Milton couldn’t be much more different to the New Forest. It is dirty, industrial and the people are different too, being far less class-conscious, more forward, and the pace of life is also quite different. One of Mr Hale’s pupils is John Thornton, a successful mill-owner. To Margaret, he personifies the North, being hard, uncaring of people, seeing his workers only as cogs in the machine of his business rather than as people in their own right and only caring for money. Margaret is sadly prejudiced against Mr Thornton, still retaining some of her London snobbery towards tradesmen and their pretences of being something other than they are.
Mrs Gaskell was writing at a time well-known for the increase in social conscience, where people took an interest in reducing problems and injustices in wider society. There were many attempts made by authors to raise awareness of the way life was for the working man in order to gain more understanding and empathy for his situation. In North and South Thornton himself is initially unsympathetic to the troubles of his worker – since he has raised himself up from scant earnings he sees no reason why any other man who can read and write couldn’t do the same but once he gets to know them on a human level he gets to understand them and their issues better. For all his self-made success, even Thornton isn’t infallible so he learns that hard work alone isn’t always enough.
If you’ve watched the excellent BBC adaptation I would still recommend reading the book. Not only do you get more of the inner thoughts of Margaret and Mr Thornton but I think you get more of the societal message that Gaskell was intending to convey along with the growth of the main characters. This is one of my all time favourites and I highly recommend it.