Ruth is a Victorian Social Problem novel about a young orphan working as an apprentice dressmaker. Ruth Hilton is seduced and then abandoned by the wealthy Henry Bellingham. Discovering herself to be pregnant in a society that frowned and even criminalized single motherhood, she enters the home of the kind Thurston Benson and his sister under the assumed identity of Mrs Denbigh, a recently widowed cousin of the Bensons. Soon after, she takes a job as a governess with the tyrannical Mr Bradshaw.
The novel deals with a topic that was very controversial in its time and, in many ways, is still very controversial today. Reading it, I realized how many of the stereotypes her contemporaries held about “fallen women” and unmarried mothers that Gaskell deliberately set out to break are still with us today.
I felt that her treatment of Ruth was very balanced. When dealing with this sort of topic, is so simple to either make the main character too rebellious or too pathetic. But Ruth, who admittedly has a very mild personality (Gaskell trying to paint her as the model ‘angel of the home’), she does come into her own and fight for acceptance.
I was also impressed that Bellingham was brought back into the narrative. It seemed easy for the story to simply end at Ruth, leaving Bellingham off the hook for the “sin” of Leonard. But Gaskell brings him in and she highlights, underlines, and paints in neon the total lack of punishment given to Bellingham by society while Ruth and Leonard are made to suffer so dearly. And again, this sort of unequal gender-based moral standards are very much still with us.
The one topic that had my Victorian Literature class arguing hotly was Ruth’s death. About half of us argued that despite all Gaskell had done in the novel, she still let Ruth have the only fate available to the “fallen women” of Victorian literature – death. The other half of us argued that Ruth was being caste as a sort of Christ figure, sacrificing herself to save all those sick, including Bellingham himself. Rather than dying as a fallen woman or even redeeming herself through death, she had already redeemed herself and, in her newfound self-agency, indulged her innate goodness and self-sacrifice. For my own part, I see a lot of the former, but my understanding of Gaskell leads me to assume she meant the latter. But I will leave that up to better readers than me to decide.
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