In so many ways this novel is a treasure. Its not easy to write a political novel with a strong love story and good characterizations. Gaskell takes on quite a bit and mostly succeeds in her task of describing the changes industrialization brought to England. She balances her sympathy for the workers in the factories with the dilemmas posed to the mill owners by new machinery, competition from abroad, and the threats of potential workers strikes. She contrasts very effectively the excitement of this new way of life against the nostalgia for the agrarian past. These were new concepts in Victorian England, but they are not so foreign today that we cannot readily understand their significance.
She gives us a sympathetic and spirited heroine in Margaret Hale, who is wise beyond her years. Another colorful character is Nicholas Higgins. You will find yourself looking forward to his scenes because he provides the humor in an almost-humorless book.
Mr. Thornton is a character we can readily identify with--someone who triumphs over adversity and seeks to constantly better himself. Someone with high standards, yet none higher than he holds himself to. Margaret is his match in every way.
There are many plot similarities with Pride and Prejudice in the love story. We have characters of different class backgrounds who are initially repelled but who come to appreciate each other and are kept apart by misunderstandings and circumstances. The proposal scenes are strikingly familiar, and the first proposal includes almost the same language (re gentlemanlike behavior) that Elizabeth speaks to Darcy. And we have a Lady Catherine DeBourgh character in Mrs. Thornton, who does her best to drive the lovers apart. But you cant fault Mrs. Gaskell for borrowing plotlines from the master. Although Gaskell is a strong writer, she does not quite have Jane Austens gift for revealing the humanity in her characters with humor and affection. There is not much fun and no banter (until the very last lines of the book) in the North and South love story.
North and South takes on a lot and mainly succeeds. Youll love its ambition and its great heart. Youll love that you learn a lot about English history at that particular time. Youll love that it rewards youe for getting through those first pages with a rich, compelling story. Youll love that Mrs. Gaskell holds your interest to the end.
As Victorian novels go, this is surprisingly modern and a worthwhile read.