Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell.

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.

Comments

  1. One of the Gaskells I still haven't read! I've just started Cousin Phillis on audiobook, and I'd still like to read Ruth and eventually The Poor Clare. I've liked all of her books so far though some of them are quite tragic.

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    1. I like them all too - looking forward to Sylvia's Lovers next, then a re-read of Cranford. Need to get some more Gaskell, my collection is a bit limited :)

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  2. I need to read this again. When I think of how the poor are stigmatized here in the US and how determined the wealthy are to keep them down on "moral" grounds I don't think we've gotten very far.

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    1. I know. I do see a very definite improvement in the UK in the way the poor are helped (we really have come a long way), but not so much in the attitude of helping. Any help is so often begrudged and resentfully given by the government, with little understanding, desire to understand, or compassion. Help is limited, and what is often bad treatment is disguised, as you say, by 'morality'.

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  3. What I find so tragic about this book is the underemphasis on the theme of forgiveness. The focus is all a critic of Victorian societal values, which of course play a part, but for me it was only to highlight the very strong theme of forgiveness and to a lesser, patience and endurance. We tend to read this book through modern eyes and forget Gaskell's strong Christian values. And while we need to speak out against injustice, we often do so in such a strong manner that we can become bitter, or even unjust ourselves. Ruth breaks that mould and Gaskell has her speak out against it with her actions, but mostly with her non-actions. Yet again, the injustice done to her is only a vehicle to explore those deeper themes. It's an amazing book and my favourite Gaskell (although I must confess I haven't read Wives and Daughters yet). Thanks for the review to remind me that this book deserves a re-read! :-)

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    1. sorry .... *** critique *** ;-Z

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    2. :)

      Thanks for this comment, it's excellent! I think in this, with the critique on the hypocrisies of society we really see the difference between preaching and practice, and, on forgiveness, we can all quote certain Biblical references but to really forgive is something quite different.

      You may disagree with me here, but when it comes to other people's sins (or a perception of their sin) I tend to think it's not us to forgive but God (I'm specifically talking about sins *not* committed against us directly), so an acceptance of that, that it's up to God to punish or forgive as he sees fit is important. Other people punished Ruth though she hadn't specifically sinned against them and that for me was the tragedy.

      I do love Gaskell, and yes she really does break the mould. I don't think I fully appreciate all the ways in which she was shocking (I read something just the other day about how scandalous it was for one of her characters to remove her bonnet in front of a man, which I missed)!

      Oh, and what you said - " while we need to speak out against injustice, we often do so in such a strong manner that we can become bitter, or even unjust ourselves" - seems I need a daily reminder of that! It's hard not to *be* hard, if that makes sense. Hypocrisy, which we see daily almost every hour online and in the news, is never easy to read with.

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  4. I have a used copy of this book sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it. I keep telling myself I'll get to it "next month", but then I make another trip to the library where I instantly check out too many books, so then I push Mrs. Gaskell's book back yet another month. :D Someday I will read this book!

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    1. I'm like that with Le Morte D'Arthur :) I quite understand! I hope when you get to it you love it :)

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  5. social dissenters in the early 19th c. had to be pretty tough to fight the current mores... i've only read one Gaskell, but she's not the only brave one; Disraeli, Kingsley, Watts-Dunton, and others joined the struggle; it took a long time, but eventually social strictures slacked off a bit, anyway.. i'll have to try this one tx dang my computer is going dark and starting to smoke...i've been having trouble with it; time for a new one if i can scrape up the money... later....

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    1. I need to look up Watts-Dunton, thanks for that suggestion :)

      Good luck with your computer....

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