REVIEW: Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
I was first turned onto Gaskell’s work not in print but by the miniseries version of North and South, which I love. I also watched and adored the PBS adaption of Cranford, a very different kind of story. I eventually read both books and liked them each quite well. Still, it was a number of years before I tried another of her works; I read Mary Barton last year. I don’t know why I haven’t read everything Gaskell’s written already since I really do enjoy her realistic and emotionally sensitive writing. She reminds me of Anne Bronte, the least flashy of the Bronte sisters IMO (and of course Gaskell was famously a friend and biographer of Charlotte Bronte).
Anyway, Ruth. I will start by saying that I somehow stumbled across this being described as a bit of an antidote to Hardy’s Tess of D’Urbervilles. I’ve never read Tess; I tread very lightly with Hardy after my traumatic experience with Jude the Obscure. I do know the general plot, though, and have picked up the idea that Tess is doomed because she has sex outside of marriage. Ruth does the same (and the results are not much better), though for all her atoning for her “sin” she is an incredibly, painfully innocent heroine.
The story opens with Ruth having recently taken up a post as a seamstress in a Victorian sweatshop. She has just been orphaned and her indifferent guardian finds her the position; Ruth is barely 15 years old. She’s also very beautiful, and her beauty catches the eye of Henry Bellingham when she is tasked one evening with waiting on the ladies at a ball and repairing their gowns as needed. Bellingham soon begin pursuing Ruth, who seems almost unaware of the nature of his interest in her; she’s that innocent. One Sunday when returning from a long walk (she had taken him to visit her childhood home), Ruth and Bellingham are caught on the road by her employer, who fires Ruth on the spot. Just like that, the trap is closed; Bellingham has the perfect excuse to “take care” of Ruth, and Ruth doesn’t have any other options, besides dying in a ditch, I guess.
Several months later, Ruth and Bellingham are staying at an inn in Wales on holiday. The intervening time is very lightly alluded to, and in fact a small part of me was hoping Ruth wasn’t really ruined (admittedly it seemed unlikely that the selfish Bellingham would be taking care of Ruth while getting nothing in return). Ruth and Bellingham seem ill-suited, as she’s young and dreamy and he’s jaded and cranky. Her dreaminess seems to irritate him, as when they’re stuck inside at the inn due to bad weather.
Still, with all the fervor of youth, Ruth has convinced herself that she loves Bellingham. She doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about her “fallen woman” status unless it’s shoved in her face, as when a young boy castigates her in the village in front of his nanny, having heard that Ruth is a “bad woman” from his mother. It occurs to me that her love for Bellingham is probably partly motivated by a desire to self-justify her “sinful” behavior. (Spoiler: he’s not that lovable!)
Bellingham falls ill and Ruth is frantic to save him. His doting mother is summoned to the inn to oversee his recovery, and Ruth is pushed to the side (she is, of course, seen as distasteful and beneath the notice of the respectable Mrs. Bellingham). Once he recovers, Bellingham is persuaded by his mother to drop Ruth without a word (but with a 50-pound note enclosed in a letter from Mrs. Bellingham). It’s not clear if he’s truly sick of Ruth or if it’s mostly just embarrassment of being caught by his mother with his mistress that motivates Bellingham, but it doesn’t appear to be a decision that he loses sleep over.
Just like that, Ruth is alone, friendless and without any resources in the world. Then *she* falls ill, and is aided by Mr. Benson, whom she had previously met on one of her walks while she was still with Bellingham. Mr. Benson is disabled by a hunched back; he’s a dissenting minister who is visiting Wales on holiday. He summons his sister Faith to come join him and help figure out what to do with Ruth, who is not only ill but apparently pregnant. The two resolve to bring her back to their home and pass her off to the town as a widowed relative. It’s a decision that the religious pair do not take lightly – lying to the people they’ve know their whole lives – but ultimately they decide that it’s for the greater good.
Ruth settles into life with Mr. Benson, Faith and their longtime housekeeper, Sally. At first both Faith and Sally are more judgmental and warier of Ruth than Mr. Benson is (he’s a fairly saintly character). But Ruth’s sweetness and innate goodness wins them over.
At times, Ruth, though the central character of the novel, feels a bit underdeveloped. She goes from being a naive child – so naive that she isn’t even totally conscious of the supposed sin she commits with Bellingham – to a Madonna figure, one who strives to expiate her sin with unerring goodness. In contrast, the heroine of Mary Barton is also tempted by a wealthy pursuer, whom she ultimately rejects for the poor boy who loves her honorably and wants to marry her. Mary is more realistically portrayed as a teenage girl living in poverty whose head is initially turned by the promise of a more comfortable life. Ruth’s purity makes her hard to relate to, even as it makes her suffering more poignant. She does show some depth by the joy she takes in being educated by Mr. Benson:
She delighted in the exercise of her intellectual powers, and liked the idea of the infinite amount of which she was ignorant; for it was a grand pleasure to learn—to crave, and be satisfied.
The social realism inherent in Gaskell’s work is what makes it so vivid to me, I think – as much as I enjoy a lot of 19th century literature, I also often also find it inaccessible, because the characters and situations don’t feel relatable. Morever, the emotions of the characters often aren’t recognizable or resonant to me. I find it somehow thrilling when I do feel that sense of connection, that moment of understanding of the human condition, as I frequently do with this author’s work. It makes the past come alive for me – I know that’s a well-worn phrase but it’s one that really applies here.
There is a level of moralizing in Ruth that I *don’t* relate to, as a modern reader. As much as Ruth is clearly as innocent as it’s possible to be (almost unbelievably so, really), even the “good” characters do not see her as blameless. There is a stain of sin on her that must be expunged by good works, chasteness and modesty. Given the time and the place and the reality of Victorian morality (Gaskell was herself the wife of a Unitarian minister), the author’s humanistic and humane approach to her subject matter feels like it is leaps and bounds beyond what it could be. (Not surprisingly, the subject matter of the novel was controversial when it was published.) But I still bristled at the attitudes of the characters towards Ruth, anyway.
Ruth’s gentle and passive demeanor contrasts with that of Jemima, a young woman who admires Ruth for her beauty and grace. Jemima’s father Mr. Bradshaw employs Ruth as a sort of day governess for his younger daughters, and Jemima, who is only a few years younger than Ruth, comes to see Ruth as a beloved elder sister.
Jemima is in love with Mr. Farquahar, who is much older and a business partner of Mr. Bradshaw’s. Mr. Farquahar is interested in Jemima as well, though he’s concerned about their age difference. Mr. Bradshaw very much desires the union, figuring it will get Jemima off his hands *and* keep money in the family.
The problem is that Mr. Farquahar behaves in a paternalistic manner to Jemima, which she finds infuriating (and I found kind of squicky). Jemima is headstrong and stubborn, but usually unable to exercise those traits around her father, who rules his family with an iron fist. So she takes her resentment and frustration out on Mr. Farquahar, fuming at his attempts to correct her impetuosity. This leads Mr. Farquahar to conclude that Jemima does not see him as a potential husband, and he transfers his attentions to Ruth. Which, of course, hurts and incenses Jemima, and leads to a rift in her relationship with Ruth. (Ruth, typically, seems entirely unaware of his interest for quite a while.)
I liked the inclusion of Jemima as a character in contrast to Ruth’s. Gaskell doesn’t condemn Jemima for traits that were no doubt considered unbecoming a young Victorian lady. Yes, there’s a sense that she needs to grow up and start behaving better (not the least because her behavior is not getting her what she wants). But her chafing at the sense that she’s being managed into a marriage with Mr. Farquahar is treated as understandable.
In a way, the last quarter of the novel, where the proverbial chickens come home to roost, doesn’t really feel like it fits. I mean, it’s very “19th century British novel” to have the main characters unable to escape their pasts, but at the same time I could easily have imagined another, less dramatic ending.
There are times when Ruth is difficult to read; the weight of unfair judgment on this poor girl made me angry, the moreso because I know that’s how women *have* been treated throughout history (today, in our society at least, it’s more subtle, but the phrase “slut-shaming” exists for a reason). The injustice is leavened by the knowledge that even in a judgmental age, a character like Mr. Benson could speak the words:
“Is it not time to change some of our ways of thinking and acting? I declare before God, that if I believe in any one human truth, it is this—that to every woman who, like Ruth, has sinned, should be given a chance of self-redemption—and that such a chance should be given in no supercilious or contemptuous manner, but in the spirit of the holy Christ.”
Sure, I still have issue with seeing Ruth as a sinner at all, and the religious stuff doesn’t really work for me, but at least there’s a glimmer of understanding in 1853 that a young woman should not be condemned for a mistake made when she was 15 (even Ruth, trying in some small way to defend herself when she’s found out and castigated, says sadly “I was so young”).
I’ll take what I can get, I guess.
Ruth was a slow read for me, but I savored the opportunity to really become absorbed in the world Gaskell created. My grade is an A-.