Ruth is Elizabeth Gaskell's second novel first published in 1853, following Mary Barton (1848) and preceding North and South (1855). One of the reasons I love reading Gaskell's works is the social aspect: Charles Kingsley, the novelist and social reformer, said of Mary Barton, "Do they want to know why poor men, kind and sympathising as women to each other, learn to hate law and order, Queen, Lords and Commons, country-party, and corn-law-leaguer, all alike—to hate the rich, in short? Then let them read Mary Barton." North and South addressed the "Condition of England Question" on social unrest, poverty, and inequality, and in Ruth an exploration of motherhood out of wedlock and the values of Victorian society.
I dare say it would be hard to overestimate how shocking Ruth would have been when it was published in the early 1850s. It tells the story of an orphan, Ruth Hilton, brought up without the motherly love every child ought to have, working as a seamstress for Mrs. Mason. She meets Henry Bellingham, an aristocrat and cad. They run away together to London and she imagines herself as his wife, no longer a poor orphan working in dreadful conditions, but a lady, but instead she ends up a fallen woman, like Esther Barton in Mary Barton, or indeed Tess of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. What's more, she's pregnant, and following a short illness Henry's mother persuades him to abandon her, which he does. She attempts suicide but is saved by Thurstan Benson, an English Dissenter, and he and his sister Faith take her in, making up a story that she is a widow named Mrs. Denbigh. She has her son, Leonard, and becomes a governess, however her secret cannot remain a secret forever, and Mr. Benson cannot protect her from the indignation and disgust of Victorian society.
It is a very striking novel which, as I said, was met with some revulsion at the time. Gaskell Blog has put together some of the contemporary review, such as Blackwood's Edinburgh magazine who wrote, "the mistake lies in choosing such a heroine at all" or The Christian Observer who wrote, "Mrs. Gaskell …is a writer of lively invention, passion, power …But her taste is by no means refined; and the moral influence of her writing is, to say the least, very doubtful …in “Ruth,” she instructs us, that a woman who has violated the laws of purity is entitled to occupy precisely the same position in society as one who has never thus offended.", however the reviews were not altogether damning. The Gentleman's Magazine, for example, wrote "That some, and those among very true lovers of their kind —very excellent, admirable people, by no means overstrained in their general views of moral questions— should recoil from both the subject and Mrs. Gaskell’s way of treating it, does not surprise us; but we think their view somewhat narrow and oppressive." Ruth is a very moving story, though it does divide readers, some finding Ruth a somewhat irritating martyr. I didn't so much, I was struck by the tragedy of it all, this poor young girl as a social pariah, her sin of being misguided (I think) pales in comparison to Henry Bellingham, his mother, and the unforgiving society that drove her to her tragic end. It's a very strong novel indeed.