"North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)
"'In our infancy we require a wise despotism to govern us. Indeed, long past infancy, children and young people are the happiest under the unfailing laws of a discreet, firm authority. I agree with Miss Hale so far as to consider our people in the condition of children, while I deny that we, the masters, have anything to do with the making or keeping of them so.'"
North and South was originally serialized in Household Words, a publication edited by Charles Dickens. Dickens was writing Hard Times at the same time that Elizabeth Gaskell was writing this novel, and the interplay between the two authors' personalities and works of fiction provides some interesting background for this book.
In North and South, Margaret Hale moves to a factory town after her father, a minister, parts ways with the Church of England. She later forms a strained relationship with Mr. Thornton, one of the factory owners in the town, and comes to understand the wide gulf which separates her social standing from those beneath her.
Dickens himself criticized the novel for lacking "conciseness," and I would heartily agree. At over 500 pages this book sprawls, and given its actual content it could have easily been half as long. Instead of what might have been a harrowing look at how the Industrial Revolution impacted the north of England (as in Hard Times), we are instead witness to Margaret's endless fits of crying, fainting, and pointless introspection. Her relationship to Mr. Thornton also lacks the dramatic import it might have had in other, more skillful hands, and the role of women in Margaret's society could have been explored in much greater depth. At times this book flirts with being good, but never quite gets there.
I wouldn't say that it's bad, exactly. It's not unreadable. But given both its history and subject matter, it's hard not to think about how much better Dickens treated similar themes, and how much more powerful North and South might have been if the author had been more "concise."