Although I still do love the novel (it's so tightly-paced, so clever, so true in its insights, and so concisely written), I must confess that another story has displaced it from its pedestal as my favorite period romance.
You must understand: I don't have much interest in the romance genre, per se. I think most of it is embarrassing drek and little more than emotional porn for women. I do like romances that take place against the backdrop of some other, more interesting context, most definitely. In the case of Pride & Prejudice, that context is the English social norms of the late 1700s. Although I love many, many things about the story, I have often found myself wishing for a bit more of Mr. Darcy's perspective. I suppose that not having it is a big part of how suspense and drama are generated, but keeping him as little more than an attractive mystery for the majority of the proceedings is frustrating, to say the least.
In any case, the other big objection to Pride & Prejudice is that it's not actually about anything. Social norms are all well and good, but they're really a bit of fluff when you stop and think about it. They change with the time and the place and put forward no real philosophical challenge to wrestle with, just lots of gasps and whispers. You just find yourself wishing that these people would cut through all the formalities and crap and sort themselves out, already.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine lent me a copy of the 2004 BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North & South, telling me that if I liked Pride & Prejudice, I'd like this story too. To be honest, I went into it prepared to dislike it as a poor rip-off of the earlier work, much like how the Twilight series has inspired a deluge of New Teen Paranormal Romance (which is not to say that I think Twilight is great art by any means, or that it comes anywhere close to being in the same class as Pride & Prejudice.)
So I sat down to watch it and gave it the benefit of the doubt at first. It slowly drew me in, I admit. I found myself fascinated by the backdrop: the cultural transition from a predominantly agricultural economy (taken for granted in the background of Pride & Prejudice, which was set about 70 years earlier) to an industrial one. All of the old order is being upended; this change is happening faster in the north of England than in the south; there is tension between the old privileged classes and this newly-rich entrepreneurial one; women's position in society is changing because suffrage has made inroads and women go to work alongside men in the factories; the environmental upheaval is having a terrible effect on public health; the beginning of labor disputes between factory owners and the unions is going through birthing pangs, with a great deal of volatility on both sides. I was engaged by the romance, definitely, but I was fascinated by all the forces acting on the lovers, and I was caught philosophically between these two main characters, because I was given enough information to understand both of their perspectives and to see that there was no easy resolution to their conflict, because their conflict was larger than themselves. They couldn't just "cut through all the crap and sort themselves out, already", because they both had excellent reasons to be doing exactly what they were doing and to continue doing it. So the real question became: could they sort themselves out at all? The gap seemed unbridgeable unless both of them gave way, at least somewhat.
Some aspects of the two stories' plots are very similar: an early poor impression of the man (although in this case, with much better reason than Mr. Darcy's simple refusal to dance with a stranger at a party: Mr. Thornton viciously beats a weaker man); an intelligent, high-spirited woman who speaks her mind; a rejected marriage proposal halfway through that wasn't preceded by anything even vaguely resembling a mutually friendly, flirty conversation, so why the heck does the man think he has chance of succeeding?; a reason for the man to think the woman's character is damaged in some way, making her undesirable; a final resolution where all the misunderstandings are cleared up and everybody realizes that they're really a capital match and they ride off together. This many similarities between the two stories annoyed me. I couldn't help but think that North & South had copied all the major plot elements, turned them a bit darker and more gritty, estranged the lovers more severely, and yanked in a bunch of far-too-neat and out-of-character plot elements at the very end to suddenly go from all the grey and grit to a sunny sexy ending (which, even in my sour state, I had to acknowledge was one of the best-played final romantic scenes I'd ever watched). Major characters are dying right and left, the woman suddenly inherits a boatload of money, and whee! Kiss! Curtain. After I finished watching the BBC miniseries of North & South for the first time, I stormed around for a few minutes, annoyed with the whole thing for being so good until the endgame and then completely falling apart in a hack-writer sort of way.
A day or so later, I found myself thinking about it all again, especially that ending, and the bits I had thought were out of character, and I thought, maybe, just maybe, I didn't really understand the characters at all, and what they'd each done at the end had made a kind of sense. Then I thought a bit more about the unexpected proposal and what led up to it and thought, hey wait, Mr. Thornton didn't go into it thinking that he had a chance of succeeding. He pretty much knew he was going to fail but he felt obligated to do it anyway, which was interesting, and he had some very small, passionate hope that it would be accepted. The forces that led up to his sense of obligation were entirely believable and interesting in themselves. Similarly, the forces that led up to Margaret Hale doing what she did and leaving him feeling obliged to her were also perfectly within the realm of believability. There was no contrived melodrama here: philosophically, both characters were acting consistently and at cross-purposes, and what happened when the angry mob of strikers attacked them was a logical conclusion to the situation. Even the forces that led to the mob made sense. I fully understood Margaret's motivations and how they did not include any attempt to lure Mr. Thornton towards her and at the same time, I fully understood why he chose to reveal himself to her and to ask her to marry him. You could see the imminent train wreck. When it came time for Margaret's character to appeared damaged, I liked how that unfolded––again, perfectly understanding her motivations––and I liked Mr. Thornton's way of dealing with it––again, perfectly consistent with his character as well. I liked how compelling the plot was, and how much it was based on strong characters and a historical backdrop that had real philosophical teeth.
I didn't like how so many characters were conveniently dying off at the end, but then, people die. Mr. Bell was certainly a bit of a fairy-godmother matchmaker throughout the story, so his role at the end was not inconsistent with that behavior, at least.
Unlike with Mr. Darcy and Lizzy, there was never any doubt in my mind that Mr. Thornton had fallen pretty thoroughly in love with Margaret very early on, in that doomed, "Of course I'm attracted to the one person I can't have" sort of way, so despite his initial status as a villain, he was simultaneously a tragic figure that I found myself rooting for.* This is a powerful, riveting combination, and the force of it drew my attention so thoroughly that I found myself utterly fascinated by him. I must admit: this was not true of Mr. Darcy the first time I encountered Pride & Prejudice. Without picking up on all the character subtleties in Mr. Darcy (which Colin Firth played so skillfully that I missed most of them on first viewing but I now see them as glaringly obvious), we have no reason to believe that he cares a whit for Lizzy until he suddenly shows up almost out of nowhere with an awkward proposal that leaves you thinking, "WTF?!" Of course, once you know the plot and characters of Pride & Prejudice well, it's easy to read between the lines and figure out that Mr. Darcy is in the same position as Mr. Thornton (although Darcy is perhaps less of a true villain and more of just a shy, misunderstood, stick-up-his-ass sort of personality). Mr. Thornton, on the other hand, is plenty hot-blooded and outspoken, and his very lack of gentility is one of his strengths in the life he's made for himself. Being a self-made man, not one who's inherited a mansion and tenants and a life of leisure traipsing from one country estate to another, he's a lot harder and more pragmatic than Mr. Darcy. Although Mr. Thornton doesn't hide his feelings as much as Mr. Darcy does, the task of portraying him requires no less subtlety, and Richard Armitage is no less skillful than Firth in doing so. What Firth does is keep a lid on Darcy until we get a wild explosion that reveals just how much has been silently going on underneath. By contrast, Armitage starts Mr. Thornton off without any visible restraint and then has the similarly difficult task of convincing us that Thornton is not the vicious brute that he initially appears to be, without refuting our first glimpse of the character: in Thornton's eyes, his actions are entirely consistently throughout the story, although by the end of it we don't seem him as a villain at all.
The secondary characters in North & South are stronger than those in Pride & Prejudice, I must admit. Mrs. Thornton and Nicholas Higgins stand out, and I absolutely love Mrs. Thornton: there's a strong female character for you! The only secondary characters in Pride & Prejudice that leave an impression (e.g., Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine) are all somewhat caricatured. By contrast, Mrs. Thornton and Higgins feel just as real and intelligent and reasonably motivated as the two main lovers do. These secondary characters of course serve a purpose in the plot, but they have their own rich tapestry of lives and histories and are compelling in and of themselves.
The quality of the acting in North & South is easily at the same level as that in Pride & Prejudice; there is not a single off-note and there are plenty of notes that tug you towards the characters. They really did assemble a fantastic cast that had plenty of chemistry, and not just between the two leads (who have it in spades).
Setting aside the filmed adaptations: although I'll say that the novel version of Pride & Prejudice is still superior to North & South in terms of conciseness, wit, technical skill, and speed of the plot, North & South has more philosophical meat to it, a nearly equal time spent on the inner lives of both of its lead characters, some really lovely and insightful ways of describing emotions, and a backdrop that is far more interesting. If you haven't checked out this wonderful story, you really should!
* Which seems to be Richard Armitage's speciality, if Guy of Gisbourne is any indication.