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. That would never have done in Victorian times.
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 beneath reproach.
But we are a modern audience and we loved “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).
If Thornton and Margaret were real, would this kiss have happened in Victorian times?
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 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.