I have just completed reading this book for the second time and it has been even better then the first time.
I'd already seen the BBC series before reading the first time so I already knew the story, and I wish I'd come to the books afresh in a way though I do not think that would have altered in anyway, the way I perceived them. Though Richard Armitage certainly does help and I swooned over Thornton even more.
What I love about North and South is the passion and the realness of the characters, the emotion between the characters. I loved the passion of Thornton, his feelings and emotion so strong and real they almost popped off the page.
The characters aren't characters but people, and they feel real and honest, not caricatures of people or flat emotionless representations.
North and South is Pride and Prejudice meets Industrial Revolution in the North of England. Only, Mr Darcy is more of a Margaret in that she snobs Mr Thornton in the beginning. Like Lizzie though, Margaret is a strong woman - and more fiercely independent.
Both of these books would make an interesting comparison. Both books are set in rather different times. North and South in a time when women could own property and so could be more independent. The industrial revolution was in full fledge with the rising middle class during a great time of progress. The railway made it easier for people of all classes to move about.
North and South is a love story that takes place on the background of two conflicts - the class conflict between the North and the South, and the conflict between the mill owners and the trade unions.
Mr Thornton is a tradesman from Milton (really Manchester) and Margaret is the daughter of a parson from the New Forest. She has grown up for most of her latter path of childhood in Harley Street, London.
When Margaret's father decides to leave his job as parson of Helstone in the New Forest over a crisis of conscience he takes his family to Milton to start a new life as a tutor. One of his favourite pupils is the mill owner, Mr Thornton who is brusque and does not have the manners of the south.
There was a great snobbery about tradesmen - even though money-wise Thornton was richer then the Hales - he was still a tradesman rather then a perceived gentleman. And through misunderstandings of each others manners and ways, Margaret and Mr Thornton often find themselves at opposing sides of the argument. Meanwhile, she also befriends Nicholas Higgins, a passionate mill worker who is behind the trade union strikes.
I much prefer North and South to Pride and Prejudice, though both are so different from each other in many ways. Gaskell is a bit more worldly, having been married, lived in the North and having a wider circle of friends. Her father was also a dissenter who left the church on grounds of consciousness, a theme I have noticed popping up in her other stories. (My Lady Ludlow springs to mind.) So North and South has a much more wider perspective.
I think in the end though, what makes a novel good, what makes a good author - is their ability to create characters that feel so real you can almost tough them. If the characters are flat, then so will the rest of the story even with a brilliant plot - it is the characters that make a story.
Margaret Hale and John Thornton are two people that live on in my imagination.