First published in 1853, Ruth begins with sixteen-year-old Ruth Hilton, raised in a respectable loving family and newly orphaned, working for a seamstress in the town of Fordham. Beautiful, innocent and unworldly, she unwittingly attracts the attention of a wealthy young man, the feckless Henry Bellingham. When he convinces her to let him take her on a long Sunday walk to visit the village where she was raised, she is seen by her employer and is sacked on the spot. As she has nowhere to go, Bellingham takes care of her. They go first to London and later to Wales where she lives with him as his mistress. When he falls ill, his imperious mother arrives to take him home and care of him, and Ruth is abandoned. Now pregnant, she despairs of her future and contemplates suicide. She is saved by the intervention of non-conformist minister, Thorston Benson. When Ruth is well enough, she travel with Benson and his sister, Faith, to their home in Benson’s northern parish of Eccleston. Presented as Mrs Denbeigh, a young widow, Ruth gives birth to her son, Leonard. Leonard is the centre of her life and with the Bensons she strives to live a godly life and redeem herself, acknowledging her previous ‘sinfulness’. To those outside the Benson household she appears to be a gentle and beautiful woman who is the epitome of industry and purity. But in this less than perfect world nothing ever remains secret, especially a ‘sinful’ past.
Gaskell’s prose is richly descriptive and the supporting characters all individual and well-drawn. Religiosity is an integral part of Ruth and some modern secular-minded readers might have difficulty with this element. Religion, especially the type espoused by the Bensons, inspires Ruth’s transformation from a fallen woman to a respectable mother. Her relationship with God is an ongoing presence in the story.
At the heart of Gaskell’s Ruth is the stigma illegitimacy placed on both the mother and the child, the possibility of redemption and the hypocrisy of the ‘righteous’. Gaskell took a risk having a ‘fallen woman’ as her central character. This was disturbing to many readers. Some contemporary reviews of the book can be read here. These highlight just why Gaskell might have thought it necessary to write such a story. Elizabeth Gaskell was the wife of a Unitarian minister and the character of Ruth is based on the lives of real women she encountered undertaking charitable work in her husband, William Gaskell’s parish in Manchester. Her aim was clearly not to condone the behaviour which led to illegitimacy but to show that young women who found themselves in such a situation were not irredeemable sinful and to show how they might be brought back to respectability. It is here that I see the novel’s greatest weakness. Her ‘fall’ aside, Ruth is presented as an almost saintly character, no doubt to make her palatable to Gaskell’s readers. The circumstances of the progression of Bellingham’s relationship with Ruth from protector to lover is not touched on at all. There is a sense that Ruth was so naive that she drifted into something she did not fully understand. No doubt Gaskell understood that a main character with the human flaws we all possess would not have been viewed with any sympathy by her readers.
Ruth is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in 19th century English society, the position of women, or in Elizabeth Gaskell. I did enjoy Ruth and there were intense, page-turning moments such as when Bellingham comes back into Ruth’s life or during the cholera epidemic. But I am afraid it is probably not to everyone’s taste, particularly those who prefer fast-moving modern prose.
This paper, published in 1975/6 (Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 58, pp. 182), is an interesting academic examination of the book. Katherine Wootton’s examination of Ruth takes a feminist approach and is well worth reading both for its thoughts on the text and its relevance today.