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.
I’m never sure how to describe Elizabeth Gaskell or her books. She is like a cross between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, with her books fluctuating along a spectrum between the too. Some like Cranford and Wives and Daughters with their focus the lives of the middle and upper classes are more Austen. Others like Mary Barton with a focus on social issues are more Dickens. North and South, my favourite, sits somewhere in the middle with its love story and exploration of social issues.
Ruth is is one of Gaskell’s social novels, exploring the idea of the ‘fallen woman’. The Victorians had a bit of an obsession with the ‘fallen woman’. In a society with a strong focus on the family, and strict moral code heavily stacked against women, a woman who bore a child outside of marriage was a social taboo and irrespective of the circumstances would be shunned by society. Unsurprisingly such woman appear again and again in Victorian literature, and as a general rule the get the shit end of the stick. I’m looking at you Thomas Hardy. I refuse to read any more Hardy after Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and what happened to poor Tess. I can’t take it his books are too depressing. Dickens too examined the fallen woman through characters such as Nancy in Oliver Twist and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, both of whom ultimately come to sorry ends. Ruth however is different. Gaskell explores how society treats a woman whom society who cast aside and what can happen if she is given a chance. She forces society to question, is there another way, and is the woman always the guilty party. Gaskell’s beliefs would have been rather radical at the time, and indeed even in modern society can make the reader think, are there those we judge more harshly then we ought.
In terms of characterisation Ruth is the typical angelic Victorian heroine. She is unerringly good (illegitimate child aside, and really that wasn’t her faulty), with a strong belief in God. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘goody two shoes’ angelic Victorian heroines. I prefer them to have flaws, to have a bit of spunk. However I have to respect Ruth for her strength. Through all that befalls her, she shows great strength of character, and with the benefit maturity is able to stand up for what is right. The most interesting characters are in fact the secondary characters. Jemima in particular stood out. Here was a character who was struggling with the edicts of society, endlessly getting herself into scrapes, and without a doubt a girl with spirit.
While undoubtedly North and South remains my favourite, I enjoyed Ruth. I would rank it along side Wives and Daughters and Cranford. Mary Barton remains my least favourite. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell, but to those already familiar with her work it is a worthwhile read.