When the novel opened, Margaret Hale was preparing for her cousin Edith’s wedding to Captain Lennox. Following the celebration she returned to the village of Helstone where her father was vicar. She had spent the past ten years living with her aunt and cousin and was now looking forward to the idyllic life of Helstone with her parents. This quiet genteel life in Southern England was shattered by an unexpected and unwanted proposal from Edith’s brother-in-law, Henry Lennox, and her father’s shocking news that doubts about the Church of England led him to leave the Church and move his family to the industrial Northern town of Milton.
The three Hales relocated to the North, where Mr. Hale became a private tutor and Margaret tried to reconcile herself to her new and unlovely environs. She disliked the business and coarseness of the inhabitants and was disdainful of the prominence of business in public life. Mr. Hale’s friend and pupil Mr. Thornton, one of Milton’s most influential and wealthiest manufacturers, garnered her particular disapproval. The two of them were at odds over capitalism and the relationship of masters and laborers. Mr. Thornton grew to love Margaret both despite and because of her pride, but she disliked him immensely. The imminent strike by Milton’s working class was a point of contention; Mr. Thornton professed derision for the strikers and Margaret, while mostly ignorant of the reasons for a strike, identified with the laborers. This was due in part to her acquaintance with a Milton laborer, Nicholas Higgins, and his sweet, dying daughter Bessy.
While in Milton Mrs. Hale developed a serious illness. One day Margaret went to the Thornton home to borrow a water-bed for her ailing mother and found herself amidst a roiling mass of laborers who had erupted into anger and violence over Mr. Thornton’s choice to employ Irish hands because of the strike. On the doorstep of his home Margaret was roused into action, throwing her arms around him to protect him from the crowd’s projectiles. He later confessed his love for her but she claimed that she was only doing what any woman would have done, and coldly refused him.
The young Bessy Higgins died from her long sickness derived from factory work. Mrs. Hale’s death was also near, and she begged her daughter to call her brother Frederick home. Frederick Hale was a fugitive from England due to his assumed role in a mutiny in the Royal Navy. Frederick, risking capture, stole into Milton and visited his dying mother on her deathbed. His visit was short-lived, however, as it was too dangerous for him to remain.
Frederick’s visit brought complications for Margaret. While at the train station bidding his sister goodbye, the two were noticed by Mr. Thornton, who believed Frederick to be Margaret’s secret lover. Frederick was also noticed by an old enemy who tried to accost him. He pushed the man away from him; these injuries later led to the man’s death and a police inquiry of Margaret, who was noticed at the station by other Milton townspeople. Margaret lied to the inspector to protect Frederick. This falsehood caused an immense amount of guilt, especially since Mr. Thornton, a magistrate, protected Margaret by ending the police inquiry. The fact that he knew of her moral lapse and she was unable to tell him the reasons for it smote her conscience.
After his son left, Mr. Hale departed for Oxford to spend time with Mr. Bell, his former tutor and Margaret’s godfather. While there he passed away in his sleep. Margaret, overcome with grief, returned to her aunt’s house. Her cousin and Captain Lennox had returned from living abroad and resided in the same house as well. Margaret spent time alone coming to terms with all of the tragedy she had suffered from in the past two years.
Her affection and esteem for Mr. Thornton had slowly been growing. She hoped Mr. Bell, who was Mr. Thornton’s landlord, would tell Mr. Thornton about the reasons for her falsehood. This was now possible because attempts to clear Frederick’s name had been abandoned; he would remain living in Spain with his new wife and his secret visit was no longer problematic.
Mr. Bell, however, also passed away from illness. Margaret inherited a great sum of money. One day Mr. Thornton came to visit as a guest of Henry Lennox. He explained that his business had been destroyed by the strike –his own decision to hire Irish hands and the instability of the market led to his final decision to sell the business he had built from scratch. He had, however, come to practice a more humanitarian way of conducting business and no longer maintained an absolute separation between master and workers. This change was symbolized by the respectful and mutually beneficial relationship between Mr. Thornton and Nicholas Higgins, who he had grudgingly hired to work at the mill after the strike’s cessation.
When Margaret heard of the failure of his business and his new mode of thinking, she sympathized with him and decided to use her inheritance to help save the mill. When she told him of this, the final barriers to their love and intimacy were abandoned; they embraced and expressed their love for each other.