North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
North and South is the story of Margaret Hale who moves with her father from rural southern England to the fictional Northern Mill town of Milton.There she witnesses the huge changes wrought by the industrial revolution. Seeing employers and workers clashing in the first organised strikes. Sympathetic to the poor, whose courage and tenacity she admires and among whom she makes friends, she clashes with John Thornton, a cotton mill manufacturer. This novel traces both her growing understanding of the complexity of labor relations and her conflicted relationship with John Thornton.
I love Elizabeth Gaskell! where Austen was concerned about the social Mores and class distinctions in domestic life, Gaskell goes deeper and into darker more contentious areas of life. This is a brilliant example, the tensions between mill owner and workers and in turn John and Margaret's circle of well to do socialites are presented with stark clarity. All the while against the chaos two people who on paper would never be right for each other, are in actual fact perfect for each other.
John Thornton learns to let go of the bitterness that keeps workers aloof and Margaret in a state of slightly awed confusion as to why she is drawn to such a proud and steely man.
It gradually becomes apparent with his attempt to elevate himself by learning to read that he is a good soul, slightly shamed by his own humble beginnings and trying his very hardest to compete with those like Henry, Margaret 's other potential beau who has never had to struggle a day in his life for the creature comforts and yet he ultimately accepts Margaret's generous gift with grace and aplomb. Of all the characters, his is the most extensive and far reaching metamorphosis.
Why it is in my Top 20?
This is perhaps the most stark example of a book that at once is a accurate depiction of the tremendous evolution in manufacturing in the UK during the period and a searing story of a love between two people who on paper seem poorly matched but are drawn to each other through that difference. On each reading I gain more of an understanding of the period and I believe John Thornton is one of the most underrated Romantic heroes in literature.