I actually first heard of this as a miniseries adaptation on Netflix. It was also the first time I’ve seen Richard Armitage and heard him talk in his Richard Armitage-y voice. (Yes, say things, Richard Armitage, in that mellow bass-baritone of yours, yes.)
The miniseries told me it was based on a book, but I didn’t know that that book was contemporary to the time period it portrayed. Or that it was such a flaming bag of Mary Sue, unlike the miniseries, which is actually pretty good. Keep doing your thing, BBC.
Mary Sue has been a trope long before it was acknowledged and named after shitty Star Trek fan fiction. I myself make a distinction between a true Mary Sue and a subtype/sister trope Special Snowflake (this one I codified myself). It’s mostly a passive/active difference, since Mary Sues pretty much do fucking nothing except being adorable and softly feminine and that junk, while Special Snowflake actually makes an attempt to justify the adulation, even if it is contrived. It’s like the difference between Bella Swan from Twilight and, say, Wesley Crusher from ST:TNG.
Special Snowflake is also less gendered than Mary Sue. For some goddamn chicken-egg reason, supposedly passivity is feminine and/or femininity is passive. That ’sumption is full of ass, but the dudebros are pretty insistent on it, because that’s the point of objectification, isn’t it, treating someone as if they were a passive thing to be acted on at the actor’s will.
But since North & South is from the Victorian Age, get ready for some blatant sexism. There’s an eeny-weeny bit of feminism towards the end when the main character is on her own and begins to make her own decisions, but that barely makes up for the Mary Sue dumbassery.
Also, surprisingly, there’s some socialism. It’s kinda unexpected that this book treats the lower class as sympathetically as it does, a la Dickens, but it’s not really that progressive because it still pretty much assumes classism and hierarchy is the unquestionably correct paradigm. But, it has themes of cooperation and mutual respect that I can like despite that. Which is funny in its own way, too, because this book takes the traditional ass-sumption that dominance and conquest is masculine while cooperation and mutual respect is feminine, and it’s unusual for the feminine to be held as superior—or even as legitimate—on a broad, real-world scale in this time period.
But all that is background noise to how beautiful and ladylike and lavender unicorn farts our main character Margaret is. The main reason I find Mary Sues fucking annoying is that most of the page-mileage they get is excessive raptures about their perfections. For one, show, don’t tell, motherfucker. Two, that gets boring real quick and drags down the pacing.
But anyway, the basic plot is that Margaret’s vicar father moves from his southern, agricultural parish to a cold and industrial northern town because of theological differences with the Anglican church. He takes up tutoring, but it’s a huge loss of income because only certain privileged people can afford Latin and Greek lessons, and Margaret makes the best of suddenly being poor as hell while her mother does not cope so well. And Margaret goes amongst the Common Man, who are scary because they don’t grovel and suck up like proper working-class people should, but she makes friends with a girl and through her compassion and gentleness and general Mary Sueness makes friends with the girl’s belligerent socialist father.
At the same time, a Mr. Thornton, one of her father’s first pupils, is a mill owner who is all stoic and hardass and emotionlessly businesslike, as if Spock were a capitalist, and he finds himself attracted to Mary Sue almost against his will. He has a huge chip on his shoulder about the gentry, which is justified because although he is a super-rich mill owner, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, which was Frowned Upon in Victorian England because gentlemen didn’t work “at trade,” i.e., selling things and/or making things to sell. So he’s still treated pretty much as working class.
Overall, this book tries to hit the middle between the mill owners’ view and the workers’ view, and I dunno how well that works. Mostly because there’s still the sense that hierarchy must happen. Anyway, Mary Sue tries to be the Bringer of Balance, which would be cooler if she wasn’t stuck in the properly passive Victorian lady role. She pretty much uses her Mary Sueness to plea with both sides to be nice to each other. Hell, when there’s a worker riot, she flings her arms around Mr. Thornton’s neck to defend him from the mob with her mere femininity and gets a rock thrown at her for her naiveté that no man would harm a lady like her. Dumbass.
The romantic dynamic between Margaret and Mr. Thornton is pretty Beauty-and-the-Beast, which I have mixed feels about. I’m kind of a sucker for Beauty and the Beast because I have warm-fuzzies about using gentleness to persuade defensive belligerence that there’s nothing to be defensively belligerent about. I’ve done it with skittish cats before: The time when Speeler stopped flinching and scampering and actually came to be pet and to lap-sit is one of the warmest-fuzziest feels I’ve had.
But the potential warm-fuzzy is harshed partly by Margaret’s passivity and mostly because there are times when Mr. Thornton downright resents her for making him feel the feels he feels. Dude is not emotionally healthy because he’s clamped down and repressed everything, so when he does feel it’s sprayed everywhere like a blown gasket. Granted, the book doesn’t pretend that he doesn’t have problems, but I’ve developed problems about the attitude that all it takes is a woman to fix that. Because that has caused a lot of harm.
I’d recommend the BBC miniseries over the book because a lot of the book’s problems are in Margaret’s Mary Sueness and the miniseries tweaks her character to be much less a drag to the plot and the audience’s patience. Plus, Richard Armitage voice.