Welcome to Bae Watch Wednesday, where I tell you all about the fictional characters you ought to be crushing on. For romantic February, I’m focusing on some of my favorite romances. Come swoon with me over the dreamy John Thornton.
Who Is John Thornton?
John Thornton is one of the main characters of the BBC miniseries North & South, based on a novel of the same name from 1855. When we first met John, he was the master of Marlborough Mills, one of the most successful cotton mills in Milton. His business is profitable, his workers are better off than other mills, and he and his family live in comfort. It wasn’t always like that, though. John’s father had previously been master of Marlborough Mills. However, while John was still in school, his father had gotten into some shady business dealings. When his speculation fell through, losing all their money and putting the mill at risk, he had taken his own life, leaving John and his mother to find a way to save the family.
John left school and began to work, scraping together every penny he earned to save up and pay off his father’s debts. His mother and sister lived economically, allowing John to save his money. Eventually, their hard work and sacrifices paid off, and John was able to restore Marlborough Mills — and the Thornton name — to its former prestige. As North & South starts, John is well settled as the master of Marlborough Mills and a prominent figure in Milton society.
His mother and sister Fanny are able to live in comfort. He is strict but fair with his workers, who work in better conditions than other mills. He never, ever speculates. John Thornton has worked hard for everything he has, and he’s proud of what he’s accomplished. He’s not ashamed of his past or where he came from. When Mr. Hale, a former pastor and friend of John’s landlord, Mr. Bell, moves to Milton, John is ready to help the man and his family adjust.
Mr. Hale plans to take up teaching to earn an income, and John becomes his first pupil. He’s eager to learn and discuss the classics. He also tries to help the Hales find lodgings, not knowing that this action will change his life. When Mr. Hale’s daughter, Margaret, takes umbrage at John’s actions, she comes to the mill to confront him. While Margaret is at the mill, John notices one of his workers light a pipe. Smoking is strictly forbidden, as it can lead to deadly fires. John disciplines his worker harshly and fires him, and Margaret, who is a compassionate soul, decides then and there to condemn John. When she later sees John at her home, learning with her father, she snubs him.
Unfortunately, John is captivated by the beautiful and fiery Margaret. Milton Society is small and they frequently interact, though Margaret remains cold when John extends an olive branch of friendship. Their social discord is mirrored by civil unrest as the workers of Milton plan a strike for better wages. John refuses to capitulate and even brings in Irish workers to staff his mill.
Eventually things reach a breaking point. The workers start a riot, storming Marlborough Mills. Margaret had been visiting Mrs. Thornton, and scolds John when he calls for the army to handle the rabblerousers. She goads him into confronting his workers, but when violence threatens to spark, she uses her body and her position as a lady to shield him, incurring injury on his behalf.
John proposes to Margaret, thinking her actions at the riot means she cares for him too (and to save her reputation after her actions). Unfortunately, she rejects him, rather unkindly. Disappointed and with injured pride (and heart), John storms off and promises to leave Margaret be.
Things don’t get better for John after his rejection. He stops meeting Mr. Hale, forgoing his education to avoid awkwardness. Aftereffects of the strike are causing financial difficulties for Marlborough Mills, and John’s refusal to speculate means he can’t make quick money to fix things. He goes to the Great Exhibition in London to speak the praises of Milton cotton. He runs into Margaret and her London friends, who goad him for his working background.
Back in Milton, he experiences a further jolt when he sees Margaret on a train station late at night with a young man. When an investigation into a man’s death implicates Margaret as a witness, she lies. John, as magistrate, uses his influence to close the investigation, covering for Margaret even though he doesn’t understand her actions and is nursing a broken heart.
John shows a softer side with his workers, Margaret’s compassionate influence is evident. He opens a canteen, where the workers buy food wholesale and cook it. Margaret sees a better side of John, even as she fears his esteem of her is gone forever. Eventually, she leaves Milton altogether after her parents’ deaths, and John fears that he’ll never see her again, though he desperately wishes for her to stay with him.
Eventually, things at the mill get too bad. John is forced to close Marlborough Mills. There’s a bright side, though, as he learns that the man Margaret had been with was actually her brother. Convinced that he has a chance, he goes to seek Margaret out. He ran into her at a train station, as she had been in Milton looking for him. She has a business proposal for him, to keep the mill running. But John has a different proposal in mind, and they return to Milton together.
Why Is John Thornton Bae?
I am shook every time I watch North & South by how mind-bogglingly attractive John Thornton is. Before watching North & South I had only really known Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies, and I’m not a huge fan. But damn if he doesn’t have a regal bearing.
Watching Armitage in North & South is an experience. I have learned what it means to swoon at the hand of John Thornton. His piercing blue eyes are magnificently set off by the formalwear of the Victorian period. He turns brooding into an art form. But when he smiles… Lord, when he smiles. I am weak. I have melted. John Thornton has slain me.
Strict But Fair
I tend to fall more into the Margaret Hale school of thought. Caring for other people is our moral imperative, and we should do what we can to make the world a better, kinder place. I understand why she clashes against the mill masters and their cold approach to life. But I can also respect the way that John Thornton runs his mill. He is not kind. He does not do things out of the goodness of his heart. As he tells Margaret when she advocates for better conditions, he does not run a charitable institution; he runs a business. And he clearly thinks like a business owner, not a philanthropist.
That being said, he is far better than any of the other mill masters. He may not be kind, but he is fair. His workers rely on him, and he takes that responsibility seriously. That’s one of the reasons he won’t speculate. As he puts it, if he were to lose everything through speculation, it isn’t only him and his family that would suffer. The workers would suffer too through loss of work.
John also provides a better work environment for his workers. The other mill masters claim that installing a fan to provide better breathing conditions is too much, but Thornton has long since provided the fan. When Margaret’s friend Bessy gets brown lung from working in a mill, she moves to Marlborough Mills because it is better for her to breathe.
In the end, John does become kinder. Through Margaret’s influence, he sees the workers as people, not just employees. He helps them establish their own kitchen and works to make sure they are doing well. He even eats with them sometimes. He has always been fair, but now he is kind, too.
Tall, Dark, And Brooding
The quintessential period piece romantic hero fits a mold. He should be handsome, but haughty. Like the prevailing culture of his time, he should be reserved, but evidently capable of great depths of feeling. He often holds a good position in society. Above all else, he must brood.
How many heroes fit that mold? So much literature produced in the 19th century places this type of man as the ultimate romantic ideal. Even as this literature is adapted in the modern age, where tastes have changed, this is still seen as the peak of romance. Who among us hasn’t swooned over unsociable, broody Mr. Darcy? (I mean, me.)
John Thornton definitely seems to have come from the same mold. He is tall, dark, and handsome, with striking good looks matched by his brooding exterior. He clashes with a spirited heroine over differences in opinion and values, secure in the belief of his rightness. Importantly, he is wealthy and with a good position in society, if only Milton society.
But for all that, John Thornton cannot be categorized the same as the typical romantic hero. All his broody exterior only barely hides an incredibly feeling man. He is overrunning with emotions, and doesn’t keep them in check like the typical reserved hero. He is open. In his mind, there is no reason to hide how he feels, from the anger at his striking workers to his love for Margaret.
Tall, dark, and broody he may be, but John Thornton is a clear step up from the usual romantic hero fare. I would take John Thornton, who is open with his love, who has an innate goodness, over Mr. Darcy’s “how embarrassing to love a lower class girl” any day. John Thornton is the real hero here.
What’s Not To Love?
I’ve watched North & South multiple times, and each time I fall into the same trap. Each time, I’m sure that I will dislike John Thornton. Each time, I’m sure that this is going to be the same typical 19th century romantic lead, that I will be disappointed by another broody, rude, harsh “hero.” And each time, I’m stunned by how much I like John Thornton.
Generally speaking, 19th century literature is not my favorite, in large part due to the male leads. I can’t stand the Mr. Darcys of the world, the Mr. Rochesters, the Heathcliffs. I cannot fathom why they are seen as dashing, romantic, or appealing, when they are constantly harsh and brusque, if not downright rude.
But Elizabeth Gaskell gave us something better. John Thornton may seem to fit the mold, as a broody, handsome, wealthy lead. But he’s so much more than Mr. Darcy could ever hope to be. John Thornton has a heart. He has emotions, and he (gasp) doesn’t hesitate to show them. He learns and grows, becoming kinder, but he was never unkind.
Every time I watch North & South, I fall more and more in love with John Thornton. When he proposes to Margaret, telling her he wants to marry her because he loves her, I swoon. When he smiles after Margaret finally accepts him, the softest thing you’ve ever seen, I’m done for.
John Thornton is everything we should wish for in a romantic lead. He is caring, open with his emotions, and ready to do anything for the woman he loves. Stop settling for the Mr. Darcys of the world, for a man who is annoyed to love you. Reach for a John Thornton, who will go to the ends of the Earth for you.