A note on the other (Spanish) North and South in Mrs Gaskell’s North and South (1855)

North & South (Complete BBC Series) [DVD]So I was enjoying my annual appointment with the BBC series North and South (2004), based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel of the same name and starring (oh joy!) Richard Armitage as John Thornton (left) and poor Daniela Denby-Ashe, excised from this version of the DVD cover (because the BBC are nothing if not pragmatic in assessing the greatest attractions of the series), as Margaret Hale. The picture on the left links to the amazon.co.uk page where you can acquire this great treasure for just £5 (at time of writing). That’s just £1.25 an episode! It’s a bargain, for what is without a doubt my favourite BBC adaptation of recent years, and you would be FOOLS to pass it up.*

Anyway … back to the point … so I was watching North and South, yes, again, and this time round I was struck by the subplot involving Margaret’s brother Frederick, who is in the navy. He has been part of a mutiny (against a cruel and tyrannical captain, of course, so it’s all entirely honorable) and in consequence has had to flee England for Spain. Now, I was familiar with the subplot (which intersects with the main plot in some important ways that I won’t describe, for fear of spoiling it for those of you who have just bought your DVD sets), but for some reason I’d never really thought before about the way Frederick’s story fits into the geopoetic framework of the novel: that is, the distinction between North (Mr Thornton and Darkshire / Lancashire) and South (Margaret / Hampshire).

In the BBC adaptation, Fred’s life in the southern Spanish city of Cadiz is mentioned, but we don’t get much detail on it (Rupert Evans plays Fred, right – note how his free Spanish life is reflected in his hair and dress, compared to poor suited-up John, above). In the novel, which I reread over a weekend earlier this month, we learn rather more about his situation. After a period in South America, he is now at Cadiz, working for an English merchant called Mr Barbour (an old friend of his father’s), and is engaged to Barbour’s daughter, the Anglo-Spanish Dolores. In Cadiz, although he must live under an assumed name, he has credit and prospects, which improve immensely with his marriage at the end of the novel. Fred’s relationship with Dolores is played out against the history of Dolores’s own parents’ relationship, in which Barbour, ‘a stiff Presbyterian’ when Mr Hale knew him, has evidently relaxed enough to marry his Roman Catholic wife. Fred, too, has converted to Catholicism (Ch. XXXI), and this transformation is reflected on a more immediate level in his language, as his letters arrive ‘with little turns and inversions of words which proved how far the idioms of his bride’s country were infecting him‘ (Ch.XLI; my emphasis).

The distinction between the English North and South, and its eventual breach in John and Margaret’s marriage** is thus underpinned by the rapprochement (infection?) between a European North (England) and South (Spain) represented by Fred and Dolores. As Margaret’s reflections on hearing of Fred’s marriage reveal, this implies a complication of the hierarchies at the novel’s core, even if Margaret herself cannot quite let go of them:

Barbour and Co. was one of the most extensive Spanish houses, and into it he was received as a junior partner. Margaret smiled a little, and then sighed as she remembered afresh her old tirades against trade. Here was her preux chevalier of a brother turned merchant, trader! But then she rebelled against herself, and protested silently against the confusion implied between a Spanish merchant and a Milton mill-owner (Ch. XLI).

In fact, Cadiz becomes a kind of code in the novel for freedom, as Margaret tells her cousin Edith: ‘It is a sort of “Give me children, or else I die.” I’m afraid my cry is, “Let me go to Cadiz, or else I die.”” (Ch. XLVIII), which she follows up swiftly with the declaration that ‘I shall never marry.’ Of course, in the end Margaret never does make it to Cadiz, but she does end up with ‘a splendid black lace mantilla, chosen by Dolores herself for her unseen sister-in-law’ (Ch.XLI), which, we must assume, will be either worn or displayed in her Milton sitting room, a material symbol of that other marriage between North and South.

The Cadiz subplot is only barely mentioned in the BBC series, but the complex hierarchy of Anglo-Spanish Norths and Souths is supplemented, slightly, by the introduction of another distinction only tangentially present in the novel: between the global North (Europe, including England) and South (Latin America). In the novel, South America appears only in passing as the place Fred had to flee to to divest himself of his English identity, and we learn of it only in a throwaway line about a conversation with his father, in which ‘he interested Mr. Hale with vivid, graphic, rattling accounts of the wild life he had led in Mexico, South America, and elsewhere’ (Ch. XXX). In the BBC series, this element is missing, but instead another character introduces Argentina as the place where, terminally ill, he will ‘have no need of money’ and will go to ‘live out his last days in the sun’ (I am being coy in case you really did buy that box set and don’t want to be spoiled…).

So Mrs Gaskell’s North and South is not only the story of the ‘marriage’ of England’s industrial North and bucolic South, but also of the Anglo-Saxon North and Latin South. In the BBC’s North and South, the parallel between the marriages – the potential for the mutual transformation of cultures – is played down, while the implications of the Latin world as a source of freedom (from the law, from money, from identity, from life) are played up. I’m sure Victorianist scholars have written a great deal about this element of the novel; I’m certainly going to follow it up. In the meantime, though, I might just watch that last episode one more time…

* And you can also read the novel for free! on Project Gutenberg

** Not a spoiler unless you have never read any 19th-century novel ever.


  1. Stuart Davis · · Reply

    Have watched the mini-series (twice – there’s an Armitage fan in my house too) but not read the book, so it was interesting to hear more about the details there. And of course it’s not just Spain but Andalusia, which I would assume was as much bathed in mythology in the 1850s English cultural imaginary as it is now…

    1. I think we Armitage fans are legion 😉 And yes, Andalusia – and indeed, not just Andalusia, but Cadiz, which thanks to Byron and the sherry trade was very prominent in the mid-19th-century English cultural imaginary. I’m sure this has been done to death by Victorianists already, but it’s totally fascinating – especially the consumer goods dimension, from “Milton”‘s cotton to Cadiz’s shawls… Interestingly, exactly what it is Fred & Mr Barbour trade in is never specified…

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