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.