the complex ways by which the lives of “pretty ordinary” people come up against questions and issues that continue to perplex and stimulate readers and viewers more than a century later.

Discussion Questions:

In Wives and Daughters, Gaskell spends a significant portion of the novel narrating emotional and thought processes in response to events. How does switching to film, where these internal monologues are translated into conversation or shots of a character thinking, alter the audience’s perception of the characters?

For the miniseries, Davies and Birtwistle created an ending to Molly’s story, something Gaskell certainly intended to do before her death, though her publisher indicated that Gaskell planned for the pair to settle in London rather than travelling to Africa. How does Davies and Birtwistle’s ending help to emphasize their interest in the changing climate for scientific investigation during the early Victorian period?  What might these choices about how to end an unfinished work tell us about the roles of conclusions in literary works?

Education for both men and women plays an important role in both Gaskell’s novel and in the miniseries. For example, Cynthia and Osbourne seem both better educated and more polished than their siblings when they’re first introduced, but both the novel and the adaptation undermine this initial judgment by showing that Roger and Molly make better use of more limited resources. What trends emerge in these discussions of social, moral, and intellectual education?  How do those trends shift when we consider gender or class as an aspect of education?

In adapting Wives and Daughters for modern audiences, Davies and Birtwistle both increase the emphasis on the details of Roger’s scientific study and shift the emphasis of discussions about his travels from African people to science. They preserve, for example, little or none of Mr. Gibson’s talk about and mimicry of stereotypes of African people. What could these changes tell us about changes in audience?  How have our perceptions of Africa changed?  What about our perceptions of science (and particularly of evolutionary biology)?

Further Reading:

Boiko, Karen. “Reading and (Re)Writing Class: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Wives and Daughters’.” Victorian Literature and Culture 33.1 (2005):85-106.

Byrne, Katherine. “Anxious Journey’s and Open Endings: Sexuality and the Family in the BBC’s Wives and Daughters (1999).” Adapting Gaskell: Screen and Stage Versions of

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction. Ed. Loredana Salis. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. 77-95.

Endersby, Jim. “Sympathetic Science: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, and the Passions of Victorian Naturalists.” Victorian Studies 51.2 (Winter 2009): 299-320.

Greenwood, Frederic.”Wives and Daughters: Concluding Remarks.” The Victorian Web. Accessed 30 August 2016.

Gritten, David. Review of BBC Wives and Daughters, by Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle. The Telegraph Accessed 10 June 2016.

Gritten, David. “Will BBC’s Latest Literary Export Be the Next Jane Austen?” The Los Angeles Times, 12 August 2000, Accessed 10 June 2016.

Litvack, Leon. “Outposts of Empire: Scientific Discovery and Colonial Displacement in Gaskell’s ‘Wives and Daughters’.” The Review of English Studies 55.222 (July 2004): 727-758.

“Wives and Daughters.” Masterpiece Theatre. Web. 15 June 2016.

1.Both the miniseries North and South (2004), adapted by Sandy Welch, and the miniseries Cranford (2007), created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, attracted wide audiences.

Sandy Welch’s North & South

By Elizabeth McAdams, University of Michigan

Promotional image from BBC Archive

From November to December of 2004, BBC One ran North & South, Sandy Welch’s serial adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel of the same name. Welch claimed fidelity to the text as her intention for the adaptation, making only those changes she felt Gaskell herself would have made “if she’d had the time.” [1] While she revered other Victorian and Romantic adaptations, Welch worried that her North & South might be lumped together with “coach-and-horses drama[s]” or “piece[s] about dresses and dances.” To that end, she repeatedly draws the viewer’s attention to the industrialization of northern Victorian England, using shots of Margaret’s reflection in the window of a moving railroad carriage and views of inside of the cotton factories that are so glaringly absent from much of the original text. In the first episode, Margaret finds herself briefly lost in the middle of the factory floor with the “fluff” of the cotton (that will later prove so fatal to Betsy Higgins) floating through the air like snow.

Welch’s emphasis on industrialization led her to insert a significant scene in the Great Exhibition of 1851, condensing into one moment many arguments about empire, class, and industrialization that Gaskell articulated over several scenes in the original text. For modern students of the Victorian era, the reality of the Great Exhibition can be hard to conceptualize. Thanks to Welch’s small divergence from Gaskell’s text, this moment offers a starting place for a conversation about intersectional issues of race, class, and culture (to name a few). The title of the event, “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,” itself raises questions about industrialization and globalization, both topics mentioned throughout Gaskell’s novel but strikingly foregrounded by this new context. The film displays, rather than debates, England’s role in the global cotton industry.

Welch also diverges from the novel in her depiction of the Higgins family. Where Gaskell’s Betsy Higgins is narratively defined by the conflict between her own fervent devotion and her father’s lack of religious conviction, Welch’s Betsy Higgins functions as an intermediary between Margaret’s Southern gentility and her father’s proto-Marxism. She grounds debates about the relationship between “workers” and “masters” in logic, rather than the religious doctrine Gaskell employs. While this may strike devotees of Victorian culture as an anachronistic shift, it allows the adaptation to frame the debates in terms familiar to modern audiences. Rather than an historical artifact, the class debate becomes vividly modern. This adaptation can immerse students in Victorian realities, either delivered piecemeal in clips or, for the brave of heart, taken wholesale in all five hours.

Discussion Questions:

What do the pivotal scenes set in the factory and the Great Exhibition help us to understand about these historical events and settings? Which details does Welch emphasize or introduce?

Has Welch achieved her goal of differentiating her adaptation from “coach-and-horse drama[s]”? How so? What are the underlying factors of her concern? Why might she consider the comparison to be inaccurate or problematic?

How do the subtle modifications to the Higgins family and their rhetoric change our understanding of the class conflict between “workers” and “masters”? Does this help us to empathize or prevent us from accurately historicizing?

Further Reading:

Harris, Margaret. “Taking Bearings: Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South Televised.” Sydney Studies in English 32 (2006): 65-82.

Hale, David. “Map Of London 1851 – Cross’s London Guide.” Map Of London 1851 – Cross’s London Guide. Map and Plan Collection Online, 7 Mar. 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

Shannon, Sarah. “Love in a Cold Climate.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 10 Nov. 2004. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.