I had no thought for your reputation

Sandy Welch can do no wrong. She wrote the screenplay for the playful 2009 adaptation of Emma and the gorgeous 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre. And, of course, the 2004 adaptation of North and South. Ah, North and South.

I recently sent special k out in 40-degree heat to buy it for me because I had to watch it again. Immediately. I’ve also read the book, and for me Welch screwed all the relationships that bit tighter, and made what is an extremely polemic book slightly less so. Or slightly more human, at least.

I want to talk about the proposal scene, because it is so, so wonderful. I can’t help but compare it to the Pride and Prejudice proposal scene: they both occur about half way through the book, and both turn into a hot mess and alienate the hero and heroine from one another. But they function completely differently.

As I put it recently on twitter: Darcy’s feelings drive him to propose, against all logic. Circumstances drive Thornton to act in concert with his feelings, though it terrifies him to do so.

Darcy is genuinely horrified by the idea of marrying into the Bennett family – and Elizabeth is genuinely offended by what he says. Each is secure in their own world, and cannot meet the other on common ground.

John Thornton and Margaret Hale are trying to understand each other, but their worlds are so different that it’s almost impossible. Their misunderstanding is more subtle and more heartbreaking, because it’s all in their characterisation.

Here’s the scene, so that you can get the full impact of Richard Armitage laying his heart on the chopping block:

And here’s my breakdown of why I love it so much:

J: I’d not noticed the colour of this fruit. [A brilliant opener. What he has to say is too terrifying to just say. So instead he talks about fruit.] Miss Hale, I’m afraid I was very ungrateful yesterday.

M: You’ve nothing to be grateful for.

J: I think that I do.

M: Well I did only the least that anyone would’ve. [This is where Margaret starts subtly lying. She believes every word she’s saying, but it’s clear to us, because we’ve seen their relationship developing, that this can’t be true.]

J: That can’t be true. [Well said, John.]

M: I was, after all, responsible for placing you in danger. I would’ve done the same for any man there.

J: Any man? So you approve of that violence – you think I got what I deserved.

M: No of course not. But they were desperate. I know if you were to talk—

J: I forgot. You imagine them to be your friends.

M: Oh but if you were to be reasonable. [Margaret is hopelessly naïve – but there is some truth in what she’s saying, so we can’t just dismiss her for it. Margaret and John see the world through completely different lenses, and it makes it almost impossible for them to understand each other, even though they want to.]

J: Me? Are you saying that I’m unreasonable? [John’s pride and quick temper start to take over, which will only skew the conversation further.]

M: If you would talk with them, and not set the soldiers on them, I know they would—

J: They will get what they deserve. [John does shift from this position eventually – but I can’t help loving how certain and uncompromising he is. He’s here, trying to tell the woman he loves that he loves her, and still he won’t be anything other than what he is.]

*Pause. How did the conversation get here?*

J: Miss Hale, I didn’t just come here to thank you. I came because. I think it very likely. I know I’ve never found myself in this position before. [With this line, John becomes the naïve one. We know Margaret has been proposed to before. John’s doing something completely terrifying and unrehearsed. This is utterly unique for him. It’s not for Margaret.] It’s difficult to find the words. Miss Hale, my feelings for you are very strong—

M: Please. Stop. Please don’t go any further. [This is more or less what she said to the other guy who tried to propose, and he backed right off, apologising for having misunderstood and staying silent about his hurt.]

J: Excuse me? [Best line ever. John is his own man, and is not just going to be fobbed off with some polite dance that everyone is supposed to understand. As I said, this is unrehearsed, for him.]

M: Please don’t continue in that way. It’s not the way of a gentleman. [Margaret’s retreating into the world of manners, rather than being emotionally true with John. I don’t think she loves him enough to actually accept him right now, but she’s not paying him the respect of being honest, when he’s been so heartbreakingly honest in turn.]

J: I’m well aware that in your eyes at least, I’m not a gentleman. But I think I deserve to know why I am offensive. [He calls her on it. Demands something true.]

M: It offends me that you would speak to me as if it were your – duty to rescue my reputation! [Another brilliant line. She is wilfully misunderstanding him. She’s decided what his proposal means, and is playing that scene out in her head.]

J: I spoke to you about my feelings because I love you – I had no thought for your reputation. [Right on!]

M: You think because you are rich, and my father is in reduced circumstances, that you can have me for your possession. Well I suppose I should expect no less from someone in trade! [Again, she’s ascribing intentions to him that he simply doesn’t have. The narrative has positioned him in this way – you can understand why she draws the conclusions she does. But she’s reacting to those conclusions, not to the man standing in front of her.]

J: I don’t want to possess you – I wish to marry you because I love you! [His vulnerability and honesty are so amazing. Especially because we know he isn’t confident he could deserve someone like her.]

M: You shouldn’t, because I do not like you. And never have. [Lying to protect herself from scary, adult feelings. There’s a subtle immaturity about Margaret in this scene that I love.]

J *shot through the chest*: One minute we talk of the colour of fruit. The next of love. How does that happen? [Again, the fruit adds something to this scene that it wouldn't have if it were all just straight emotion.]

M: My friend. Bessy Higgins. She died. [This line is so wonderful – it has nothing to do with what they’ve been talking about, but it suddenly recasts what Margaret must have been feeling, coming into this scene.]

J: And that of course is my fault too. [Also wonderful that John doesn’t let her get away with emotional diversion. (And because this dialogue is so layered, also John reacting in pride, and not listening to what she’s trying to tell him.)]

M: I’m sorry—

J: For what? That you find my feelings for you offensive? Or that you assume because I’m in trade I’m only capable of thinking in terms of buying and selling? Or that I take pleasure in sending my employees to an early grave?

M: No! No, no, of course not! I – I’m sorry to be so blunt. I’ve not learnt how to – how to refuse. How to respond when a man talks to me as you just have.

J: Oh, there are others? [John begins to see that while he’s been completely open and put his heart on the line, she’s been trying to keep to some mannerly script, just as she would with any other man.] This happens to you every day? Of course. You must have to disappoint so many men that offer you their heart.

M: Please understand, Mr Thornton—

J: I do understand. I understand you completely. [Haha, he doesn’t really. Well, in some ways he understands her better than she understands herself – she believes the things she was saying, even though they’re untrue. But he’s never fully put aside his pride and his point of view to understand where she’s coming from.]

It’s difficult to write two people at odds, who want to love each other. Most often it produces the kind of annoying bickering or unfounded antagonism found in so many romance novels. This scene is a study in the layering of character that creates believable, heart-breaking misunderstanding. Their world views are each valid, and each flawed. His pride, and her immaturity don’t allow them to have a completely honest conversation.

I will now go and think about how to become Sandy Welch.

Comments 11 Responses

  1. Jen

    I love this post. And I love that scene. Both scenes, actually. But mostly the one from N&S. I watch it over and over again and each time it still rips my heart out of my chest. Such a great feeling.
    I also love the scenes with John and his mother. Sure, he’s this proud man but with her he’s open and exposed and it’s really touching (when he tells her she’s the only one who loves him? GAWD).
    Aaaaand I’m off to go watch again. I don’t own it because it’s been streaming on Netflix for the past year or so but I need to because it is NECESSARY to my life!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I love this: “each time it still rips my heart out of my chest. Such a great feeling.” YES!! When I watched it the other day, the husband watched that scene with me, and at the end I was all, “Sigh, it’s just the most romantic thing ever,” and he looked at me like I was a lunatic. :-)

      1. Jen

        Dudes. What’re we gonna do with them? :P Every time I try to talk (read: gush) about it with Andy he just says stuff like, “Guy sounds like a douche.” GRRRR.

  2. Kaetrin

    I started watching the series the other night actually and stopped just after that very scene. My husband, who had obviously been listening at least a little from the study, had a succinct response. He said “BURNED!”.

    Oh Richard Armitage – I would never turn you down! :D

    Love P&P (oh Colin) too.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Colin will always reign supreme as Darcy, but I watched the movie version again today after writing this, and Matthew McFadyen does have incredible powers of speaking all his man-pain with a single glance. The almost-kiss after the angry proposal! His face is all, “You hate me, and that kills me, but you’re right here and Oh God I can’t help myself.”

  3. Liz Mc2

    You know these two scenes are kind of similar because P&P was one of the inspirations for N&S, right? Gaskell’s novel is in some ways a deliberate recasting of Austen’s, reflecting the different social concerns of a half-century later. When I teach it I point out that it opens in Austen territory (drawing rooms, marriage, minor gentry) and very deliberately leaves that territory behind. That’s the past. (Although it has something to teach the present). That shift in tone and topic is less clearly marked in the TV adaptation.

    I really enjoy the TV series but this is one of “my” books and I’m not sure I agree that the series “screws the relationships tighter.” It does strip out some of the social concerns to tell a more purely romantic story, but it also caters to a modern TV audience with *different kinds* of emotional cues (as it should). The emotional focus and meaning of the scene in the book is very different–on shame, mostly. Its power is quite different. But it’s screwed pretty tight.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I didn’t know it was inspired by P&P! Makes total sense, of course – and I love the idea of it showing the changing sensibilities and concerns. The series I hope to write next is all about the rise of industry and the fall of landed gentry. (In simplistic terms.) Actually, watching both of those scenes today it occurred to me how feminised Margaret is, compared to Lizzie. Those Victorians sure have a lot to answer to!

      I found the characters in the adaptation more human than in the book, where I felt they were predominantly representing ideas. Especially Bessie Higgins was such a wallpaper religious figure to me – whereas in the adaptation she’s awesome. Also I seem to recall his relationship with his mother – still very strong in the book – was more nuanced in the adaptation? It’s a while since I read it. Though I do have to say, much as I ADORE the train station scene, the final scene in the book was also very romantic. (Probably not in a way that would really adapt to screen, though.)

      I feel like the shift in tone was pretty well done in the adaptation – through colour, lens and soundtrack. I love the idea of starting in the drawing rooms then moving away from them. In the P&P proposal scene Darcy understands what’s required of him as a gentleman, and acts accordingly. Margaret’s acting in that “drawing room” way, but John’s from a whole other world. Love it!

      1. Elizabeth

        I find it interesting that your take on Margaret is that she’s quite feminized in comparison to Elizabeth Bennett; I hadn’t directly compared them before. I first encountered N&S as part of a course on 19th century women novelists, and she stood out to me as LESS feminized than her contemporaries, more willing to step outside her home and narrow social circle, more interested in exploration, more open to new ideas (despite fear and naivete), and more conscious of her social responsibility.

        1. anna cowan Post author

          That comment came from watching the two scenes back to back, so I think it was mainly about how differently they handle a man coming into their space and thrusting his attention on them. Margaret tries to remain polite and ladylike and use mannered convention to throw him off. Lizzie straight-up tells him what she thinks of him – gives him a piece of her mind.

          But yes – it’s a much more complicated thing when you take the two books as a whole! In many ways Margaret is still more feminized to me. E.g. she goes along with her father as a good daughter should, no matter how cruel and degrading his choices are for her and her mother. In contrast, Lizzie sees the faults in her own father (in his attitude to Lydia) and argues with him about his decisions.

          But then as you say, Margaret goes outside her own social sphere in a way that you can’t really imagine Lizzie doing. If Lizzie was written as romance heroine today, she’d be the first to ditch her pride and become a governess or something if they became homeless (which would of course be rewarded with True Love rather than a life of drudgery and bad treatment!), but as Austen wrote her you can only imagine she and Jane would have lived together in genteel poverty, as a sign of their good natures.

          My feeling is that Gaskell’s idea of class was more fluid than Austen’s, but Austen’s idea of what a woman could be within her world was more powerful.

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