Rosy Thornton is a lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge. She is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, having formerly been a Fellow of New Hall for 16 years. She teaches property law, landlord and tenant law and Women and the Law, and has published in these fields. Rosy's first novel, More Than Love Letters, came out in 2006. Her second novel, Hearts and Minds (a tale of the internal politics of a fictional Cambridge college), was published in hardback in 2007; the paperback is due out in June 2008. Here Rosy writes about Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South.
Rosy Thornton on North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
There is something about the moral certainties of the Victorian novel which makes it perfectly suited to appeal to the teenage ideologue. Her distinctive blending of the romantic ideal with a keen sense of wrongs to be righted made Elizabeth Gaskell the favourite author of my student years, and North and South, in particular, my favourite book. (I shall leave the Freudians to speculate as to why I should have chosen for that special distinction - ahead of Mary Barton, for example, or the tear-jerking Ruth - a novel whose hero, John Thornton, bears the same name as my father!) The pivotal riot scene, which sees heroine Margaret Hale shielding Mr Thornton from the mob of angry mill-hands and being accidentally struck unconscious by a hurled stone, never failed to provide me with the twin thrills of moral outrage and romantic longing.
She lay like one dead on Mr. Thornton's shoulder. Then he unfolded his arms, and held her encircled in one for an instant: 'You do well!' said he. 'You fall - you hundreds - on one man; and when a woman comes before you, to ask you for your own sakes to be reasonable creatures, your cowardly wrath falls upon her!'I read it until the pages drooped.
Our reading tastes, of course, shift with age and I had not thought about the book in 20 years when, in November 2004, the BBC screened Sandy Welch's excellent television adaptation. Although substantial liberties were taken, especially with the ending, the serial captured all of the passion and moral fervour of the original. It had me racing off to wallow in a re-reading of the novel. It also found me logging on to the BBC's drama messageboard, where a group of like-minded fans were discussing the book and its adaptation in terms at once emotionally charged and impressively well-informed. When the BBC, instituting economies, dispensed with the messageboard a few months later, a group of the debaters set up an independent discussion forum devoted to all things North and South.
One of the things to which the new site played host was the posting by forum members of North and South 'fanfic'. Fanfic is an internet phenomenon which may be unfamiliar to readers of this blog, inhabiting as it does a very different corner of the web-based literary forest. Devotees of an author, book, film or television series post for one another's amusement their own stories or scripts based upon the original; sequels, prequels, parallel narratives, altered settings and new adventures for the characters all abound. A spot of googling and you will uncover reams of Star Trek fanfic, EastEnders fanfic, Harry Potter fanfic, Jane Austen fanfic. Did you know that Russell T. Davies, original screenwriter of the modern revival of Doctor Who, previously wrote Doctor Who fanfic on the net? Or that popular teen author Meg Cabot started out writing fanfic inspired by Anne McCaffrey's fantasy novels?
I read the North and South-inspired stories of my fellow messageboarders and was extremely impressed. I felt fired to take a stab myself, and posted an initial chapter. The response was encouraging; I wrote some more. Within three months I found to my surprise that I had completed a full-length novel: a pastiche sequel to Elizabeth Gaskell's book. Before this, I had written not a word of fiction since the 'imaginative essays' we were obliged to produce at school. In my daily existence I am a legal academic, and my output had previously included books rather more prosaic in nature, such as the less than passion-filled Property Disrepair and Dilapidations: A Guide to the Law. But the world of fanfic is a perfect training ground for the novice author. The characters are there, the setting is there, the loose threads of the plot are there, just waiting for you to take them up and set to work. Writing can be an isolating business, and feedback difficult to obtain - certainly before you reach the heady heights of securing an agent or editor. Your nearest and dearest have watched the pile of A4 paper growing on the kitchen table with alarm and despondency - the last thing they want is be asked to read it. But for the fanfic author an audience is out there, ready and waiting: they share your obsession and are thus perfectly primed to be receptive to your story. The discipline of posting finished chapters sequentially each week is also an interesting one, in an age when the magic of Microsoft has made it both easy and tempting to go back and change and tinker. Curiously, it is much the same discipline to which Gaskell was subject when writing North and South, which was originally published in weekly instalments in Dickens's Household Words. (The author herself, it must be said, did not enjoy the constraint; her preface to the eventual printed volume complained that serialization had made it 'impossible to develop the story in the manner originally intended'.)
Having completed the Gaskell pastiche, I found that I had been bitten by the writing bug, and embarked immediately upon my first independent novel, More Than Love Letters. The voice that I found emerging once I stopped writing in imitation Gaskellese was light, contemporary and mildly satirical. It also tended towards the humorous. This last came as quite a surprise, as it is difficult to discern a mote of levity in much of Gaskell's work - perhaps why Austen has survived as a more constant favourite of mine into an adulthood both more cynical and more tolerant of imperfection.
At the heart of my love of North and South is the way in which Margaret and Thornton's slowly building romantic understanding is intertwined with their political rapprochement. Gaskell famously portrays a clash of worlds and a conflict of viewpoints, gradually brought to resolution: Margaret's emotional sympathy with the plight of the individual cotton mill-hands (associated with the south and the feminine) and Thornton's focus (polarized as being north, male and cerebral) upon the overall needs of the enterprise, as being greater than its parts. It is a sign of my enduring preoccupation with the book that the same parallel lies at the heart of More Than Love Letters. My own heroine - named Margaret by her clergyman father after Margaret Hale - moves not north but east, to Ipswich, where she meets a man of importance in the town: not mill-owner and magistrate as John Thornton was in Milton Northern but the local Member of Parliament. Although the setting is contemporary, my Margaret has brought with her all the prerequisites of a Victorian heroine, from palely translucent skin to burning moral zeal. Where Margaret Hale goes about the poor working families of Milton with her basket of provisions, my Margaret ministers to the socially excluded of Ipswich through a hostel for homeless women. And the clash of ideologies is replicated as well: my MP is a New Labour pragmatist, a believer in the compromises of power and the need to focus on the bigger picture, while my Margaret represents the single-issue, non-party left, caring nothing for broader policy aims if they come at the expense of individual suffering. Just as in North and South, the working out of their political differences runs alongside the story of how they fall in love.
A shared affection for North and South and a coming together of like minds in cyberspace was responsible for more than just my own launch into the writing of fiction. Two other members of that original band of BBC messageboarders - Phillipa Ashley and Elizabeth Hanbury - have also gone on to publish novels after limbering up with 'N&S fanfic'.
The internet is a remarkable place – and an unlikely one, perhaps, in which to find Elizabeth Gaskell's great industrial novel exerting an inspirational influence 150 years after its publication.