me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)5

It starts nowish! Don’t forget about the North & South global rewatch, scheduled for June 1 and 2! Times are here. Directions for connection are here.


[Previous pieces of the argument: the prologue; here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous posts. A short reminder of the way I started this series in the prologue: “What I write about Thornton … I also write of myself.” This is a personal interpretation. Also, a quick reminder that in my interpretation I’m reading from the series alone as a document and my capacity for critical perspective on it as a human and a historian — I don’t consider the book centrally in these interpretations because I didn’t read it until I had seen the series approximately twenty times.]

[This piece of my account of my response to North & South will be primarily about work. Previous parts of this piece: episode(s) 4(a)1 and 4(a)2 and 4(a)3 and 4(a)4. Apologies for the delay on this. There are also some great comments on the posts in these series. Do not neglect them; my readers have as much or more insight as I. Also, if you haven’t seen it, check out CDoart’s thoughtful response to my criticism of Thornton’s attitude in the conversation with Latimer, here.]


Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) rubs his forehead in fatigue and, perhaps, shame, during his final meeting with Mr. Bell in episode 4 of North & South. Source:


For much of the remainder of the episode, the wrap-up of the romance takes the uppermost, but although the distinction is to some extent artificial, I’m saving the Thornton / Margaret relationship for another post both because I personally find it less emotionally interesting. Also, I’d like to finish writing about the work / principle / vocation theme, which was the vital matter for me in the development of Armitagemania, as that was sparked by my strong and identification with Thornton and his problems.

Picking up with the theme, detailed last time, of Higgins as the true moral foil to Thornton (as opposed to Margaret): On some level, we can see the extent of the growth of affinity between Mr. Thornton and Higgins reflected in the lack of same between Thornton and Mr. Bell. Where Thornton could be open with Higgins in asking about Margaret after the news of Mr. Hale’s death, he remains guarded and bitter with Mr. Bell, speaking about her in an almost self-pitying way, though Bell has a great deal more news about her that Thornton would be in a position to appreciate — were he fully able to hear it.


Mr. Bell (Brian Protheroe) visits Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) at Marlborough Mills in order to obtain Thornton’s signature on his reassignment of the mill lease, in episode 4 of North & South.


I admit don’t much like the construction of this scene. After I read the book, I didn’t care for the explanation that the scriptwriters offered in the commented version of episode 4 for the rewrite of the Bell / Margaret / inheritance plot strand in the book. Moreover, Armitage is not at his best in its first half, probably not least because the whole conversation as scripted is so unbelievably contrived. It’s hard for me to believe that a male Victorian of Bell’s social status would have so casually and passive-aggressively informed his male tenant (in contrast to the book, the series does nothing to indicate that Bell’s relationship with Thornton stretches beyond that of potential creditor) of his anticipated demise. In the same vein, politeness would have required a bit more conversation around the topic than simply “I’m sorry.” Armitage does his best with the sort of startled or perplexed utterance of sympathy he makes, but even so, it’s almost too much emotion for the lower modern register of speech the writers gave all the characters in this series. We see demonstrated here that something’s to be said for conventional formulaic condolences, precisely because they mediate uncomfortable emotions and hide problematic reactions according to the norms of social consensus. Because the writers didn’t take that route with this scene (and maybe couldn’t, because they modernized the English these characters speak so much), the scene spirals down into an uncomfortable, petulant emotionality that certainly embarrasses Mr. Thornton and almost embarrasses me. Additionallly, it’s not entirely clear what Bell means when he says that Margaret is landlord “in name only.” As a single woman who’s ostensibly reached the age of majority, she owns or will own the property in her own right. There is no other “real” landlord, is there?

The nonsensical statement can only be meant as an awkward hint to Thornton that if he seeks a rapprochement with Margaret in light of this windfall, he’ll have to take the initiative, but with it, Bell provokes Thornton into an open, whiny churlishness that’s out of character for our favorite mill owner, who’s more typically silent or angry when things are going wrong than sorry for himself, at least with others. Thornton then propels himself further into a passive aggressive statement about the future of his business (is he hinting he wants a loan from Bell? if so, Bell’s not biting) and finally into a gesture (refusing to take Bell’s hand) that moves Thornton beyond rudeness not only within the canon of Milton manners, but also in that of Victorian England more generally, and well into the realm of offense. The best I can say for this scene is that we’re supposed to see that Bell, who wondered in episode 2 whether the two had a romantic interest in each other, has now perforce conceded the field to Thornton in terms of Margaret’s future and has decided to hit Thornton over the head with the information that Margaret will henceforth be a desirable marital partner and might, perhaps, be amenable to an approach from Thornton with such an alliance in mind. Uch. Poorly done.

What is interesting from my perspective, however, given the scene as written: we can read Mr. Thornton’s moodiness in this scene as constituting a refusal to take the hint (pushed onward by Bell’s elliptical statements about Margaret’s and Thornton’s opinions of each other) that he could now marry money to save Marlborough Mills. Of course, this datum is necessary for the romance arc, because otherwise the resolution of the plot, with Margaret’s money saving Marlborough Mills, would seem unbelievably crass. It’s equally helpful to the work / principle arc, however, because it makes it look like Thornton is much too ethical ever even to consider such a self-serving action. Indeed, though we can also read his words here as another statement that someone should keep out of his business, Thornton seems almost angry at the suggestion that he reconsider his stance toward Margaret. And from about 1:32 when Thornton rises and turns away from Bell, Armitage’s performance is again sovereign and superb. Nobody does humiliation like Armitage. Even in defeat, then, Mr. Thornton creates his own fortune for himself, relies on no one else, does the necessary work, takes no unfair benefit. Even in churlishness, he hangs on to his principles. Even if it means closing his ears to information that would be of assistance to him.

And then follows another one of those scenes that I resonate to, another scene that’s one of my favorites in the series. Just a glimpse of how hard Mr. Thornton works. Parasites like Bell may live off of interest and rents and the work of honest folks by virtue of their possession of real property, but Thornton, who actually makes things and keeps those workers employed, stays at the helm of his ship until the end.

If the offices at Marlborough Mills used candles, Thornton would always be burning them at both ends.


Mrs. Thornton (Sinead Cusack) covers her son (Richard Armitage) when she discovers him asleep at his desk on the morning after a long night, in episode 4 of North & South.


I love this scene so much for two reasons. The first is that I’ve spent many long nights at my own desk, to the detriment of many other aspects of my life. I know intimately what it is to work, to love work, to know that one will fail, and to keep working nonetheless, to hope against hope, and then fall down in fatigue anyway. The second reason: I’m so touched that someone recognizes his effort here and loves him for it, at least enough to cover him up and turn off the lamp. The proof is evident, here, that Thornton will take any labor upon himself necessary to save his mill, and we see the futility and a sort of innocence of culpability in his posture. Which people, after all, are discovered in inadvertent sleep by responsible adults and covered up to protect them against the chill? Vulnerable children.

But I’m conflicted, too. Because if Thornton is indeed often childish, he is emphatically not a vulnerable child. Because I’m not really sure he’s not partially culpable in what’s happening to Marlborough Mills. Because he takes pride in the way he works and always has and won’t listen to others and I’m reluctant to sympathize with him if he put himself here when he could have been sleeping in his bed, even if it is a lonely one. Because in the end, life is about the deliverable, too, not just the fulfillment of principle or the morality of work, and because, even if no one would criticize and some people would admire us for it, we can die trapped on the wires of our own principles. Because even as much as we constitute honest work as a moral activity, it’s so easy to substitute a refuge in work in itself (or mere busy-ness) for other, more valuable things, and it’s easy to elide the differences between work and busy-ness. Because we can get addicted to work and it’s not clear why that addiction should be rewarded, even with motherly love. Because the endless reading of ledgers and the attempt to forecast the future at which some of the scenes in this drama hint indicate a kind of neurotic paralysis that takes refuge in occupation as opposed to accomplishment, in self-deception about one’s own virtues as opposed to realistic self-evaluation. Because as much as he loves the mill, it will not ever love him back. Nothing could possibly repay this kind of effort, no matter what it is that Thornton gets, emotionally, from engaging in it. Because no matter how hard he works, Thornton cannot save the mill. Because: as he he cannot save the mill, Thornton cannot save himself.

I’m conflicted because this glimpse of him working despite the futility of his actions, because this implicit statement about the nobility of work and the rightness and his morals and the firmness of his steadfastness in principle, all of this only thinly disguises a death scene. Here we see the extinction of both Marlborough Mills and Mr. Thornton. After both have expired, his mother — who taught him the self-discipline and industry he admired so much, who gave him all the love he needed to make himself into a willing martyr to work and principle — drapes a shroud and blows out the candle at the mutual bier of manufacturer and mill.

Loving this scene feels like clicking “like” on a status update that describes a suicide, albeit one conducted on the most principled and elevated of terms.


(Jo Joyner) returns to Marlborough Mills to crow exuberantly over what she sees as the disastrous outcome of her brother’s (Richard Armitage) obstinacy in refusing to join Watson’s speculation, as Mrs. Thornton (Sinead Cusack) watches, in episode 4 of North & South.


Except, of course — please to excuse the inappropriate allusion — that Thornton was not dead but sleeping. Non moriar sed vivam. Unlike his father, Thornton won’t do that thing that, as Mr. Hale informs us calmly in episode 1, is a great deal worse than being imprisoned for debt. His principles keep him alive. So he finds himself, perhaps somewhat surprisingly even to himself, still living.

And, as a first matter: confronted with his sister’s (this time inadvertently comic) reproaches. It has to hurt, now, to have his so-little-genteel sister throwing the term “gentleman” around as a criticism of him, since he’s already been informed by Margaret that he’s not much of one. Fanny’s use of the term again illustrates the divergence of Milton’s definition of gentility from that of Margaret et al., but this time, as Mr. Thornton will not in future be able to “pay his own way,” he has failed even in the sense of Milton to live up to that elusive ideal. Of course, she misses the point — it’s hard to see our Thornton as all that invested in the trappings of consumption beyond maintaining his mother. Nor, do we suspect, given his rejection of Bell’s awkward hints about Margaret’s fortune, would he much want, or be capable enough of reigning in his pride to, borrow from Watson. Nonetheless, Thornton is not wholly secure in his stance with regard to what’s happened. He is indeed perturbed, as we see from one of Armitage’s key “emotional disturbance” cues for Thornton — the sudden, relatively rapid eyelid blinking he lets loose at 0:28. When Fanny’s shots fail to elicit a retort from him, she readjusts her offensive to focus on his marital prospects, but Thornton reacts slightly less to her jibe about Ann Latimer, with only a few blinks. Given that he’s never cared about the things she calls important, it makes sense that Mr. Thornton does not reply to his sister in the way that he did earlier in the episode, in defense of his principle. He would hardly have a leg to stand on, and perhaps he realizes this.


Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) listens to Fanny’s litany of consequences he’ll suffer for his unwillingness to speculate, in episode 4 of North & South. Source:


Even so, it’s curious that he says nothing in his own defense here. He notes only his successful provision for Fanny, which makes us admire his restraint, since he’s more charitable in this scene than she. I nonetheless wonder whether the absolute lack of sympathy Fanny reveals for her brother’s misfortunes here doesn’t stem from years of brotherly disdain. I hear his earlier statement, “What do you know about anything, Fanny?” ringing in my ears as the cue for her expostulation, “You have to admit I was right!” when I watch this scene. And of course, we sympathize with his very subdued plea to his mother not to “mind about the house.” This is one of about three places in the series when I wish that the film editors had let us see the expression on Thornton’s face, which would supply some vital information as to his thoughts. As it is, however, the increasing placidity of Armitage’s eyelids across the scene after an initial reaction (from the “gentleman” moment, to the “Ann Latimer” moment, to the statement about losing the house, to his expression of relief about having provided for Fanny), along with his conciliating tone at the end suggest, along with his failure to offer a self-justification, that he maintains a strong sense that he did what he believed he could, that he did what was right, and that he can live with himself. And now, we think, he will spend the next years with the person who, although she doesn’t quite exactly share his principles, has always been willing to uphold him in them.

Even in defeat, even in the wake of the injury to the livelihoods of his workers that he’s created here, then, Thornton knows he was right. In the end, it’s this conviction on his part, when he has no more pride left but only principle, that leaves the question of pride vs. principle as the motivator in his business decisions open. But there are often no prouder people than those who have nothing left of which to boast except their principle.

I admit that I’m divided in my reactions to this scene, because various interpretive stances collide here for me. I want to love Mr. Thornton for his love of work and his insistence on doing, on having done, what he perceives to be the right thing even if it disadvantages him, because I have those qualities. Equally, however, I see those stances as rigid — because I know how rigid principle can make me me — and I resist the way the series’ romance of work and principle makes me want to admire him for his principled behavior. Additionally, I have to concede, not least based on my own experiences, that he may become gradually more loyal to his principles as the mill falls into growing financial danger precisely because he unconsciously acknowledges the situation the mill is in, much more than he is willing to say to anyone. And if he knows that work will fail him, and that the mill will go under, it pays to adhere to his principles because at least they will not do so. Even as people pity him, they will look at his behavior and credit him with maintaining his ethics in a difficult situation. He will at least be able to say, notwithstanding all the carnage around him, that he never betrayed himself.

It’s admirable. It’s the kind of stance that constitutes a coherent self. It keeps him together. Earlier, I wondered if it was really a fair description of him. Now, I ask: is it enough? Does the fact that he survives the demise of Marlborough Mills and can still live with himself really say enough in favor of those principles (the romantic adherence to work and self-discipline and self-sacrifice and utilitarianism) to justify continuing with them going forward?

And if Thornton hasn’t changed: what has he really learned?


to 4(a)6, which is the end of the series on work as a theme in episode 4 of North & South

~ by Servetus on June 2, 2012.

7 Responses to “me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)5”

  1. I see your point where your principle debate leads to more clearly now, though I still am more inclined not to see his principles at work in his business decisions, but his will to do his work right in a work centered way of ethics, which adjusts and assimilates to the working environment, e.g. calling in workers from Ireland in an unpopular decision, as the production has to go on to keept the company afloat.
    In that regard, I don’t see N&S as a learning curve or development for Mr. Thornton, except that he learns to understand the South principles of life better through Margaret, as well as the opposite side of his own ‘master’s’ position through Higgins, whereas he does not open up to Mr. Bell and his more observing and researching, but not actively creating approach to life.

    With Fanny, I see the family dynamics at work, when a single mother with an older child has to cope with problems, whereas a small child is also in the family. Both will try to prevent the small child from having to deal with the hard truths and that in my opinion is the case with Fanny. The hard facts were kept from her, to give her a carefree childhood as far as the circumstances permitted.
    So she gets the nice and new cloths, whereas Mr. Thornton wears rather old and well worn gloves.
    Here I see your parallel for a caring Mr. Thornton, where the care is not necessarily wanted by the recipient. But in general, I don’t see that to be the case between Mr. Thornton and his workers. On the contrary, even Mr. Higgins seems to appreciate his concern and involvement in regard of Boucher’s son.

    Thank you for the inspiring analysis, Servetus! It gives so many points for deeper thought. I know that my defense is mainly based on many similarities I see between my own and Mr. Thornton’s approach to work and business decisions. Otherwise, I perhaps would not defend him as vehemently as I do ;o)


    • All I can say is to reiterate: “what I write of Thornton, I write of myself.” I am describing Thornton as me. It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s not intended to be.


      • Oh, I don’t see your Mr. Thornton as a not pretty picture.
        I fully agree with you, it seems, as I do form him after my own approach to work as well ;o)
        I find your thoughts and aspects of him really thought provoking, even in the small part where I see him differently, as I think everybody has a ‘blind spot’ regarding one’s own faults. I find it very fascinating, that you can analyse those aspects in him, which may make one react wrongly in a certain situation, so clearly.


  2. […] the theme of work. Previous parts of this piece: episode(s) 4(a)1 and 4(a)2 and 4(a)3 and 4(a)4 and 4(a)5.  There are also some great comments on the posts in these series. Do not neglect them; my readers […]


  3. There is nothing jarring in your analysis, which reads beautifully. Do you see Thornton’s trip to Helstone without telling his mother as strange for someone with this principled attitude to work, duty and his mother? I have difficulty in reconciling this scene with what we know of Thornton. Should I wait for Part 4(a)6?


    • Thanks for the comment, NZfan. Here I’m divided between my own practical attitudes (they had four episodes, they had to wrap up the story, the rose is a nice symbol for accomplishing the romantic aspect of that, so they send him to Helstone, as I note in the next analysis, without explanation, and then send the last episode on its arc toward the resolution of the romance without explaining it tremendously well because they have to) and my stance as a reader here, which says that the series as it constitutes itself has to explain the series, and which to me suggests that the trip to Helstone is so significantly out of character for Thornton (underlined by Mrs. Thornton’s concession to Margaret later that she doesn’t know where her son is) that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude he’s had some sort of mental breakdown.


  4. […] to 4(a)5, which I hope to post tomorrow […]


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