The prime characteristic of the British C19th novel is its length. Novels originally published in 20-odd installments soon built up their word count. Bound together in one volume, they can be quite imposing and off-putting to modern day readers. Frequently audiences are introduced to the great classics by televised costume-drama.
When it comes to Dickens, I admit I am one of them. The BBC adaptation of Bleak House had me joining a read-a-thon on the original BBC Bigreaders discussion board. Weekly installments in line with the original serial publication and a winter well-spent. My Everyman’s hardback edition of Bleak House , complete with the original illustrations by Phiz, would now accompany me to a desert island. I also know that Clamb in the series, was firstly given a name and a much larger part to provide a dramatic foil to Tulkinghorn. But imagine I was a student using the series as substitute for reading. There’s a pitfall for the unwary to fall into.
How about more controversial additions to classic texts? Again that BBC Bigreaders board was up in arms about the opening episode of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South. which portrayed John Thornton, the master of a cotton mill, as a brute. Dramatic effect to grab the attention of notoriously fickle C21st viewers certainly but was the character assassination justified?
That wasn’t a question I could answer until now – North and South having just reached the summit of Mount TBR some four years after the series was broadcast. My first full-length Gaskell after being blown away by some of her shorter fiction earlier this year. Unfortunately I was only slightly buffeted by this one. I’m displaying classic symptoms of not being able to enjoy a novel when I dislike the main character. That character being the contemptuous Southerner, Margaret. (Well, I am originally from a Lancastrian (former) cotton-mill town …..). So are my sympathies aligned with John Thornton? More so, but not entirely. My problem here is one of pacing. It’s all too slow. 450 pages of two characters falling in love despite themselves. One proud and contemptuous, the other not of the same class. Let me think, has this been done before? Unfortunately yes, and with much more wit. And that is how North and South has been summarised in my mind – Pride and Prejudice without the humour.
A totally unfair synopsis given the agenda of industrialisation that forms the backdrop of Gaskell’s novel. Just a bit worthy and frankly unfascinating. (The reason behind the exaggerated brutality in episode one of the serial?) There are also two highly coincidental and unswallowable plot devices, enforced, in fairness, by the original publication schedule. And the ending? While I shed a tear (in relief?), it was so sudden. All of which leaves North and South not quite the masterpiece I was anticipating. The most enjoyable aspect of this reading, unfortunately, the sumptuous binding of the Folio Society edition. Oh dear, I really can be so superficial at times!
It transpires I have finished North and South just in time. Autumn is here and with it the delights of another BBC extravaganza. This year we’re back to Dickens – 16 weeks of Little Dorrit. Another C19th novel I haven’t read. I await with baited breath the outrage of the purists.