My stories have occasionally been criticized for making too much of the physical dynamics between John Thornton and Margaret Hale. Perhaps they do, but I take my cues from Elizabeth Gaskell's own writing, which conveys a tremendous amount of physical emphasis when describing Margaret's effect on John Thornton.
From John's very first encounter with Margaret in that hotel sitting-room, Gaskell makes clear that Thornton is completely discombobulated. Margaret's presence does things to him. Physical things. Things that affect his ability to coordinate and control his own body. He finds it hard to formulate complete sentences, he cannot stop staring at her, and when he leaves "he [feels] more awkward and self-conscious in every limb than he [ever had] in all his life before."
And that's just the first meeting. We haven't even begun to talk about what effect actually touching Margaret will do to the poor man!
So, when is their first physical contact with each other? Thornton knows -- the handshake at the dinner party. The occasion is significant enough for Thornton to take notice:
He shook hands with Margaret. He knew it was the first time their hands had met, though she was perfectly unconscious of the fact.
He must remember, as we do, how hurt he was when she did not shake his hand when he came for tea. Shaking her hand now must feel like a small victory. It's far more than a mere social formality to him. It's apparently something he's been longing to do -- touch her.
The mini-series makes this moment -- this first touch between future lovers -- sizzle with a sexual tension that makes a Victorian handshake more passionate than most modern kissing scenes. And this spark of longing portrayed in the film -- at least on Thornton's side -- is perfectly matched by Gaskell's prose. Thornton spends the rest of that evening acutely aware of where she is and who she is talking to. There's definitely a strong attraction going on, which Margaret is not aware of.
That Frantic, Brief Embrace
Far beyond a social handshake, Gaskell multiplies the physical contact a hundredfold when she has Margaret throw her arms around Thornton in a body-to-body embrace -- a shockingly intimate gesture. Granted, Margaret does this out of pure terror for his life, in front of a frenzied crowd -- hardly the sweet, loving gesture John may be dreaming of, but that doesn't in the least change the enormously powerful effect that one brief moment of intimacy has on Thornton.
He can't stop thinking about what she did, how she wrapped her arms around her neck, how her body was pressed next to his ... he's fairly consumed with the longing to feel her in his arms again!
Take note of all the impassioned physical reaction Thornton has immediately following that very tangible interaction with Margaret during the riot:
"All the blood in his body seemed to rush inwards to his heart as he spoke, and he absolutely trembled."
"He went away as if weights were tied to every limb that bore him from her."
"Every pulse beat in him as he remembered how she had come down and places herself in foremost danger.... He went to his Irish people, with every nerve in his body thrilling at the thought of her ..."
I count four times in the twenty-four hour period after the riot where Gaskell specifically mentions his longing to feel that touch again:
Mr. Thornton remained in the dining-room, trying to think of the business he had to do at the police-office, and in reality thinking of Margaret. Everything seemed dim and vague beyond - behind - besides the touch of her arms round his neck -- the soft clinging which made the dark colour come and go in his cheek as he thought of it. (Penguin edition, page 186)
His heart beat thick at the thought of her coming. He could not forget the touch of her arms around his neck, impatiently felt as it had been at the time; but now the recollection of her clinging defence of him, seemed to thrill him through and through, -- to melt away every resolution, all power of self-control, as it were wax before a fire. (page 191)
Was he bewitched by those beautiful eyes, that soft, half-open, sighing mouth which lay so close upon his shoulder only yesterday? He could not even shake off the recollection that she had been there; that that her arms had been round him, once -- if never again. (page 205)
He went along the crowded streets mechanically, winding in and out among the people, but never seeing them, -- almost sick with longing for that one half-hour --that one brief space of time when she clung to him, and her heart beat against his -- to come once again. (page 210)
Where does all this explosive passion come from? In large part, from loneliness and years of keeping his emotions mostly hidden. His mother is his closest confident, yet we know she is not exactly the warm and fuzzy type to give out hugs and listen to all your troubles. If you really think about it, when was the last time this man was hugged? When has he last felt the warm affection of a heartfelt embrace? I'm guessing he hasn't felt human touch like that in years.
But clearly it's not just human touch he's longing for. John Thornton's frenzied longing is not commonplace lust. It's truly a longing to love and be loved in return. And it's Margaret that has brought out his strong passion. He sees in her an inner strength, independence, intelligence, and deep devotion to others that matches his own.
His feelings for her have been silently accumulating. Her frantic embrace of him is the touchstone that releases all his repressed passion. It's as if this moment of intimate human connection has lit a fire inside him. Now he sees -- his body has felt for a brief, sensuous moment of time -- what could be. And he wants that close relationship with Margaret desperately.
Gaskell draws a very sensual image by having Margaret cling to Thornton. How many other romantic heroes get a taste of physical intimacy before they ever even declare their feelings?
It's a touch that Thornton never forgets the thrill of. It reverberates through his whole being. It's hardly any wonder, then, that at the end of the book the first thing he does after they become a couple is to take her arms and place them around his neck -- just as he remembered she had done. Just as he had ached for so long for her to willingly do again.