Taking bearings: Elizabeth Gaskell’s 'North and South' televised

Margaret Harris


The designation ‘Mrs Gaskell’ has been damning. This form of address, emphasising her (willingly embraced) roles as wife and mother, was reinforced over time as literary historians based her reputation on the ‘charming’ Cranford, allowing her ability in delineating the restricted sphere of domesticity, but denying her range. Lord David Cecil is exemplary: in his judgement, she is a domestic novelist with real facility in presenting feeling, while ‘As for the industrial novels, it “would have been impossible for her if she tried, to have found a subject less suited to her talents”’. It would be anachronistic now to embark on a defence of Gaskell against Cecil. Jenny Uglow’s description of her as ‘an original, passionate and sometimes rather strange writer’ states an agreed late-twentieth century position consequent on Gaskell’s instatement as an industrial novelist and ‘social explorer’4 by Raymond Williams, John Lucas, and others from the late 1950s. It is the transgressive and confronting Gaskell that viewers encounter in Sandy Welch’s script and Brian Percival’s direction of the 2004 BBC-TV version of North and South, her fourth novel. This production was hugely successful, topping the BBC’s poll of viewers to determine ‘Best Drama’ of the year with a decisive 49.43% of the vote

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