Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814
Ruth Hilton, later called Mrs. Denbigh, who as a girl of sixteen is on her own, working long hours in a seamstress’s shop with many other girls. With no living family, she is often lonely. Her life changes for the worse when she meets Mr. Bellingham, a young noble. He eventually lures her off to London and North Wales, and she becomes pregnant. When he becomes ill in Wales, his mother comes to nurse him and sends Ruth away. Her rescue by Mr. Benson takes her to Eccleston and a life as Mrs. Denby, a model “widow” and loving mother. She works as the governess to two daughters of a rich local family. When her secret is discovered, her son is about six years old. The Bensons—a minister and his sister—stand by her, and she stays to become a nurse for the ill. She dies as a revered and beloved woman after working during an epidemic.
Mr. Bellingham, later known as Mr. Donne, who seduces Ruth because she is attractive. He does not try to find her after his illness. He later appears as a friend of Mr. Bellingham, running for political office as Mr. Donne, having changed his name to acquire a legacy. He proposes to Ruth, but she spurns him, and he goes on to have a questionable political career. He is a weak and self-serving man.
Thurstan Benson, a beloved and generous minister with a humpback. He is in his forties when he and his sister meet Ruth in North Wales and befriend her. He depends for his income on his small congregation in Eccleston. They are Dissenters from the official English church. Keeping Ruth’s secret is difficult for him, especially when she goes as nurse/governess to the daughters of the local gentleman, Mr. Bradshaw. His generosity and nobility of spirit define him.
Sally, a beloved elderly retainer of the Bensons. She believes that she is responsible for Mr. Benson’s humpback, having dropped him when she was a teenager and he was a baby. She stays with the Bensons, has a mind of her own, and at first is very harsh with Ruth. She becomes as devoted to Ruth as she is to the Bensons, and money she has saved for them from her salary goes to help Ruth.
Mr. Bradshaw, a proud man who is an important parishioner in Mr. Benson’s church. He is morally upright but puts little effort toward that, and he neither understands nor will tolerate the weaknesses he sees in others. He is inclined to be judgmental and condescending; as a result, he holds at a distance his eldest daughter and badly misunderstands his son. He hires Ruth as a governess but is cruel to her concerning her illegitimate child, making it more difficult to tolerate the weaknesses and crimes of his son. He disowns his son but gradually reconciles himself to the Bensons and to Ruth. His wife and children have more sympathy for Ruth and for his erring son than he is capable of showing.
Richard Bradshaw, Mr. Bradshaw’s son, who grows up to be a solicitor like his father and works in his father’s office. He is dishonest with investors’ money. This is discovered long after Mr. Bradshaw has made Ruth’s shame public and humiliated her son. Richard stole the money invested for Mr. Benson by his father. He is sent to Scotland, where he reforms and does well, but he has shamed his father.
Jemima Bradshaw, Mr. Bradshaw’s eldest daughter, who is attractive, and energetic. As a young woman of sixteen, she is courted by Mr. Farquhar, who is favored by her parents, especially her father. She is somewhat rebellious. She wants to marry Mr. Farquhar and eventually does, but she cannot abide his “correction” of her faults and becomes impatient with him. She is characterized by jealousy, contrariness, and a good heart.
Mr. Farquhar, who is moral by nature. As a man of forty, he is attracted by Jemima’s beauty and her good family background. He tries to make her more appropriate as a candidate for his wife. His strictness is tempered, so that he is able to satisfy Jemima, help Richard in his difficulties, and, as Mr. Bradshaw’s business partner, keep Richard and his father from destroying each other.
Leonard Denbigh, Ruth’s son, a sober boy who is very fond of his mother. When, at the age of six, he finds out that he was born out of wedlock, he hates her, but only for a short time. He lives with her and the Bensons and is dear to Miss Benson and Sally as well as to Ruth. He is portrayed as largely noble and naturally sweet and good.