I've also read Gaskell's Cranford, which similarly exposes social inequalities, but although it's possible to sympathize with the ladies of Cranford, one always feels they are being mocked almost as mercilessly as those who oppress them. Margaret and Mr. Thornton, however, are real people, not caricatures. Although North and South does take a more conventional romantic plotline, it seems hardly the point. All the action of the book is about religious, financial, and political tensions--Gaskell doesn't even bother to end with a marriage.
It is the reality of this book that gets to me. There are some lines that ring more true than almost anything I've read. For example, when Margaret contemplates her proposal experiences (to which, she does not react as violently as Miss Bennet), "Margaret began to wonder whether all offers were as unexpected beforehand--as distressing at the time of their occurrence, as the two she had had." This seems like a natural wonder for an inexperienced young lady of the time.
Later, after Margaret has had to spend much time caring for her father after her mother's death, she feels relief when he goes to visit a friend: "It was astonishing, almost stunning, to feel herself so much at liberty; no one depending on her for cheering care...she might be idle, and silent, and forgetful,--and what seemed worth more than all the other privileges--she might be unhappy if she liked." This seems such a natural feeling for someone who has had to care for others after a loss, yet it is not one that many would either want to express or be able to express as fully as Gaskell does here.
For thorough explanations and thoughtful reflections on what it means to be rich and poor, and how industrialization affected those dynamics, wrapped up in a compelling narrative and character arc, I highly recommend North and South. And now I can get around to watching the movie(s).