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
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