I’ve read several of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, and thought all of them were quite spectacularly good (North and South, Wives and Daughters, Cranford.) So I was expecting a pleasure when I picked up Ruth, her second novel. Was I ever right.
Plot-wise, Ruth is a fairly standard tale of a fallen woman. Ruth is a fifteen-year-old orphan, and essentially friendless when the book opens. She has been given a job dressmaking by her distant guardian, but she has no one to give her help or advice. Through a series of events and coincidences, Ruth meets a conscienceless gentleman named Mr. Billingham, and he seduces her and then leaves her brutally. This results in a pregnancy, and Ruth is now a pariah: a wanton woman, unfit to associate with good people, a source of corruption, and a bad mother for bringing a bastard into the world.
Fortunately for Ruth, she finds new, compassionate friends, a brother and sister, who are willing to help her. They put the story about that she is a young widow, and this gives her the chance to stay with them in peace, to shape her character, and even to find employment. But Ruth’s past doesn’t remain past, and her character is put to a severe test by the end of the book.
Gaskell knew when she was writing this novel that she was dealing with a controversial subject. Ruth, as a victim of seduction, is at the center of this novel, not marginalized or condemned. Gaskell represents her as a woman whose life, in all respects but one, is essentially beyond reproach: she is intelligent, modest, humble, self-possessed, grateful, and kind. Gaskell makes us think about the question: is Ruth a sinner who can be redeemed, or is she an innocent who only needs understanding? Neither of these were part of the common Victorian understanding of the fallen woman. (Though of course one of the main purposes of much Victorian literature is to critique Victorian values. Look at Dickens alone.)
The book, and especially the Benson household, is deeply faithful, from Ruth’s constant prayer to be made fit to raise her child, to the treatment of judgment and hypocrisy. Thurstan Benson, a Dissenting minister, is kind and gentle to Ruth, and believes that she, as well as other women in her same case, are examples of “broken hearts to be bound up,” rather than objects of contempt. Mr. Bradshaw, the village rich man, on the other hand, is rigidly judgmental (though not a hypocrite, an important distinction to make.) His reading of the Bible tells him that Ruth should be utterly cast out, and any consequences are her own fault. His sexual double standard (he does not even think of the father of Ruth’s child) is clearly marked as wrong in the book, though it is the expected way of thinking about such cases. And his judgment contributes to his son’s hypocrisy and eventual corruption.
There is a lot of illness in this book, beginning with one of Ruth’s friends at the dressmaking shop, moving on to the illness that made Mr. Bellingham desert Ruth so cruelly, and making up the climax of the novel. (Apparently Dickens once said that he wished her characters were steadier on their feet.) But Gaskell never represents Ruth as the source of this physical and mental disease. Indeed, by the end of the book, she is a noted healer. This, too, would be impossible in most stories of seduction.
As I read Ruth, I kept thinking of this quotation from Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye:
It was about men, the kind who caused women to fall. I did not ascribe any intentions to these men. They were like the weather, they didn’t have a mind. They merely drenched you or struck you like lightning and moved on, mindless as blizzards. Or they were like rocks, a line of sharp slippery rocks with jagged edges. You could walk with care along between the rocks, picking your steps, and if you slipped you’d fall and cut yourself, but it was no use blaming the rocks.
That must be what was meant by fallen women. Fallen women were women who had fallen onto men and hurt themselves. There was some suggestion of downward motion, against one’s will and not with the will of anyone else. Fallen women were not pulled-down women or pushed women, merely fallen. Of course there was Eve and the Fall; but there was nothing about falling in that story, which was only about eating, like most children’s stories.
At first, Ruth is a fallen woman in this sense: without a guide, she has fallen onto the slippery rocks and hurt herself. But Gaskell allows her to get back up. That reversal of expectations is the great pleasure and suspense of the novel — will she fall again? Will she be able to protect her child? And the answers are both Romantic and realistic. This was a tremendously satisfying book, and I look forward to more Gaskell.