Note for everyone who will be clutching their pearls/loosening their stays/employing fainting couches after reading my rant: I have not seen the BBC adaptation but I completely intend on watching it and adoring it because I love everything the BBC does. Onward!
The premise of the book is a bit like Hard Times and Mary Barton, both of which I really liked, but read several years ago. Despite my poor memory of the actual stories, I can say with confidence that those two stories were a million times better than North and South. Margaret Hale, a southerner raised in London with her aunt and her cousin Edith (one of those recipients of a slap I long to give), returns home to her parents at Helstone, which is the annoyingly perfect home of childhood bliss, etc. Suddenly, Margaret's father, who is a parson, drops a bomb: he's leaving his position with the Anglican Church. Margaret, Miss Prissy Pants, is shocked and angered by his decision. Her pride is wounded. Oh, her father is now a nasty Dissenter! Oh no, now we must leave our perfect paradise and move up north to live with common people *shudder* and (bless me!) merchants and traders! Save me, I think I'm going to faint from the horror of it all. Puh-leeze. Mrs. Gaskell, I am not liking your so-called heroine so far. Margaret is often described as proud and haughty, and yet she really has no reason to be so--at least, none that I could find. She simply believes herself to be better than everyone else.
In Milton (a thinly-disguised Manchester), she butts heads with her father's pupil, a Mr. Thornton, who owns one of the local mills. He's also a proud, nasty man. I guess we're supposed to like him, since he's handsome, but he also thinks of his employees as something less than human and only thinks of profit. Nice guy (although probably very typical for the time). Naturally, he falls for Margaret in spite of himself (does this all sound familiar?), gets rejected, sulks, sulks, sulks some more, forms a bad opinion of her based on a circumstance about which he knows nothing, and instead of asking Margaret to explain, mopes around and listens to his crazy mother.
Meanwhile, after dealing with unwanted suitors and the shock of seeing what the lives of working people are really like (spoiler: they're not horrid beastly animal-like people), Margaret watches as her mother sickens and her father falls into a state of lethargic apathy. The cherry on top is her brother Frederick (one of the two really likeable people in the book), who mutinied against his tyrannical captain and lives in exile for fear of his life. Frederick is brave and good and not afraid to have a good cry (too bad he's Margaret's brother and not her love interest!). However, we, as readers, only see him briefly, and then he's back to exile and his (double gasp!) Catholic fiancée.
Various tragedies ensue, along with a totally overblown misunderstanding that belongs in a modern romantic comedy (a film genre I despise) and lots and lots of people dying. You'd think that the plague was running through England the way the characters start dropping. It's a long and torturous road to the ending, which is sort of sweet, but far too rushed to make any sort of positive impact on my opinion.
Really, the main issue I have with North and South--even beyond the unlikeable characters--is its uncanny similarity to one of the great works of Austen: Pride and Prejudice. Let's see, we've got a proud rich man (Mr. Darcy/Mr. Thornton), tall and handsome, who originally spars with our heroine (I cannot possibly link together Elizabeth Bennet and Margaret Hale, but for comparison's sake, here we go), and falls in love with her in spite of himself. We've got the proposal scene where many cutting things are said that both characters later regret. We've got a total turnaround in the male character (Darcy's was infinitely more believable than Thornton's. The man who previously expressed his disgust for his workers suddenly gets all chummy with them and even provides them with a mess hall (?!??!?!)) and a totally insufferable mother figure (Mrs. Thornton/Lady Catherine). Toss in a suitor who's both totally full of himself and yet dependent on his object of desire's fortune to succeed (Henry Lennox/Mr. Wickham), a disgraced family member (Lydia/Frederick), a hypochondriac mother and an indolent father, and, well. North and South feels like a very poor reworking of Austen's brilliant social satire. Yes, Gaskell's exploration of worker's rights was nice, if somewhat dense, and the (rather suddenly) emancipated Margaret of the end of the book was quite nice to see, but overall it felt like a chore to read.
I apologize for the long, rambling review but it was just one of those books that grated on me so that I had to get it off of my chest. If you're looking for a book about working conditions and society in mid-nineteenth-century England, check out the aforementioned Hard Times by Dickens or Mrs. Gaskell's own Mary Barton (which I heartily recommend reading along with her Wives and Daughters for a comparison of two totally different worlds). North and South may be deemed a classic, but for the life of me, I can't understand why.