I dream all the time that I am Mr. Thornton
[Please note that this post gives a peculiarly personal reading of North & South, not the only one, and certainly not the one that I present in the classroom when I teach the series. Speaking as a historian, I'd agree that Thornton is more politically culpable than this reading allows him to be. I'm also considering here only the series as it unfolds here -- not as a representation of history, or an adaptation, however successful or unsuccessful, of the novel. This interpretation thus concerns only my identification with the character, though I throw in a few pieces of historical or literary commentary here and there because that's the way I am. This is the prologue -- there are four episodes.]
The lord of all he surveys — or the slave? Our first glimpse of Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), from Margaret’s perspective, in episode 1 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
I’ve written extensively before about my bizarre over-identification with Richard Armitage as a person standing on the brink of middle age. But that came after, once I had learned something about him. I suppose that the first post in this blog should have been titled “In the beginning was Mr. Thornton.” But.
Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), millimeters away from his first kiss of Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) at the end of episode 4 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
I guess that other women dream about having Mr. Thornton look at them with suppressed desire across a crowded room or, more boldly, about kissing Mr. Thornton. Or about something even more bold that didn’t make it onto the screen. I fantasize about those things sometimes when I’m awake. I’ve watched that kiss dozens over dozens of times, often to get through grading. I make no apologies for being a garden-variety over-educated forty-something single white female heterosexual. I’m totally a member of Mr. Armitage’s key initial target demographic. I love that kiss! But that’s not my main dream.
I don’t dream of kissing Mr. Thornton. I dream that I am Mr. Thornton. In the factory. At the desk. Walking through the streets of Milton. Dealing with Higgins. Responding to Mrs. Thornton. Running through the mill. (I’ve never dreamt I’m proposing to Margaret, or kissing her, although I’m guess that that will come, too.) Probably once every two weeks or so, for two years now, which is a long duration and a high frequency for a recurring dream, and which some experts would diagnose as a symptom of PTSD. This week I dreamt I was Mr. Thornton, hearing of Mr. Hale’s death.
Richard Armitage has never been in danger of being stalked by me, though well-meaning and hostile readers alike often made me worry about whether that was my actual problem and whether I was lying to myself about it by refusing to acknowledge it. Moreover, the intensity of the feelings I’ve had made me wonder if there was something sick about them. And I’m ethically bound to try not to hurt Mr. Armitage, as the muse who saved me, and so I have taken people’s worries seriously and written about them.
But. The real crazy? Somewhere deep in my psyche, some piece of me has concluded that she is Mr. Thornton. And she won’t let go of him.
The Thorntons (Richard Armitage, Sinead Cusack, Jo Joyner) at home in episode 2 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Every strong identification I experience when watching North & South occurs with a male character, and these identifications explain why North & South spoke to me so compellingly when I began watching it the second time. On the whole, although I enjoy reading fanfic in which Mr. Thornton has a sex life, I’m not overwhelmed with sexual fantasies about him. Obviously this statement is potentially more complex than it appears, because I’d never claim I don’t experience romantic or sexual fantasies about Richard Armitage, though that, too, is a complex problem that will eventually merit further discussion. But I think the reason I don’t think about Thornton much as a romantic partner is that I identify with him way too much.
Coincidentally or not, I sense a lot in common with Mr. Thornton socially. I see my family in his: the moralistic mother who shows her love in the first instance by maintaining her standards, who’s had to be strong because of the shame of the absent father (in my case, a father who spent thirty years in a faithful love affair with a beer can), the younger sibling who’s seen as frivolous because of an ostensible lack of self-discipline, the problems of the social climber. And like Thornton I know that the problems that bind us together, the very fact that we can fight with each other, means that we cling together much more closely than the Hales, who can barely speak to each other honestly. There are other things, too, beyond the family enmeshment.
However: the decisive issue for me in watching North & South remains Thornton’s experience of work as an ethical act of value in itself, a practical investment in the world, and a principled, structured way of interacting with the people around him. I am invested in Thornton’s way of being as recognizably my own. And so I watched, in fascination, in horror, in grief, in understanding, as I saw him formulate and espouse those commitments, and then pay the price for having done so.
Running to fix it, dashing to make it right. Or applying too much effort? A scene that often replays itself in my dreams: Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) runs in pursuit of Stevens in episode 1 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Seen from the perspective that captured me unconsciously that night, North & South presents mostly a story of challenged or failed vocation. Since this is the twenty-first century’s vision of English bourgeois / industrial society of the nineteenth century, the series gives vocations only to men — one of its more serious flaws lying in its incapacity to visualize adequately the callings of women in the society it depicts or to treat in any meaningful way, despite its gestures in that direction, the incredible burden of household and reproductive labor carried by women. Even so, the theme of problematic vocation sets the story in motion and persists through almost every moment of its narrative. The series begins with Mr. Hale’s inability to stay in the Church of England — he leaves because he is convinced he can no longer espouse its doctrines to others and remain honest — and the forced substitution of the career of tutor, which he says, somewhat defensively to his wife, who emphatically does not understand him, might be his real calling. Hale is succeeded in this pattern by his son, Frederick, who embraces a professional career that initially seems to offer him more flexibility to believe what he wishes. When Frederick stands up for principle on a ship of Her Majesty’s Navy, however, he pays the price of exile from England and separation from his family. We also see the example of Nicholas Higgins — working hard to keep his family alive and yet trying to improve his wages via his union — and the contrasting one of Boucher, who has too many children and not enough self-discipline to manage the same task. There’s Stevens, who can get ahead only by slinking around in corners, an apparent parallel to some of the less than honorable mill owners, or to Watson, who seeks to profit by speculating — by investing money without working at all. We have Mr. Bell, who gives himself to his books and dies without issue — thus un(re)productive. And Henry Lennox and Mr. Latimer: comfortable, rationalist administrators who seem to follow the demands of their society, conforming to expectations or enforcing them rather than striking out on their own, or similarly, Edith’s husband, apparently quite successful primarily because he smiles and does what is asked of him.
It’s a world, in short, without any apparent vocational integrity, even though we are meant to admire those most who have the strongest sense of principle. Every man with a sense of vocation that calls his security into question is defeated or fighting for survival or exiled; those who manage to get along without principles are succeeding but, like the straw men in between them, they apparently have no vocation. The story acknowledges their success but does not ask us to admire them. Such men can, at best, hope to be like Henry Lennox: a specialist without a spirit, a hedonist without a heart. Not the man who suffers; but more importantly: not the man who will win the girl in the end.
January 2010: I recognize North & South as the world that I have been living for the previous decade. A world in which work — which was central to my life, both because my family socialized me that way, and because I had made the task of understanding myself into a profession by choosing to research a topic of intense personal significance — in itself didn’t matter any more. In that world, work was only about gaining something else. As I saw it at the time, calling and integrity were pointless, as the technocrats and the gonifs and the posturers and the profiteers and the speculators had taken over. The work was no longer for the work or for what it produced or even for the meaning of working; for most people I worked with it had become an entertaining spectator sport with arbitrary moral values assigned to wins and losses as if they meant something to people who had long ago lost their own moralities and passions. In the end the outcome of the game didn’t matter as much any more as the problem that by playing it for so long, I had made it impossible for myself to work at all. And without work, I didn’t know how to continue existing.
And so, to “me + mr. thornton.” What I write about him, in the subsequent posts, as I read him, watching Richard Armitage play him on screen, I also write of myself.