North and South (the one by Elizabeth Gaskell) is my second favorite book for a variety of reasons. It tells the story of the young Margaret Hale, the pretty daughter of a clergyman in the south of England. Margaret is a vibrant, sympathetic, and passionate girl who was raised in the small village of Helstone. The story starts in London as Margaret celebrates the nuptials of her cousin and prepares to return home. She is immediately shown the affections of a well-off lawyer, the brother of her new cousin-in-law. He follows her to Helstone and proposes, only to be rejected because of her lack of affection for him.
Margeret is thrown through another torrent of emotions as her family is abruptly uprooted from its quaint parsonage by Mr. Hale, who quits his profession because of conflict in his faith. Margaret and her mother reluctantly move to the dingy industrial town of Milton where they are short of money and the grayness of the setting matches their outlook on life. Mr. Hale takes up a job as a teacher while Margaret begins to take an interest in the poor mill workers that populate Milton. Many of them are starving and the threat of strike fills the air.
She meets Higgins, a poor mill worker and one of the leaders of the impending strike who must feed his family and take care of his sick daughter who has been taken ill from the bad air within the factories. Margaret sympathizes with the poor workers and finds even more disdain with the mill owners and industrial chaos of the town. This anger is made even more pronounced when she meets the young mill owner Mr. Thornton, a favorite student of her father.
Margaret immediately dislikes Mr. Thornton, who is proud of the trade empire he has built within Milton and the mindset that the north boasts. The two are constantly thrown in each other's company and as Mr. Thornton grows to see Margaret's strong will and kind heart, he falls in love with her.
After a strike in which Margaret attempts to save his life and is injured in the process, Thornton proposes to her and is passionately rejected as Margaret voices her contempt of his character. As the story progresses, Margaret is forced to face more challenges as her mother becomes ill and eventually dies. Her father follows shortly behind and Margaret is left alone in the world with only one caretaker who bequeaths her all of his money and property before he too passes away.
Through her life's challenges, Margaret must learn to put aside her prejudices and look at the world through the eyes of others. Margaret slowly and steadily finds a balance between her conflicting emotions. In the end, her affection for her southern heritage, her family, the poor mill workers, and for Mr. Thornton all win and find a place within her.
This book runs along the same lines as Pride and Prejudice, only with a greater conflict and more gravity in its subplots. There are many twists within the story's progression. The deepest chasms between characters are caused by the smallest coincidences and cases of "bad luck." Irony and symbolism (my two favorite literary words) are both in abundance in this novel. I also found it interesting how this story follows both Margaret and Mr. Thornton individually so the reader gets the full benefit of experiencing the dramatic irony, unlike other novels such as Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. This book is truly a must-read in every way and I promise that you will be completely satisfied when you put it down.
The book has also been adapted into a BBC Miniseries that stays faithfully true to the novel and pulls at the heartstrings. This is one of the best miniseries' I've come across and it nails the characters perfectly, starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage (swoon) as Margaret and Thornton. Denby-Ashe truly embodies Margaret and Richard Armitage turns in one of his best performances as the dark and ruggedly handsome Mr. Thornton. The screenplay is also written by Sandy Welch, the same lady who adapted the 2006 Jane Eyre miniseries. :)
Here is a clip below, just to give the full effect. Enjoy :)