Margaret Hale’s life changes abruptly when, on her return home after years with her London aunt, her father announces he is quitting the Church. She and her parents have two weeks to move from Hampshire to the northern manufacturing town of Milton, where her father plans to work as a tutor, furthering the educations both of teenage apprentices and their masters. The transition is not a happy one. Margaret looks down at trade and all those connected to it; and as a clergyman’s daughter accustomed to charity, she finds it hard to adjust to a world where anyone who can’t keep up gets left behind. Her strong opinions on social matters cause her to clash with her father’s favourite pupil, the wealthy but unpolished mill owner John Thornton. He is repelled by the newcomer’s haughtiness, yet can’t help being attracted to her. As Margaret settles into Milton life and makes friends among the workers, she and Mr. Thornton embark on a kind of adversarial friendship. But just when things are going right, everything starts going wrong.
Events in the aftermath of a strike at the cotton mill effectively shatter the growing relationship between them. Then her mother falls seriously ill, prompting her brother Frederick - living in exile after being involved in a mutiny - to risk a potentially fatal return to England. The presence of a strange man in her life, and the lies she must tell to save him, rob Mr. Thornton of any hope of obtaining her; and Margaret feels that his knowledge of her fall from grace must leave her ruined in his eyes. Yet ironically, it is when they are apart that they make the greatest progress toward some middle ground between their different points of view. Then a series of deaths lead to Margaret’s return to London, wealthier and unhappier than she has ever been. And when the final toll of the strike threatens to cost Mr. Thornton his mill, only Margaret can save him - and perhaps secure her own happiness into the bargain.
Anyone who’s read about my last-minute adjustment of my Top
Ten Eleven list will know how much I love this book. Finally, I have found a rival for Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, and it actually reminded me of both. The former because it paired a strong, spirited heroine with a rigidly self-controlled hero who had a battleaxe of a relative, it featured an ill-fated proposal followed by a blistering set-down, and the heroine had a sibling in trouble; and the latter because of Mr. Thornton’s unshakeable devotion to Margaret. Even when she broke his heart, he could not and would not stop loving her. Margaret was an exceptional heroine, with strong principles that she was determined to act on, even if she regretted doing so later. It was wonderful to see her lose her prejudices as she learned more about Milton life.
I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which the various social issues - the rights of workers to strike, whether the unions were benevolent necessities or greater tyrants than some of the masters - were worked into the main story. Both sides of the problems were represented evenly, and by real, vivid characters that were more than just points of view. There was no real right or wrong side, as evidenced by the fact that the two main characters discovered a middle ground rather than one realising their faults; even when he was trying to hate Margaret, Mr. Thornton still found himself making improvements of which he knew she would approve. Given certain ongoing political disputes over industrial relations, it was not only informative but timely. All the characters were well-drawn; even the maid came to life on the page. The most intriguing was the aforementioned battleaxe, Mrs. Thornton, with all her contradictions. She showered attention on her daughter while despising her for her weakness, to compensate for her knowledge that she would always love her son best; and when she first met Margaret she was simultaneously horrified by the thought of a penniless girl catching her precious John, and equally appalled by the idea that said girl might turn up her nose at such a prize. I had to feel sorry for her, in spite of her abrasive personality, because whatever happened she would lose.
There was one disappointment, though: it was a library copy and I had to give it back.