Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Blog Tour: Ruth – A Book Review

Guest review by Regency Romantic

Welcome to the 4th stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell 200th Anniversary Blog Tour! Please join me and other Elizabeth Gaskell enthusiast in honoring her on birthday today with a blog tour featuring  a biography of her life and times, reviews of her books, novella’s and movies, reading resources, and a photo tour of her homes.

Visitors leaving a comment at any of the posts on the tour will qualify for a drawing of one unabridged copy of the Naxos Audiobooks edition of North and South read by Clare Willie. Deadline to enter is midnight Pacific time October 7th, 2010. The winner will be announced on October 8th, 2010. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses, digital download internationally. Good luck!

Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell – A Review

Published in 1853, Ruth is Elizabeth Gaskell’s second novel and deals primarily with the theme of the fallen woman in the mid-Victorian era.  The story of the long suffering heroine, Ruth Hilton, is almost entirely based on a real life case that Gaskell herself encountered and helped resolve during her many charitable works as the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester.  Like her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), Ruth is intended as a social-problem novel.  Although Gaskell tried a lesser harsh approach, which Mary Barton was heavily criticized for, she still lacked the sophistication as a novelist to tackle such a weighty theme and to fictionalize a real-life issue.  Gaskell started to really find her distinctive voice and style in her next work, Cranford (1853), and most definitely established herself with North and South (1854-55).

Orphaned at a very young age, the strikingly beautiful, but gentle-spirited Ruth Hilton ends up as an apprentice at a dressmaker’s shop, a precarious situation that Victorian readers readily believed exposed women to moral temptation.  The innocent and lonely Ruth falls prey to the charms and attentions of Henry Bellingham, a wealthy and worldly man whose ennui is swept away by Ruth’s refreshing naiveté.  He whisks her off to London and Wales, where she lives with Bellingham as a kept woman.  When Bellingham falls ill, his morally strict mother is summoned.  She is horrified to discover that his son has been living in sin.  She bans Ruth from entering the sick room and convinces her son to abandon Ruth.  He acquiesces, leaving some money, and never looks back.

The distraught Ruth attempts suicide, but is saved and taken in by the kind and disfigured Thurston Benson, a dissenting minister, and his equally sympathetic sister, Faith.  When they learn Ruth is with child, it is, ironically, a woman named Faith who suggests circulating the lie that Ruth is a widow called Mrs. Denbigh to protect her from a society that would surely ostracize her.  Thurston, though going against his moral grain, eventually agrees to Faith’s plan.

Ruth gives birth to a beautiful boy and names him Leonard.  In the next six years, ever mindful of her sinful past and the sacrifices made by the Bensons, Ruth strives hard for spiritual strengthening and devotes herself entirely to raising her boy in the utmost manner.  In this period of calm before the storm, Ruth matures into a steady figure that draws the attention of Mr. Bradshaw, the town’s richest businessman, who is full of self-consequence and prides himself in being a morally upright man.  He is taken by Ruth’s Madonna-like demeanor and decides to hire her as the model companion and governess for his daughters.

The cruel hand of fate catches up with Ruth when Mr. Bradshaw decides to enter politics by supporting a certain Mr. Donne in the upcoming elections.  When Ruth meets him for the first time, Mr. Donne turns out to be the feckless lover that abandoned her six years ago.  As events start to unfold and the lie begins to unravel, the safe haven that Ruth has built around her and her son comes crashing down, with morally disturbing consequences to all around her.

When I was reading this novel, echoes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles kept coming to mind.  Like the heroines of those two novels, Ruth is painted as an innocent, pure as snow, who, by one naïve decision, becomes the victim of an unscrupulous man, leading to negative repercussions for the rest of her life.  But she bears all the hardships with saintly forbearance.  I have never been able to sympathize with such types of heroines.  Their outward passivity just makes me want to throttle them.  Perhaps Gaskell chose this strategy to head off criticisms for her heroine and the overt topics of sexuality and promiscuity, certainly a bold choice in that era; but by the same token, it also made Ruth unreal to me.  Is any woman ever that saintly?  I do find that Gaskell examines the central themes of the end-justifying-the-means, true faith, and forgiveness very sincerely, with deeply felt moral convictions, but oftentimes, the elements of religiosity become a little too overt for my taste.  What I did like were glimpses of Gaskell’s adept hand at descriptive passages of the outside world that clearly mirror the inner world of the character, a technique she perfected by North and South.  One such passage is this, as Ruth grapples with the confusion she feels upon discovering that Mr. Donne is her former faithless lover:

She threw her body half out of the window into the cold night air.  The wind was rising, and came in great gusts.  The rain beat down on her.  It did her good.  A still, calm night would not have soothed her as this did.  The wild tattered clouds, hurrying past the moon, gave her a foolish kind of pleasure that almost made her smile a vacant smile.  (Chapter 23)

Admittedly, it is a tad melodramatic.  Perhaps this shows why Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë were such good friends, but Gaskell truly makes us feel the keenness of Ruth’s oppression.  With the exception of the character of Sally, the Benson’s housekeeper (and the forerunner to Dixon’s character in North and South), who offers comic relief that comes too few and far between, the unrelenting doom-and-gloom tone of the novel makes the plot move at a plodding pace.  Awkward transitional passages and the contrived reappearance of the anti-hero betray Gaskell’s relatively inexperienced hand.  It is only in the final 100 pages of the novel that the plot really starts to pick up and the flawed characters start to redeem themselves – a case of too little, too late.  Although the conclusion of the novel is not a surprise to most readers, plowing through this novel is like being unable to turn away from witnessing a train wreck.  One early critic expressed that Ruth was ‘not a book for young people, unless read with somebody older’.   I would attach a simpler warning: Ruth is ‘not a book for suicidal people’.

Follow this link to the next stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Celebration Blog Tour a book review of the North and South by Laurel Ann of Austenprose

© 2007 – 2010 Regency Romantic, Austenprose

59 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Blog Tour: Ruth – A Book Review

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      1. Yes, I’m learning a lot more about her other works in this blog tour as well, Lady Helen Mar! Such a treasure trove of discoveries…

        Hope you are able to pick up Ruth and come back to post your thoughts! =)


  1. Ruth is being read next week on BBC radio 7. At the moment Gaskell’s short stories are being read at 21.15 on 7. The best biography of Gaskell I find is still Jenny Uglow’s.gaskell gives a real sense of how hard life was in the new Industrial towns not for the industrialists but those who worked for them.Daphne


    1. Thanks for this info, Daphne! How wonderful! I hope I’ll be able to catch it on iPlayer. =)

      Jenny Uglow’s biography — is that the one entitled ‘Elizabeth Gaskell:A Habit of Stories’?


  2. I had never heard of this book until you arranged this blog tour of Mrs. Gaskell, Laurel Ann. She was a fascinating woman, but it sounds like even she was capable of a misstep, as in this book.


    1. Hi Vic!

      I think like all authors at the early stage of their writing career, she was still trying to find her voice and style with this work… a necessary ‘rite of passage’ that every author goes through.

      I don’t regret reading this novel, but I would not recommend it as the first novel to read for those who are new to Gaskell’s work. I think seen in the context of her other works, it’s great to see how her writing style evolved throughout her writing career.


  3. From what I’d read before about Ruth, what you described what exactly what I would expect. I think such a novel would be more interesting for the hard-core Gaskell fans. It’s interesting to compare her early style with the later works.

    Any wit or humor in it?


    1. Hi Alex!

      It’s hard to incorporate wit or humor to the story and issues that Gaskell wanted to tackle in Ruth. You read Ruth for it’s brutal honesty and unmitigated view of the social problems in 19th century England.

      For wit or humor, I would recommend Cranford. =)


    1. Hi cindysjones!

      Yes, I would recommend starting with Cranford, North and South, or Wives and Daughters as Gaskell’s brilliance as a writer really shines in these works.

      But do give Ruth a go later, as you get to know her works better.


    1. I hope I have not done a disservice to one of your favorite novels, Felicia.

      I did not cry reading Ruth, but I did cry reading North and South and Cranford.


      1. Oh, no. No disservice at all. One of the things I love about Ruth is how Mrs. Gaskell approaches this subject. I admire Mrs. Gaskell for the sympathetic view to such a situation that Ruth found herself in. Even good people make mistakes and this situation was really hard for women in her time. I admire how Mrs. Gaskell stood up for her beliefs.


  4. Thank you for this very honest review. I’ve yet to read any of Gaskell’s novels although I’ve watched a couple of mini-series of her stories on TV. I’ve been planning on reading one of her novels, but think I’ll pass on Ruth. I’m anxious to read some more reviews during this blog tour.


    1. Your welcome, Linda B!

      As I’ve said above, I wouldn’t recommend Ruth as your first Gaskell, but I think it is still worth reading after you’ve gotten to know her better works.


  5. I have not read Ruth, but I think your straightforward clear analysis is very good.

    I must admit, unlike some others who have commented, your review encourages me to read it. Exaggerated characters in exaggerated situations in literature are often done for a purpose. Elizabeth Gaskell clearly thrust the issues she involved in her story right in peoples faces. She is almost making the demands, what do you think of this then? go on, be hypocritical? She is expressing her, Unitarian Christian beliefs.

    Jane Austen’s Emma, surely is another case of the exaggerated character and also the meek Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.


    1. Thank you, Tony! =)

      My honest review was not meant to dissuade people form reading Ruth, so I’m truly glad to hear that it is encouraging you to pick it up.

      And I agree that her honest and gritty manner of tackling the social (and theological) issues was meant to challenge her audience. It was just a little too pedantic for my taste, which I didn’t find at all with Emma nor Fanny.

      To appreciate Ruth, one has to be in a ‘particular’ frame of mind to read through Ruth, as this is not a light nor easy read.


  6. I enjoyed reading this review, Regency Romantic. I haven’t read Ruth, but it sounds stolidly Victorian. Armed with the knowledge that it’s very heavy on the melodrama/doom and gloom (I had a typo there that said doom and groom, which is very telling), I might just give it a try. It sounds as if she was sticking carefully to Victorian conventions in order to tackle a difficult topic.


    1. LOL! Doom and groom… =D

      Thanks, Monica! You nailed it right on the head… Ruth, indeed, is ‘stolidly Victorian’. I’m so glad you are going to give it a try.

      Mind you, Mary Barton, was more depressing to read, for me, and that also tackled very contentious issues, so Ruth was already a leap forward for Gaskell, IMHO.


  7. Regency Romantic – I liked Ruth as well, although it’s much more Bronte than Austen. It’s a very realistic, though, gloomy novel, and definitely not for suicidal people, but if you want to read a well written story, this is one- and you can definitely sympathise with the characters.


  8. O, Daphne, thanks for the information on BBC7 – It is on right now! You can listen to BBC radio and the radio i player anywhere in the world via the internet. Currently the biography program is on!

    So glad to be here enjoying this lovely tour!



    1. Thanks for this added information, Lynne!

      Guess I’ll be tuned to the BBC iPlayer for the next few days. Ah, the wonders of internet… =)


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Brenda!

      I’m also learning a lot from all the other blogs in this tour… such an enjoyable ride! =)


  9. Thank you for this review, Laurel Ann! I’ve so far only read Cranford, so I think I will save this one after I read North and South. Definitely sounds promising, though!


    1. That’s a good plan, Susan. By reading Ruth after Cranford and North and South, you will appreciate how far Gaskell developed her narrative skills between these works.


  10. I like Ruth too, but I agree with the commenter above who suggested not reading it for your initiation to Gaskell.

    I think in this novel we see Gaskell struggling with her own uncertainties about female sexuality and the “fallen women.” On the one hand, Gaskell cannot suggest that Ruth did no wrong; the affair always remains a mistake or a sin. But on the other hand, Gaskell does not place all the blame on Ruth or portray her life as “over” because of this mistake. Gaskell writes realistically about Ruth as a woman with sexual desires and maternal instincts that exist along with duty and repentance.

    Also, Gaskell uses this novel to comment on female intelligence: “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 lean—to crave, and be satisfied.”


    1. Beautifully worded, Allison. =) And thanks for the quote on female intelligence!

      Yes, Gaskell’s ambiguities were certainly reflected in this work. The one that remains unsatisfactorily unresolved for me is the issue of the ‘lie’ that was suggested by the Bensons, because the end seems to suggest that Ruth bore the brunt of that lie and Bellingham/Donne got away, relatively, scott free. That was hard for me to digest… but yes, it is reality.


  11. Great review of an okay book! I also thought a lot of Tess while I was reading Ruth, and wondered whether Hardy had read it as well!

    I agree that Gaskell’s subject matter outstrip her skill at this stage, and I found the Bensons far more interesting than Ruth herself.

    I think Charlotte Bronte actually gently chided Gaskell for killing off Ruth in the end (hope I didn’t spoil it for anyone, but there are a lot of deaths in Gaskell’s works!).


    1. Thanks JaneGS! I know you’re a Gaskell expert, so I appreciate your comment! =)

      In my Oxford World’s Classics introduction, it does say that Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was likely to have influenced Gaskell’s Ruth. But whether Ruth influenced Hardy’s Tess, that I have not stumbled upon…

      And yes, I agree, the Bensons’ moral dilemma was more interesting than Ruth’s own journey… perhaps more believable, IMHO.

      Would I have liked Ruth better if Gaskell had not killed her off? Hmmm… I don’t think so. It seems to be the only ‘logical’ end to how Gaskell was developing the story. But I know I would have liked it better if Bellingham/Donne also met a painful demise! =)


  12. I don’t think I’ve read this one. Either I couldn’t find it when I was in my Gaskell phase, or I read the dust-jacket and decided it was too grim for me!


  13. Great review Joanna. I think I will wait a while to read this one. It sounds a bit like Tess of the d’urberville’s, and I cannot bear anything too tragic at the moment.

    Cheers, Laurel Ann


    1. Thanks again for inviting me on this blog tour, Laurel Ann! =) It’s been such a fun experience and am learning so much from the other posts.

      Yes, keep Ruth in the back burner until you’re the right frame of mind.


  14. Thanks for the honest review. I will probably make Wives and Daughters my next read as I have already enjoyed Cranford, North and South and even Mary Barton, although admittedly the latter was a tad more melodramatic and drawn out. I still think Mary Barton in the right hands might turn out well as a film adaptation. Sandy Welch, are you interested?


    1. That is such a great suggestion, Jenny! If there’s someone who can bring out the light in a dark novel like Ruth or Mary Barton, Sandy Welch will be the one. Let’s keep our fingers crossed… =)


  15. I love your “final warning”. I enjoy “Ruth” but I am one of the lot who also enjoys multiple reading’s of Hardy’s “Tess” which should also bear your final warning I believe. “Jane Eyre” is also my favorite novel…so perhaps I belong in the melodramatic crew? Thanks for a wonderful and honest review.



    1. Thanks Courtney! I hope the final warning doesn’t put people off reading Ruth though… As you’ve aptly put it, the melodrama appeals to a lot of people! =)


  16. Thanks for the honest review. Based on your review, I would wait to read Ruth. I read Jane Eyre in high school and loved it. At least it has a happy ending. Tess, on the other hand, is so sad and tragic. I just wanted to slap Angel.


    1. Mrs. Higgins, you are not alone in your sentiments about slapping Angel silly… I thought it was cruelly ironic of Hardy to name him Angel Clare… because he clearly was no angel! And what does it say about me that I was actually rooting for Tess to end up with Alec instead of Angel? =O Yikes!


  17. This is one of her novels I have not read yet although I own a copy. Despite it is intriguing that with Ruth we have a Victorian novel about a single mother, “the “unrelenting doom-and-gloom tone of the novel” and “plowing through this novel is like being unable to turn away from witnessing a train wreck” is what keeps me a little afraid to read it.


  18. I’ve only ever read North and South, which I loved. Based on this review, I think I’ll wait to read Ruth until after I’ve read some of her other more popular books.


  19. As I can always use a good cry now and then, North and South just moved its way up my TBR list. I’ll take your advice and save Ruth for a later date. Thanks for hosting this informative Elizabeth Gaskell blog tour and for both of the wonderful reviews!


  20. I read Mary Barton and Cranford in a lit. class during my BA. I liked both of them a awful lot. And that was back when I rarely liked what I studied.

    I’ve got a copy of North and South somewhere in my bookshelves and you’ve inspired me to dig it out. I’m going to move it to the top of my “next up” bedside reading pile. Thanks for reminding me about Gaskell!!


    1. Hi Jen, I think Gaskell is one of the most undervalued Victorian authors. She is wonderful and please savor North and South. Glad I inspired you to dig it out and move it up your list. Cheers, Laurel Ann


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