North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
I can't remember now exactly who recommended North and South, but I read about it on one or two blogs last year, and picked up the Penguin Popular Classic version when it came in my way.
Since I was planning to read it anyway, I made it part of the "Chunkster Challenge." It only has 520 pages, which makes it only 1/3 as long as War and Peace. It didn't really feel long as I was reading, however. The story drew me right in, and I was carried along rapidly. The heroine, Margaret, was rather nice for a Victorian heroine. She was good, of course, but not too good. Not perfect. Mrs. Gaskell endows her with perfectly normal Victorian class sensibilities, and then proceeds to knock them out of her. Hurrah for Mrs. Gaskell.
The social commentary part of the book definitely had a more feminine touch than Dickens would have wielded, but the sentiments were pretty much the same. A hard-working, self-made man deserves respect, regardless of whether he is a factory hand, a factory owner, or a "gentleman." I had to chuckle over Mrs. Gaskell's careful literary lesson that some things are more important than money. I'm sure she believed it. However, she did arrange everything neatly so the hero and heroine would have no lack of it by the end of the book.
I will certainly read more of Elizabeth Gaskell's writing when I have the chance. She isn't Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens, but she has a Victorian voice of her own that is good enough to pursue further.