Wednesday, February 29, 2012

MACBETH by William Shakespeare

Original Publication Date: 1623

Earliest Known Performance: 1611

Genre: play, tragedy

Topics: free will, leadership, ambition, war, human nature

(image by brekkers)


How exactly do you “review” Macbeth? Especially if it’s only the second Shakespeare play you’ve ever read? Surely every original thought about it must have already been published, built-upon, attacked and defended.

Now that I’ve read it, I can finally understand the fuss. If you just want a good story you’ll take great pleasure in the spooky atmosphere and the bloody scenes, if you’re a philosopher you can revel in the Grand Issues like free will, ambition and leadership and if you’re a language buff there’s lots of passages to underline.

Just like with A Midsummer’s Night Dream, I took great pleasure in the words, even though they were more archaic and harder to follow (it’s after all a historical play, set in the 11th century). Here are some great examples, the kind you want to memorize and use to impress people at parties:
Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky
And fan our people cold

I have begun to plant thee, and will labor
To make thee full of growing

Start, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires

Infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets
Macbeth is the story of a great and respected warrior that once upon a time comes across three witches that give him a vision of the future: he will be King! Macbeth believes them and starts making sure that history bends to this prophecy. Thus begins a bloody chain of events, which starts with regicide, but certainly doesn’t end there.

It’s so spooky that it became a sort of theater-Voldemort: in the acting business it’s only referred to as “the Scottish play”, never by its name, which is said to be CURSED *cue high-pitched violins*.

(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

The play also has the potential to sparkle great conversations, the type I remember having with friends after watching Donny Darko: would have Macbeth been King, if he didn’t take matters in his own hands? Why didn’t he just sit and wait for the crown to fall on his lap? Was the prophecy just an excuse to bring out everything that was mad and evil in him? What about the Lady Macbeth, another Eve figure, that tempts her man into sin?

Lady Macbeth is an interesting one. She’d also like to be Queen, but knows she doesn’t have the cold blood that’s needed to kill those in her path. And she’s right, because shortly after helping to cover Macbeth’s crime, she rapidly descends into madness and commits suicide. Her power lies in influencing her husband, but even that was too much for her. Still, Lady Macbeth has the best speeches, my favorite being the creepy scene where she asks the spirits to maker stronger, colder… and less womanly:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!
As Macbeth himself becomes insane and more brutal, his speeches also become more frantic, and even more spectacular:
I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek
There weren’t as many insults as in Midsummer’s Night Dream (only “rump-fed ronyon”, “shag-haar’d villain” and “lily-liver’d boy”), but there were many little expressions that I immediately recognize. It was such a great experience to think “So that’s where it comes from!” Examples:
that shalt be king hereafter
King Hereafter” is the name of a novel by Dorothy Dunnett, about the life of the Scottish King that lightly influenced Macbeth’s story.
To wear a heart so white
A Heart so White”, is a novel by Javier Marias, which my bookclub read a few years ago.
The weird sisters, hand in hand
The Weird Sisters”, is a recent and very popular novel by Eleanor Brown
Something wicked this way comes
Same title as a Ray Bradbury novel.

One last thought (and a question): I thought it was very cleaver the way Shakespeare made the prophecy make sense. It’s certainly the same level as most Hollywood twists. Was he the first one to use a “literary quibble“?

Macbeth, as well as all other plays by Shakespeare, is available on Project Gutenberg and on LibriVox (in audio).

This post was also published at The Sleepless Reader.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Short Story Review: The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Original Publication Date: 1907

Genre: Horror

Topics: horror, psychological terror, other dimensional, camping, travel

Review: There should be a sub-genre in horror fiction: camping trips gone awry, think Deliverance or Friday the 13th. Being in an unfamiliar place makes people edgy. The fear of the unknown is a human trait. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood doesn't use a knife wielding maniac to tap into that fear.

In The Willows an unnamed narrator and his buddy, "The Swede", are embarking on that male right of passage, the road trip. Instead of hitch hiking across America, these two are canoeing over Europe. Things have gone well so far. They've stopped in several places, had some adventures, but it's been no sweat for either of them until they hit the Danube. The river is flooding and things are getting hairy. They're two strong, capable boys though and manage to get themselves to a sandy island covered in willow trees.

They decide it would be best to stay there a couple of days and wait for the flood waters to recede. They set up their tent, despite the terrible wind that constantly blows, and go looking for firewood. It's then that the narrator gets a sense that something is not right. He has a feeling of foreboding that weighs heavily upon him. The fear within him is worse when he's within sight of the willow trees which press upon him. He decides not to tell his friend, a practical guy not given to imaginings, although they share a couple of incidents that give him the heebie-jeebies.

During the night, the narrator has a terrifying experience, yet he still refuses to share his thoughts with his friend. He does notice that The Swede is nervous and jumpy. They agree that they need to get away as soon as possible, but will the unknown forces on the island let them go?

Although this story is one in a collection titled Famous Modern Ghost Stories found on Project Gutenberg, I wouldn't say The Willows is a ghost story. It's more a story of an experience with another dimension. American author H.P. Lovecraft admired and was influenced by Algernon Blackwood and as I was reading I felt like I was reading a Lovecraft story. There is an emphasis on a world beyond our own. It was as if the guys were experiencing a Fringe event!

Algernon loved the outdoors and was quite adventurous. His descriptions of canoeing down the river and the island itself were realistic. I wasn't fond of the explain-iness of one of the characters. It was a bit too much like Algernon explaining things to the reader. I like to draw my own conclusions.

Still I enjoyed The Willows. The author creates a strong sense of place and the creepy factor is way up there. I'll definitely be reading more of Algernon Blackwood.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

Original Publication Date:  1914

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Adventure, Women's History

Topics:  Frontier Life, Women, Humor, History

This review is cross-posted from the original review at BookLust.

I have been inspired this year to read many books on the women's experience.  I also have been downloading a bunch of free books to my Amazon Kindle because I don't have any physical books with me in New York.  These two criteria combined in fortuitous circumstances recently, making me aware of the book Letters of a Woman Homesteader, a collection (available for free online!) of letters written by Elinore Pruitt Stewart about her first several years homesteading in Wyoming at the turn of the 20th century.

This book was fantastic!  It's similar to the Little House series of books, except for adults.  Elinore (I should probably refer to her as Stewart, but I felt such a connection with her that I'm sure she wouldn't mind me using her first name) has such an engaging way with words.  She is one of those people who writes her letters with a very distinct and fun tone, making you feel like she is right there with you telling the story.  I think her personality shines through in the letters and she is just so fun and bright and optimistic that it was a delight to spend time with her and her family and get to know her better. 

Almost every time I read a book set at the start of the 20th century, I am amazed at how much has changed so quickly.  Elinore did so much stuff.  She grew a garden, she milked cows, made preserves, raised three children, took unplanned trips, helped deliver a baby and shot and skinned her own dinner.  Very early on in the book, she describes taking her daughter Jerrine (an unfortunate name, to be sure) out in the morning because she just wanted to take a trip.  They just saddled up their horse, took a gun and a pan, and then set out into the wilderness for a few days, living on the land.  I can't imagine just getting up and doing that, mostly because I have no sense of direction.  I am continuously amazed by how these isolated homesteaders found each other, out there in the forests and mountains.  And then, after finding each other once, managing to do it again without any roads or distance markers or ways to call for directions or anything.  I get stressed out if I can't find a subway station.

So yes, Elinore is a very independent woman, and it's so fun to go on adventures with her.  She makes it seem as though she lived in a bustling town, full of daily visits from friends and all sorts of interesting trips to keep her occupied.  In reality, though, her letters are written months apart, and I'm sure that much of the time, she and her family were pretty isolated.  She seemed well able to occupy her time, though.

What also stood out to me was how the concept of education has changed.  Elinore says that she is uneducated, never having finished school.  But even though she lived in a city as an adult (not sure where she grew up), she knew how to plant vegetables, harvest flowers, mow the lawn (using a horse!), shoot and pluck a bird, cook and preserve food, sew clothing and a host of other things.  It bothers me that even though she had so much knowledge in those things, she was still considered uneducated.  I think we really need to change our definition of the word to include people like Elinore, who are almost entirely self-sufficient.

I admit that in reading these letters, I wasn't sure how much was true and how much was false.  Elinore seems the sort who would exaggerate for the benefit of the story.  I'm not complaining at all because I was thoroughly engaged in the story, but I did sometimes wonder if everything was true.  At the same time, though, some events are not explained very well, or people are not introduced in a manner that makes sense, making it seem very much like letters being written rather than plots being developed.  What was interesting is the way that Elinore would tell her friend that she would mention a story in a later letter- and then take months to write that later letter, describing the event.  So there is a massive lag in event happening and story being shared.

Elinore also only tells her friend about some pretty important events in her life very late in the letters (such as only mentioning her marriage about a year after it took place!), which was surprisingly upsetting to me.  It felt as though she was holding information back and if she would lie or just skimp on information in some things, what was to keep her from lying about other things?  I wasn't sure, at the end of the book, if I actually knew what Elinore's life was really like or if I just knew about the life she wanted to project.  My suspicions were only heightened when I learned here that Elinore claimed to be a widow but there are "indications" that her first husband hadn't died.  She has pretty strong opinions on polygamy in this story, so it would be quite ironic if she herself had two husbands!

But Elinore was such an evangelist for homesteading and for the state of Wyoming.  She clearly loved her life, and made so many wonderful friends in the backwoods.  I liked her so, so much that I was always taken aback when she said something upsetting, usually a glancing reference to race.  It bothers me that someone I came to like so much, and who was so kind and generous to her friends, might not be very likeable or kind or generous to people who were not white.  I think that is a struggle I often have- it's hard for me to see that someone who is so good and sweet at heart and always hope for the best could at the same time think that there exists a racial hierarchy.  It's not as though Elinore ever says anything outright that could be offensive, and I know that the N-word was used differently in the past, but I got the feeling that she wasn't exactly fighting for civil rights, and it saddened me.

But I don't want to leave you with a sour taste in your mouth.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  In a way, not quite trusting Elinore through the story was a great lesson in history.  We tend to take primary sources as pretty strong evidence, but when letters are being sent over many miles, many months apart, to someone you know you'll never see again...who knows?

I was delighted to find that this book has a sequel that is also available for free download!  It's called Letters on an Elk Hunt, and I have already downloaded it and am looking forward to once again spending time with Elinore and her friends.

Click here for a taste of Elinore's writing style (and an audio recording of one of her letters, as read by someone else).  The full text of her letters is available on Amazon and here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS by Erskine Childers

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1903

Genre: spy, thriller, adventure

Topics: sailing, espionage, Germanic horde


Carruthers is a bourgeois suit with a desultory job in London with the Foreign Office. He's feeling sorry for himself because he can't enjoy a house party with his friends, when he receives a telegram from a long-forgotten college acquaintance, Davies, inviting Carruthers to join him on his yacht. Carruthers' immediate reaction is that yachting in the Baltic at the end of September sounds like a HORRIBLE idea and he would rather choke; but a few days later, he finds himself on vacation and headed off to meet Davies, towing along a completely random collection of oddly specific items that Davies requested.

When he first arrives, Carruthers' instinct that this trip was a terrible idea seems confirmed. But he soon chills out, only to find Davies invited him to go sailing for a reason: he believes a German spy attempted to kill him in the Frisian Islands, and he needs a partner to help him figure out what the man wanted to hide.

If you picked up this book based purely on the title, you'd probably expect Riddle of the Sands to be some sort of adventure novel or archaeological mystery set in Egypt. You'd be wrong! The "sands" referred to in the title are actually a collection of sandbanks near the Frisian Islands, which are relatively uncharted and difficult to navigate. On board a tiny boat in the middle of a bunch of barren sand banks doesn't sound like the most interesting setting in the world, but the sense of isolation and difficulty Carruthers and Davies face really heightens the tension of the story. It works!

There is a lot of sailing jargon in this novel, which can be a bit difficult for those of us who don't know a jib from a forecastle (*raises hand*), but that's easily overcome because the characters are so awesome. Carruthers, our narrator and protagonist, doesn't know a thing about sailing (even though the author, Erskine Childers, clearly does), and he's so funny it's hard not to enjoy him. He's extremely fussy and a little spoiled, but underneath all his posturing and complaining he's good-hearted. If Karl from An Idiot Abroad was a Victorian gentleman, he'd be pretty similar to Carruthers.

Davies, meanwhile, is a weird combination of a bloke and a fanatic. He really only cares about one thing: sailing. Everything else tends to fall by wayside, and around people who aren't sea-worthy he's awkward, just because he has no idea what to talk about. But he's also basically a good guy, and not as dense as he first seems.

The main thing that I didn't like about Riddle of the Sands was that there were hardly any female characters. I'm a woman; I like to read books with women in them, what can I say. There was one lone female character in this story: the daughter of the German spy. But she didn't do anything; her role in the story was mainly to quell any suspicions that might crop up over Davies' heterosexuality. Or lack thereof.

Aside from that, though, as a espionage thriller this novel is pretty top-notch. Childers knew what he was talking about and put a lot of thought into what role an area like the Frisian Islands might serve in a military conflict between Germany and England, and it shows. Unlike many thrillers, Riddle of the Sands doesn't feel fantastical at all, and I'm not surprised it inspired generations of novelists as well as real-world policy enacted by politicians and military peeps.

I first head about this novel on Evangeline Holland's and Melody B's list of Downton Abbey-era fiction at Edwardian Promenade. I highly recommend you check it out!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Review: Molly Make-Believe by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1911

Genre: romance, epistolary

Topics: illness, letters, love, relationships


Molly Make-Believe tells the story of Carl Stanton, a young man from New England who suffers from rheumatism. Carl is engaged to be married to Cornelia; and to his complete dismay, his being unwell doesn’t prevent her from going south for the winter with her family as she has always done. To add insult to injury, the letters Cornelia writes him are distant, short, and businesslike: they completely fail to provide a sick young gentleman with the comfort and amusement he requires. How dare his fiancée neglect him so?

It is Cornelia herself who suggests that Carl sign up to receive letters from The Serial Letter Company. As the advertisement says, this company provides “Comfort and Entertainment for Invalids, Travellers, and all Lonely People in the form of “Real Letters from Imaginary Persons”. Carls begins to receive letters from someone who calls herself “Molly Make-Believe”, and very soon this imaginary person begins to take the absent Cornelia’s place in his heart. But who exactly is the real Molly? And could it be that there is any real feeling behind what is in essence a business exchange?

Molly Make-Believe tells Carl and Molly’s story though the letters they exchange, but the presence of long narrative sections means that the novel is perhaps more accurately described as semi-epistolary.

I decided to read Molly Make-Believe because it was mentioned in the same breath as Jean Webster’s delightful Daddy-Long-Legs in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The reference, I might add, is not exactly flattering, but I figured that if I disagreed with Fitzgerald’s narrator about the latter, I might very well also disagree about the former.

As it turns out, I was completely wrong.

Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs is in many ways a traditional romance, but it’s also full of proto-feminist elements and exciting ideas about women’s education and intellectual and emotional independence. Not so with Molly Make-Believe. The deep-seated assumption underpinning this story is that it’s only right and proper for a woman to put a man’s emotional needs first – that it is indeed completely unreasonable for a wife, or wife-to-be, to dare to do otherwise.

This is well exemplified by Carl’s reaction to the photo the fictional Molly sends him at his requests. You see, she had the audacity to pick a photo of something other than a beautiful woman. Here is our noble hero’s response:
Scowlingly he picked up the picture and stared and stared at it. Certainly it was grim. But even from its grimness emanated the same faint, mysterious odor of cinnamon roses that lurked in the accompanying letter. “There’s some dreadful mistake somewhere,” he insisted. Then suddenly he began to laugh, and reaching out once more for pen and paper, inscribed his second letter and his first complaint to the Serial-Letter Co.
‘To the Serial-Letter Co.,’ he wrote sternly, with many ferocious tremors of dignity and rheumatism.
‘Kindly allow me to call attention to the fact that in my recent order of the 18th inst., the specifications distinctly stated ‘love-letters’, and not any correspondence whatsoever,—no matter how exhilarating from either a ‘Gray-Plush Squirrel’ or a ‘Banda Sea Pirate’ as evidenced by enclosed photograph which I am hereby returning. Please refund money at once or forward me without delay a consistent photograph of a ‘special edition de luxe’ girl.
The response he receives from the company is perhaps even more revealing:
‘Oh, please, Sir,’ said the enclosed letter, ‘Oh, please, Sir, we cannot refund your subscription money because—we have spent it. But if you will only be patient, we feel quite certain that you will be altogether satisfied in the long run with the material offered you. As for the photograph recently forwarded to you, kindly accept our apologies for a very clumsy mistake made here in the office. Do any of these other types suit you better? Kindly mark selection and return all pictures at your earliest convenience.’
The assumption is that this kind of behaviour is a man’s prerogative, and this premise is never, ever questioned. I should add that even after being sent a “satisfactory” set of pictures to choose from, our Carl is still afraid that his Molly may be old, disfigured, or, horror of horrors, black.

illustration from Molly Make-Believe
Yes, seriously.


A possible feminist reading of Molly Make-Believe is that it features a young woman who achieves financial independence by attaching value to the kind of care work – in this case, companionship, amusement and emotional support – that women are generally expected to do for free. Unfortunately, this reading is undermined by speech Molly herself gives towards the end:
‘I guess—I guess it takes a man to really run a business with any sort of financial success, ‘cause you see a man never puts anything except his head into his business. And of course if you only put your head into it, then you go right along giving always just a little wee bit less than ‘value received’—and so you can’t help, sir, making a profit. Why people would think you were plain, stark crazy if you gave them even one more pair of poor rubber boots than they’d paid for. But a woman! Well, you see my little business was a sort of a scheme to sell sympathy—perfectly good sympathy, you know—but to sell it to people who really needed it, instead of giving it away to people who didn’t care anything about it at all. And you have to run that sort of business almost entirely with your heart—and you wouldn’t feel decent at all, unless you delivered to everybody just a little tiny bit more sympathy than he paid for. Otherwise, you see you wouldn’t be delivering perfectly good sympathy. So that’s why—you understand now—that’s why I had to send you my very own woolly blanket-wrapper, and my very own silver porringer, and my very own sling-shot that I fight city cats with,—because, you see, I had to use every single cent of your money right away to pay for the things that I’d already bought for other people.
Yes, the ladies are far too emotional to ever successfully run a business. Furthermore, charging money for the kind of care work they are naturally suited for feels so wrong to them that they’ll always do more than they’re expected to, and the result will inevitably be financial ruin. It’s a sad fact of life.

To end with something positive, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Carl’s fiancée Cornelia was treated with far more kindness than I expected in their final confrontation. The two part ways amicably, having realised that they’re not temperamentally suited to each other, and there’s far less condemning Cornelia for not being as devoted as a woman should be than I feared.


It goes without saying that Molly Make-Believe is a product of its time. Of course, the early twentieth-century world in which it takes place was not a place where the gender essentialism, racism or conservatism that underpin this novel were never questioned, as evidenced by novels like Daddy-Long-Legsor the work of early feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and of other activists; but nonetheless these ideas were socially dominant to an even greater extent than they are now.

It’s of course completely possible to enjoy the novel for the love story without aligning oneself with the very traditional ideas about gender roles or the problematic power dynamics it reveals. Readers’ mileage for how much is too much will naturally vary. It’s also possible to find Molly Make-Believe an interesting read exactly because its pre-feminism is so revealing. That was what happened in my case: I may not have loved it, but I’m glad to have picked it up all the same.

You can find Molly Make-Believe at Project Gutenberg.

Illustration from Molly Make-Believe
Another illustration from the novel by Walter Little.

They read it too: Redeeming Qualities

Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber

Original Publication Date: 1913

Genre: Women's Fiction

Topics: women, careers, business, travelling salespeople, single mother, working mother,


Emma McChesney is a travelling salesperson. Maybe not such an unusual career choice for a woman now but in 1913 it definitely was. Emma is successful at it too. She is the best salesperson for T.A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats. And here's why in her own words:
I've lived petticoats, I've talked petticoats, I've sold petticoats, I've dreamed petticoats- why, I've even worn the darned things! And that's more than any man will do for you.
It's not an easy life for a woman- as the men are quick to remind her- there are long days and nights on the road and in hotels. The salesmen can hang out in the hotel parlors and joke with each other. Emma has to spend her evenings alone in her room. She has to be impeccably dressed or the men size her up instantly as 'that kind of woman.' "Morals don't figure with a man on the road, but when a woman breaks in this game, she's got to be on the level," as one character says. It's not fair but it's how it is.

Emma is one tough cookie. She holds her own whether she's battling it out with the T.A. Buck's son, or her nemesis Ed Meyer, or a hotel manager trying to put her in the shabbiest room. Emma is one of the strongest females I've encountered in literature.

Roast Beef, Medium is a collection of vignettes from the tenth year of Emma's career. Changes are afoot. Her son, 17 and full of himself, is about to start college, her boss is ill, and fashions are making petticoats obsolete. How will Emma face these challenges?

I found reading Roast Beef, Medium a bit challenging myself. I enjoyed it but the dialogue is written in the vernacular of the times. Sometimes I'd read a line and think, "Huh? What the heck are they saying?" Emma is a strong character but she did romanticize homemaking a lot. Sure I like taking care of my home but there are days when I wish I could Tom Sawyer someone into cleaning my bathroom for me. She might say she just wants to bake pies but she loves her job too much. You can tell by the way she takes on any challenges. No one ever gets the better of her, she's too quick for that.

If you're interested in a career woman from the past who wasn't a teacher or governess, I think you'll be impressed by Roast Beef, Medium. It's not a very long book either at only 126 pages. Recommended.

You may not have heard of Roast Beef, Medium but you might know one of Edna Ferber's other novels including Show Boat (turned into musical), So Big (Pulitzer Prize 1924) or GiantGiant was made into a movie starring Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in 1956.

Roast Beef, Medium is a free ebook from Girlebooks and includes illustrations.

Review originally published on Chrisbookarama.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: PRINCESS MARITZA by Percy James Brebner

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1906

Genre: adventure, romance

Topics: knight-in-shining armor, quest, Germanic horde


I'm not entirely sure why I decided to download this book. I think it probably popped up as a, "If you enjoyed this book, try..." after I finished Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. And thematically, it is pretty similar: you have your English gentleman traveling across Europe, saving an obscure kingdom with a vaguely Germanic name, and falling in love with the princess. Except, of course, Prisoner of Zenda's really good, and Princess Maritza... isn't.

Desmond Ellery is a former officer with a dark past and a strong jaw. One day he's wandering about in a meadow, when he runs into the most beautiful woman he's ever seen--his words--who is actually a school girl running away from her studies. She explains to him she's an exiled princess and she would sure appreciate it if he helped her regain her throne. So, naturally, that's just what he does.

The writing style is insanely flowery, and not in a good way (not that there is a good way). I think it's because of this that the pacing of the novel is so slow. I hated the princess right off the bat, who's basically like, "I'm beautiful, I'm not afraid to admit I know it! I want to be a man! My goal after graduating is the political takeover of a country I've never been to!" Awesome. Basically, she's just an object, which isn't surprising; but she's also annoying and shallow.

I did like how Desmond's past is very mysterious, but Desmond himself is pretty boring. The flow of the story can be pretty jumpy sometimes, as well, and is full of paranoia about the Germanic Horde Taking Over Europe. I eventually decided to give up after the book put me to sleep.

In other words, I'm going to stick with Anthony Hope for the time being.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review: RUTH by Elizabeth Gaskell

book cover

Original Publication Date: 1853
Genre: women's fiction

Topics: "fallen woman", single mothers, illegitimacy, Victorian society, religion

Let the good times begin!

I have the honor of posting the first review of PGP, so to get us of to a good start, I'll start with a book by one of my favorite authors - Elizabeth Gaskell. She wrote Ruth after her first novel, Mary Barton, at the same time as Cranford and just before North & South. You'll be happy to know all her works are available on Project Gutenberg.

When she was 12, Ruth Hilton became an orphan and was forced to leave the comfortable farm she had always lived in to become an apprentice seamstress. Her mistress ran a respectable establishment, but it was more like a sweatshop for young women than a home. At 16 Ruth was chosen to go to a ball, but had to stay in the background, to assist any ladies with wardrobe malfunctions. There, her angelic beauty caught the eye of Bellingham, the proverbial Victorian Rake.

Bellingham knows his game: he approaches Ruth carefully, with offers of friendship and kindness, and with time gains her trust. When they are both caught in an innocent-but-seemingly-compromising circumstance, Ruth throws herself at the mercy of Bellingham, who quickly whisks her off to Wales (that infamous country!), where The Deed Is Done.

Her rascal lover eventually abandons her, and Ruth, on the verge of suicide, is taken in by a kind middle-aged minister. Mr. Benson lives with his sister (named Faith) and an outspoken maid, and it’s at their home that Ruth gives birth to her son and takes on the roll of a respectable young widow. And that’s as far as I’ll go with the plot.

Ruth is clearly a novel with an agenda. Gaskell bravely tackled single motherhood and illegitimacy in 1853, when Victorian sensibilities were at full swing. It took guts, the kind of guts that it’s hard for a modern reader to really appreciate.

Gaskell made it a "prohibited book" in her own house and some of her friends burnt their copies and expressed "deep regret" for her decision to publish it. There are, of course, no explicit scenes of any kind in Ruth, and we only realize the scale of the sin by the reaction of other people. Ruth herself only grasps how wrong she really was years later - she’s innocent, you see?
I was very young; I did not know how such a life was against God's pure and holy will - at least not as I know it now.
Because Gaskell had a social goal, she needed to control her plot so that Victorians would never think of Ruth as a “fallen woman”. Ruth, seen from every possible angle, had to be squeaky-clean, or readers might turn against her, and undermine the purpose of the novel. Gaskell made sure that we could never wonder “could she have done it differently?”, so Ruth’s story is piled with as many extenuating circumstances as possible.

The result is that Ruth could never be seen as a Mary Magdalene, but becomes the perfect Madonna - a Mother, a Healer, a True Christian, a Saint. Of all the too-good Victorian heroines I’ve read about, Ruth is the “goodest”. This does not improve the quality of the novel, but it was an effective tool for social change, and for that alone Ruth is worth reading.

Without its social context, Ruth could be a frustrating book because it's simply too heavy-handed on the moral punch line. The depth of Ruth’s identity is secondary to Gaskell’s agenda, but considering Victorians' stigma against single mothers and children born out of wedlock, you realize that Ruth needed that type of heroine to have the desired effect. Only with the perfect woman would Gaskell be able to pass on the Dissenter message of reform (Mr. Benson is a Dissenter minister) she so strongly believed in.

Would Victorian readers been able to feel for Ruth if she had been less beautiful, poor, alone, young, innocent, honest, motherly, hard-working or kind? Could they have forgiven Ruth's decision to trust Bellingham, if her own mistress hadn't "caught" her with him and told her never to come back? What if Ruth had shown an inkling of sexual desire, flirtatiousness or simple silliness? Wouldn't they have frowned at her new home, if Mr. Benson hadn't been quite that old and a hunchback, living with his sister and a strict maid, hence removing every possibility of romance between them?

By tightly controlling her story, Gaskell got her readers to question: was Ruth guilty and thereof redeemable or was she innocent and therefore not to be blamed?

What surprised me about Ruth were the secondary characters, who felt much more fleshed out than the heroine. The maid Sally (who might easily find a second job in a Dickens novel) takes the role of comic relief, but is also the voice of the stricter Church of England followers. Ruth’s friend Jemima also felt real and much more approachable, with her rebellion, tantrums and pride.

The male characters were also interesting, especially Bellingham, who stays true to himself to the very end. He doesn’t come out as evil, but as a thoughtless brat, spoiled by his mother, whom Gaskell mostly blames. Actually, throughout the book I couldn’t help but think she’s much harder on women than men.


At first I felt a bit cheated by Ruth being killed off. It seemed Gaskell just didn’t have the guts to let Ruth break the tradition of fallen literary women who must, in the end, pay for it. But upon reflection: what else could Gaskell have done? Ruth’s secret was out and the entire village knew about her past. Even though they proclaimed her as a saint after she risked her life for them during the cholera epidemic, would they be as forgiving once her good deeds were forgotten?

I see now it would also never do to have Ruth fall in love again, marry and have more children.

The book focuses on Ruth's dark path to redemption, but at no point is Bellingham made accountable, questioned or suffers any type of consequence. That frustrated me as well, even more than Ruth's death. But I must also acknowledge that, while Ruth's story-line falls within the Victorian norm, a Rake who doesn't repent it actually fresh. As Elizabeth Lee says in her "Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality",
Women had to be held accountable, while the men, slaves to their catabolic purposes and sexual appetites, could not really be blamed. (...) Once led astray, she was the fallen woman, and nothing could reconcile that till she died.
You know, I wish that the part about accountability wasn't still a bit true today...


As I said at the beginning, it can be a frustrating novel for a modern reader. Gaskell might have made great progress in the cause for single mothers, but it’s hard to identify with or befriend someone like Ruth - poor Ruth, her personality sacrificed in the altar of social change!

But once you see what Gaskell had in mind and how she went about pulling it off, it becomes a fascinating read. The secondary characters also bring the book alive, as well as Gaskell's usual delightful descriptions of domestic life. Perfect for bookclub - and free for download at Project Gutenberg.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


home reading
Home Reading by Elliot Bouton Torrey
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