A little more Proust + North & South + Richard Armitage

Continued from here, on the question of affinities between Richard Armitage’s previous work and the theme of memory in Proust.



Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) visits the outskirts of Helstone in episode 4 of North & South). Source: RichardArmitageNet.com


Recently, I mentioned sudden involuntary memory as a connection between Proust’s discussion of the madeleine and Richard Armitage’s work, and I referred to Armitage’s portrayal of Lucas North’s flashback to torture in Spooks 7.3 as an example of how a sensory experience can cause a sudden involuntary memory. (A flashback is a particular variation of sudden involuntary memory in which the person is transported so immediately back to the past that it’s if s/he is really there all over again.) The difference, as I noted, was that Proust was referring to memories that cause a pleasant recollection. This may be why the book was originally titled Remembrance of Things Past in English rather than the more literal translation, In Search of Lost Time, because the worlds and places of memory that Proust’s characters reproduce via their senses mostly carry the quality of a well- or at least neutrally-remembered past. Moreover, at least explicitly, Proust stresses and prioritizes the passive quality (remembrance) as opposed to the active search for memory (although one could take the act of writing seven novels on the topic as a certain kind of performative contradiction).

At any rate, in the book, Proust contrasts the sudden involuntary memory of the madeleine with the attempt to excavate the past through memory. This point is often lost, but it ensues immediately in the mind of the narrator from the way that Proust follows up the famous passage about the madeleine. These parts are less often quoted and I reproduce them here from pp. 62-63 of the Moncrieff translation as preserved at Google Books. When — after the sudden, pleasurable intrusion of the past at Combray into his swallow of tea — the narrator tries to intensify his memory of the past, the one inadvertently pressed upon him by the madeleine, he finds himself unsuccessful:

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The memory lies not in the thing or even in the action of readdressing the thing, but in the narrator’s own mind — note, fans of historiography, the contrast to the locations of medieval and pre-modern memory in an action, a ritual, or a place. It cannot be pursued, or awaited — it arrives with a sense and goes again as it pleases. So the contrast for the narrator here lies in the sudden memory brought to him by the madeleine, and his own attempt, by application of attention, to pursue it. The memory comes unbidden; but the attempt to remember what the memory calls forth not only costs one an undue amount of effort in superseding one’s natural inertia, it kills the very object it pursues. By attempting to remember, the narrator suggests, we can only destroy the memory we wish to preserve.

I suggested in the previous post that the European modern understood itself to be struggling hard with issues of memory and forgetfulness. Some historians have argued that the true regret for the loss of the past primarily becomes possible after the French Revolution, when historical ruptures become so sudden and severe that the past simply cannot be recovered easily. Museums in the forms we recognize them now appear in the wake of these events, as does, significantly, historicism (the technical label for the historical sciences as most of us in the profession pursue them now). And in the course of the nineteenth century, time, to many observers, seemed to be both rationalizing and accelerating. To some extent, one imagines, these effects must also have resulted from the Industrial Revolution (the beginnings of which in the 1770s roughly coincide with the French Revolution). It’s true that while the word nostalgia was coined late in the seventeenth century, its uses became much more prevalent around the 1770s, when it began to be seen as a physical illness akin to the homesickness of soldiers far from home. This time, it seems, it was the past that was a faraway land. Or, in the opening line of another novel that Pinter adapted for the screen, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”



Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and Mr. Bell (Brian Protheroe) visit the new denizens of the parsonage to find the roses cut down and the new parson an advocate of simple truths, in episode 4 of North & South. My cap.


This theme, too, finds a touchpoint in Richard Armitage’s work, in North & South, which ends with a strong and fairly complex reflection on nostalgia — an arguably more complex one in the television series than the novel itself brings to bear. Gaskell seems to me as a reader at times to be such an inveterate optimist — but then again, she was writing at mid-nineteenth century, when progress had more positive connotations than it would carry with it into the final quarter of the century. (I find myself thinking of Theodor Fontane, that great defender of tradition, or Anthony Trollopes satires of its social consequences.) Witness, for example, how Gaskell writes Margaret’s reflections about the visit with Mr. Bell to Helstone, as found in North & South in Google Books, pp. 387ff.

After an unsatisfactory visit to the vicarage, Mr. Bell and Margaret return to the Lennard Arms for dinner, Margaret slightly embarrassed, her hopes for the visit somehow deflated. Initially, Margaret is sad — or perhaps a better description might be “out of sorts” about the changes.

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But Margaret and Mr. Bell discuss the situation with Mr. Thornton, by dint of which Margaret realizes the extent to which the inability to change certain things in the past (Frederick’s actions, Mr. Thornton’s sighting of her at the railway station) has saddened her, as well — and above all, her ability to control anything that’s happened to her in the previous few years:

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Only G-d is forever. So the next morning, Margaret awakes with a cheerful mien and a determination to to make the best of it that she carries forward with her.

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Margaret thus acknowledges the need for change and does so by reflecting on the needs of others, so that finally, Gaskell concludes Margaret’s visit to Helstone by giving her the following recollections:

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Margaret takes the flower as a remembrance, an action that allows her simultaneously to reinstate her rosy picture of the past and — significantly — place it firmly in the past, so that she decides she would prefer not to visit it again. Margaret is doing here exactly the sort of thing that Proust recommends against, the intentional move to recover the past, and she experiences the same inability to do so, so that the souvenir has to function as the repository for a series of memories best not touched, and the experienced papered over with a determination to accept the constant change that has shaped her life since her move to Milton. Both the action of attempting to recover the past, and the object in which she encapsulates this search, defeat the purposes of memory, now a thing to be put in its archive

I mentioned that I felt the serial gave us a more sophisticated reflection on the problem of rapid change, progress, and the loss of the past (along with the improvement of humanity). One way in which it manages this effect can be seen the extended “Crystal Palace” sequence in episode 3 (anachronistic to the novel), which touches on the conflict between old and new society, the desirability of investment and / or work, and all the new things that are tying the world together. This background mood — as well as a few other isolated scenes, such as the explicit refusal of servants’ wages by a possible candidate for house maid in episode 1 — sets us up to be thinking about the question of progress and improvement throughout. The old things (courses on church architecture, study of the classics) go away in favor of the focus of the new elites (technology, business) and the masses of workers who come along with them. This discussion comes clearly down to a point in episode 4, in the drawing room at Harley Street with Aunt Shaw, Edith, Dixon and Mr. Lennox. Margaret takes up her own life (something she does in the novel as well), but in doing so reinforces her own awareness that the past is now firmly just that — past.

I think that the matter would be settled, then, except for the way that the series integrates a scene not  made explicit in the book, when it shows us Thornton’s minor pilgrimage to Helstone, where he stands outside the vicarage and finds precisely the yellow flower that Margaret misses in the earlier scene.

I love numerous things about Armitage’s performance in that scene — especially the way he transfers his stolid “Milton walk” into the grassier, uneven terrain of Helstone so that at first we can’t fathom why he’d be there, dressed in his suit for work, crossing the grasses, such an incongruous figure. I also like the timing of his inward gaze. He does this in at least two other pieces in the series, in episode 1 where he glimpses Margaret entering the Lyceum, and at the beginning of episode 4 in the “Look back at me” scene.

The series doesn’t tell us what thought exactly crosses Mr. Thornton’s mind, although Armitage’s work makes clear that some kind of recognition materializes. We’ve discussed before the possible symbolic and personal meanings of the rose — and to me, it’s important to note the plural of that word — but one predominant meaning for me is constituted by its reappearance in the final scene. Note that in the novel, the rose reappears as a token of Mr. Thornton’s unattainable love for Margaret:

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I think when we’ve discussed this in the past, a lot of people have read the recognition from the rose scene as a signal to Mr. Thornton to take his personal life (and not his work) more seriously. Among the possibilities, I haven’t ever found that reading especially convincing, I think because the “recovery of the past” seems to me a more obvious reading of the dialogue when the rose reappears.

In the series, Mr. Thornton pulls the flower from his pocket, and against Margaret’s declaration that she thought “those had all gone,” he looks at her from under his brow, tells her where finds it — and says, “you have to look hard.” The serial (written for a twenty-first century audience) suggests that Proust is perhaps wrong about the intentional recoverability of the past. The series complicates the point significantly (as our own understanding of remembrance and memory has developed since Proust’s writing).

I hope that Richard Armitage’s rehearsals have gone well this week and his performance goes tremendously well tonight — I’m thinking of you, dude! Break a leg! — and that everyone who attend has a wonderful, inspiring, thought-provoking, emotive evening. Can’t wait to hear about it!

~ by Servetus on January 16, 2014.

2 Responses to “A little more Proust + North & South + Richard Armitage”

  1. I always linked his trip to Helstone as a journey to understand Margaret better and, concurrently, to understand himself (or at least his love for her) better. The glimpse he gets of what shaped Margaret — what her experiences must have been — is what he treasures. The flower is the only captured piece of that link to his heart.
    One of my favorite book quotes is of his realizing that although he will never win her – this great love will mold him into something higher just to have known such a love. He is dealing with trying to understand what has happened to him in falling in love and how he will deal with the future – without attaining the object of his desire.

    Oops. I’ve gone on and on. Sorry.
    Can’t wait to hear about the piece tonight.


    • that’s well put, and I’m trying to decide whether it’s mainly my resistance / lack of sympathy to romantic themes that causes me to be skeptical.


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