Margaret Hale is a pretty young woman growing up in her aunt's fashionable London household alongside her cousin, Edith. Due to the impending marriage of Edith to one Captain Lennox and subsequent move to Corfu, Margaret is to return to her father's vicarage in the English countryside. She arrives there just in time for her father to draw her into his confidence regarding his inability to continue in his position. He takes a job as a tutor in the northern manufacturing town of Milton during a time of industrial unrest between the mill-owners on the one hand and the mill-hands on the other. The Hales find themselves in a curious position, befriended both by the powerful manufacturer, Mr. Thornton, and Nicholas Higgins, a Union leader. Coming from the South, they are ignorant of the adversarial relationship between the hands and the masters and find themselves in an interesting position of trying to make each side understand the other.
This is my first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell and I was quite favorably intrigued by her treatment of the industrial revolution and how it played out. I found the best parts of the book to be those that depicted the antagonism of the masters and the hands to be of particular interest, most especially the riot in the midst of the strike. I also thoroughly enjoyed the numerous discussions between Mr. Thornton, Mr. Hale, Mr. Higgins, and Margaret regarding the merits of their positions regarding industry and economy.
On the other hand, the the romance aspect of the novel, felt thrown in, as if she felt she had to include it in an attempt to emulate other well-known women authors of her time and those that came before, particularly the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. I don't feel that it really added much to the story and it seemed completely unnecessary.
Interestingly enough, it seems to me that Ms. Gaskell gave far better depth and personality to her male characters, particularly Mr. Thornton and Mr. Higgins than she was able to give to the women. The women read to me as cookie-cutter characters while the men seemed to fairly leap off the page.
I think her treatment of the Industrial Revolution and the interaction between the workers and the masters and it's treatment of social issues of the time is a unique one and what earned the book it's place on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. If it weren't for the romance and uninspired female characters I would certainly have rated this book higher.