Margaret Hale's father has a crisis of faith and removes his family from their beloved New Forest to Milton, a manufacturing town in Manchester. Dismayed by the smoky industrial landscape Margaret's mother becomes ill. Her father takes in students and one of them is the powerful cotton-mill owner John Thornton.
Hypnotised by Margaret's dark beauty, dignity and scornful disdain of capitalism he falls in love with her. Margaret befriends a local girl, Bessy, who is dying as a consequence of breathing in the dust when she worked at the cotton mills:
'Fluff,' repeated Bessy. 'Little bits as fly off fro' the cotton, when they're carding it, and fill the air till it looks all fine white dust. They say it winds round the lungs and tightens them up. Anyhow there's many a one as works in the carding room, that falls in a waste, coughing and spitting blood, because they're just poisoned by the fluff.'After Margaret protects him during a riot by the workers on strike and is injured in the process, Thornton declares his love and is refused. Her mother succumbs and dies, so does Bessy and suddenly Margaret's father. (Charles Dickens once said that much as he admires Elizabeth Gaskell he wished her characters were a little more steady on their feet!)
During this time, Thornton begins to doubt Margaret's virtue after he sees her walking out after dusk with a young man (who turns out to be her brother, but that's another story.) Margaret's stoicism and compassion see her through and after some clever plot twists she comes to appreciate the true value of the man she once disdained and the industrial town she once disliked.