The Kiss On The Train Platform: Gaskell’s North and South

Thornton lifts Margaret’s bowed head gently and with great tenderness, touches his lips to hers. But that’s just how it begins. He kisses her a little more insistently. Not once more, but a few times more. She doesn’t pull back, as you might have expected in those times pricing feckless moral integrity above all. Instead, she parts her lips and responds. All this, on the platform of a busy train station.

Such audacity! For Thornton to compromise his love’s reputation. And for Margaret Hale to allow herself to sink her good name so permanently by engaging in behavior open to reproach.

But we are a modern audience and we love “The Kiss” enough to replay it as often as we can. The popularity of the BBC miniseries, North and South, based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name, hinges much on this scene, I think. It’s easily the most romantic ever to graze television even compared to Pride and Prejudice (watch below).

Could the kiss have happened in Victorian times?

as_time_goes_by_0003Video Clip:  As Time Goes By

From a psychological viewpoint, I’d argue that it certainly could. Consider these:

Margaret, from the very beginning, is not your typical Victorian lady. That Victorian ideal resides in her cousin Edith. Margaret is indifferent to current fashion, inclined to take walks on her own (a social taboo for proper ladies), more interested in books than dancing lessons, ready to speak her mind and contradict the authoritative, aggressive figure represented by Thornton, and even defy authority by lying to the police to save her brother. This list could go on.

The point is, Margaret acts upon and is ruled more by her feelings and beliefs than by social convention, sometimes to the point of “disgracing myself” as she thought she did in front of rioters. Meeting unexpectedly at a train station and seeing the love in Thornton’s eyes provide Margaret just the right nudge to make the kiss inevitable.

Would Thornton have thought more about preserving Margaret’s reputation at that moment and reined himself in? Although his “tender spot” is hidden—what proud masculine man wouldn’t hide his feelings if they’re unrequited?—he is, in fact, quick to anger. In other words, he has a streak of impulsivity in his generally controlled persona.

In the closing chapter of the book, he is “trembling with tender passion.” Later, before giving her some dead, but treasured, flowers, he says “Very well. Only you must pay me for them.” Pay? This is followed by “some time of delicious silence.” One could only speculate on what this scenario is all about because Gaskell elaborates neither on Thornton’s remark nor on what happens during that “delicious silence.”

While Margaret and Thornton are very individual characters, Gaskell, a preacher’s wife, could not allow them to defy social constraints and proper conduct. For Gaskell, the kiss on the train platform would never have happened.

But Sandy Welch (the BBC series writer) clearly knows the modern viewer. The genius of her interpretation is in symbolically bringing this scenario in public view and out of the privacy of a room in Harley Street. “The Kiss” also suggests a passionate sexual contract between the characters.

9 Responses

  1. Trudy

    Oh, there’s no doubt in my mind what that ‘delicious silence’ entailed! It was a brilliantly subtle way to convey that sexual contact that had been longed for but repressed for so long.

    I assume the primary reason Sandy Welch conceived the train scene was to shorten up the story and to add a bit more drama for the medium of film. A drawing room scene, although sweet, would not have packed the same pinch as that chance encounter.

    No one can deny the beauty of that train scene kiss, and I’m willing to concede that propriety might have been cast aside because of the intensity of the moment. For both of these struggling, lonely souls it was a ‘now or never’ chance to seal the bond of love that had been thwarted so long.
    Fun topic. Thanks for writing it.

    • Xenia

      I agree with you Trudy. A drawing room scene like the one in the book ending would not have packed the same punch in a film. I am so thankful to Sandy Welch for coming up with that train scene. Quite frankly, I think that if Elizabeth Gaskell was not rushed by Charles Dickens to finish the story the ending would have been different and even better. Deep down John Thornton was a very passionate man and his love for Margaret ran deep.

      • evyjourney

        Welcome Xenia and thank you for posting your comments. I looked at your website and saw you also love Pride and Prejudice–my first intro to British 19th century lit. Dickens did rush Gaskell but she did add 4 new chapters when she published the story as a novel. I think she had been much maligned by all those male writers who did not think that, as a woman, she knew about labor issues. She was considered a minor writer for a long time but now, people are doing theses and dissertations on her and analyzing her views on gender issues. What she had to contend with was quite fascinating and we’re still dealing with them even now. But I digress. The train scene was quite titillating–even my husband found it so.

  2. Xenia

    Great post and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I just purchased Margaret of the North and downloaded it to my Kindle. I look forward to reading it. I loved the video too.

  3. evyjourney

    Trudy, thank you for your comment. I think we can keep on talking about this “delicious” topic. You are right about Sandy Welch’s reasons. I also think she was showing industrial progress (this was, after all, supposed to be an industrial novel) by using the train since it was new and a dramatic invention. There is also that device often used in film –called bracketing, I think–opening and closing scenes showing Margaret looking out–not possible if Gaskell’s scenario was used. Anyway, that final scene, as Gaskell wrote it, was a bit awkward, in my mind, and contributes to a lot of people’s feeling that her novel ended too abruptly

    • Trudy

      I have mixed feelings about the book ending. In one sense, it provides a succinct but clear conclusion to a long ordeal of misunderstandings. Gaskell gives us a perfect glimpse, although brief, of the what their future relationship will hold: passion, tenderness, humor and a determination to face their difficulties.
      I think what we long for is to see more of this sweet yet powerful bond in action: telling their families, moving back to Milton, sharing more emotional and physical intimacy as they begin constructing their lives together.
      But it wouldn’t have been acceptable to put too much descriptive passion in her serialized story.
      I’be always loved Gaskell’s comment about liking her ending because once the barriers between Thornton and Margaret were removed it would “all go smash in a moment.”
      The reader is forced to imagine the rest. A very lovely daydreaming task!

  4. Xenia

    I think that the book ending was good but too abrupt. John Thornton was passionately and very deeply in love with Margaret. I would have liked to see him unleash the passion that he had pent up for nearly two year and have Margaret love him back the way he deserves. The book ending cut that short. I would also have liked to see Hannah Thornton’s reaction and the reaction of Margaret aunt.

    I have daydreamed the continuation of the story, but it would have been nicer to read it so I guess that is why I am drawn to N&S book sequels.

    • evyjourney

      I suppose this is partly why I wrote the book. I am curious about reactions and motives. Whether she meant to or not, Gaskell wrote this novel leaving a lot of questions unanswered. But much literary analysis of the romance treats it as a device to show Gaskell’s thinking on gender and class issues, including Margaret’s Victorian “feminine modesty” that compels her to deny her attraction to Thornton and to feel it as shame (presumably of her sexuality) after “rescuing” him during the riot. Current sexual mores for women have become so relaxed that it is difficult for the modern woman to understand why Margaret did not ensnare Thornton when he proposed. I imagine Gaskell might, herself, have suffered from that “feminine modesty” in writing the ending.

Leave a Reply