Ruth (1853) is a novel by English writer Elizabeth Gaskell, author of the well-known Cranford. I first learned about Ruth while doing project for my 19th century literature lessons a few years ago and although I started reading it, I never finished it. So, when I got a case for my e-reader last Christmas and I could finally take it off the house without fear of having it broken, I decided to return to Ruth.
Ruth Hilton is an orphaned young seamstress who catches the eye of a gentleman, Henry Bellingham, who is captivated by her simplicity and beauty. When she loses her job and home, he offers her comfort and shelter, only to cruelly desert her soon after. Nearly dead with grief and shame, Ruth is offered the chance of a new life among people who give her love and respect, even though they are at first unaware of her secret – an illegitimate child. When Henry enters her life again, however, Ruth must make the impossible choice between social acceptance and personal pride. In writing Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell daringly confronted prevailing views about sin and illegitimacy with her compassionate and honest portrait of a ‘fallen woman’.
I was very interested in the concept of a “fallen woman” as seen by such an individual and powerful woman as Elizabeth Gaskell was. Over the years I have been surprised at how much women participated on each other’s social ostracism due to concepts such as “fallen”, “impure” and the like. And it was not different regarding Ruth, however, Gaskell pays lots of attention to the fact that Ruth us motherless (as well as fatherless, but his absence has more to do with her lack or resources) as a cause for her fall. Because no mother told her what to do and what not to do regarding men, honor and relationships, Ruth finds herself falling – in the positive and negative way – for the wrong man. They travel around the country together and when he falls ill and his mother comes to take care of him, Ruth is told to go away. Later on, we discover she is pregnant and she has to create a new life which she does with the help of a Dissenter minister and his single sister. I found this allegiance very special since the three of them share some kind of social ostracism for in the novel you can find lots of comments regarding Dissenters and poor Miss Benson who has never married. And from that odd combination and a white lie, Ruth manages to become a respected and happy woman again.
Regarding the pregnancy and the social consideration of women who got pregnant out of the wedlock, the novel clearly states that many of them were better dead than in such a situation. At a given moment Ruth thinks so herself, but everything changes when she has her baby boy. I thought it was pretty significant that she had a boy instead of a girl and that Ruth considered him her savior. I think that from a 21st century point of view, this story and its outcome is clear from the very beginning, but it may have not been so for a 19th century audience.
As you can see, I struggled and liked Ruth at the same time. On the one hand, I found myself struggling to like Ruth as a character because she is only a victim and is portrayed so in the whole novel. She is haunted from the very beginning by guilt, shame and sadness and things do not get better when she gets pregnant. But, what worried me the most is how little agency and drive she had. Similar fallen women such as Tess or Madame Bovary also fight social ostracism, but they are very different to Ruth. On the other hand, I liked exploring what life for such a woman would have been in the 19th century because even nowadays there are societies where getting pregnant out-of-wedlock is still considered a cause for dishonor.
So, would I recommend Ruth? It is part of a body of work by a 19th century woman and that is mainly the reason I read it. But if you have read Cranford and want to explore Gaskell’s other novels, do not start here. Also, be prepared for a good sob, because the story and the characters may not be good, but Gaskell was a great writer.