By Elizabeth McAdams, University of Michigan
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.”  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.
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?
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.