There are some books to which the only reaction after a first read is "How can I never have read this before?!" I read this book after seeing the excellent BBC dramatization of it, and couldn't believe that I'd never heard of it before. It was truly great, just the right amount of romantic entanglements, just the right amount of social commentary. The lead couple were splendid, and the supporting cast was full of funny, memorable characters. It was the perfect blend between Dickens and Austen.
I saw the miniseries first so I was surprised how well they kept to the book if not always in the specifics but certainly in spirit. The book is wonderful and gives you so much insight into just what these characters are really thinking and feeling... beautiful.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell has nothing to do with the American Civil War. This story is set in mid-Victorian England. It's also one of my favorite stories. This is one of the best love stories I've read. True the book is about class struggles, the Industrial Revolution and its effect on England, workers rights, factory conditions, the role of women, but at its heart this book is a love story between the beautiful parson's daughter, Margaret Hale,who champions the rights of workers, and the handsome stern mill owner, John Thornton. John Thornton has to be one of the best literary love interests. His devotion and passionate love for Margaret makes my previous literary crush, Mr. Darcy, from Pride and Prejudice, look like an immature school boy. While I am a huge Jane Austen fan, you never get a sense of what her heroes are thinking. You never get into the head of Mr. Darcy. But Elizabeth Gaskell does a wonderful job in conveying exactly what Mr. Thornton thinks and feels. The heroine in North and South isn't as compelling to me as the heroines in Austen's stories, but Mr. Thornton more than makes up for what the heroine Margaret Hale lacks. The one thing I didn't care for in the book is the ending. When the ending happens, it happens so abruptly that you're left wanting more out of that particular scene. There should have been a better build up to the ending and a longer ending with more passion and conversation.
You have to read this book at least twice. The first time you read it for the passion and love. You read it a second time to understand the changing face of England from a primarily agricultural nation to an industrialized giant in the world.
In 2004, BBC made a wonderful adaptation of this book. Richard Armitage stars as John Thornton. If you can get a copy of the DVDs from Netflix or Amazon.com, it's well worth the expense. Richard Armitage does a fantastic job as the hero. He's so amazing in the role. When BBC aired the production, their online message board collapsed because so many people got on to find out more about Richard Armitage.