Ruth is the second novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, the activist wife of a reformist Unitarian minister in Manchester, England. Controversial in its day, the novel straightforwardly and realistically tracks the fortunes of Ruth Hilton, who is outside the social and political establishment and is victimized by it yet ultimately triumphs over it. The novel is among the first to deal openly and deliberately with the conditions of fallen, downtrodden women in mid-nineteenth century England.
The novel opens with orphaned, impoverished, lonely Ruth employed as a seamstress in a sweatshop in an industrial town. The girls labor long hours for low pay, and the orphans among them lack any means of escape on idle Sundays. Happenstance brings Ruth to the attention of wealthy, bored, and indolent young Bellingham, who is infatuated with her beauty, of which she herself is aware but in innocence, without guile or vanity. He pursues her relentlessly, being careful not to alarm her, appearing, seemingly casually, on her free Sundays. In her solitude, she has no adviser or guidance, and she is ultimately easy prey. Her employer, Mrs. Mason, who might have offered protection or wisdom, discharges Ruth for fraternizing with him, rendering the girl homeless, resourceless, and completely at Bellingham’s mercy.
The novel demurely resumes in Wales, where Bellingham has taken Ruth, who is enamored of him. She is much taken with the landscape, but, untaught and unsophisticated, she can do little to entertain him, and he grows bored and restless. Until a small child vociferously disdains her touch, she appears to be unaware of her compromised moral position. Then Bellingham falls ill and his mother arrives to transport him to London, casting Ruth off with a token pittance.
Broken, despondent, and suicidal, Ruth is rescued by crippled and compassionate Thurstan Benson, a Dissenting minister from the north of England who is on vacation. He is clearly a man of his faith—serious, godly, and meek. He summons his gruff, hearty, reliable, and aptly named sister Faith, and they, along with their devoted servant Sally, welcome Ruth into their humble home, where she gives birth to Leonard. Ruth is overcome with love for her child and has no thought of giving him up, so Faith concocts a story that Ruth is a recently widowed relative and persuades Thurstan to promulgate it in order to encourage public acceptance of Ruth and Leonard. Thurstan tutors the boy as he grows up, sheltered in a loving, trusting, godly environment.
Ruth’s simplicity, goodness, and lack of affectation earn for her the affection and respect of the townspeople, including Thurstan’s leading parishioner, the wealthy, powerful industrialist Bradshaw. Overcoming the private misgivings of the Bensons, he hires Ruth as a governess for his children; Ruth’s pacific nature makes her an ideal friend and model for his rebellious elder daughter Jemima, who adores her.
Secure in his dominion, Bradshaw challenges the Tory hegemony in the town by fielding his own Liberal candidate for Parliament, wealthy Mr. Donne. Confronted with Donne, Ruth finds that he is actually Bellingham (he has changed his name to gain a legacy), and he eventually discovers who she is. Although Ruth knows that he is a scoundrel, she also recognizes that she will always love him. Again, he pursues her, even proposes to her, but she refuses him and forbids him access to their son. Her course is set; her life is dedicated to her son.
In the meantime, Bradshaw learns that nefarious means (voter fraud) have assured Donne’s election, but he adjusts his principles and looks away. When he discerns that his son, apprenticed in the family business, has...
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forged Benson’s signature in order to embezzle, however, Bradshaw is stern and implacable, and he disinherits the youth.
Gossip from the past suddenly discloses Ruth Hilton behind the façade of Mrs. Denbigh, and the town renounces her and the Bensons, to a lesser degree, whose sin, which they acknowledge, is to have shielded her by perpetrating a falsehood. There is no appeal or clemency for any of them; Ruth’s irreproachable life since her transgression amounts to naught. Once again, she is fired unfairly from her job, despite Jemima’s protestations. Bradshaw’s generous support of the Dissenting chapel is lost, thereby imperiling the Bensons’ already precarious finances. Faithful Sally, however, produces for her employers a secret fund she has saved. Meanwhile, Ruth, who long ago tended Bellingham during his illness, rediscovers her calling as a nurse and ministers to the poor, the sick, the needy, and those whose contagion others fear. Even her paltry remuneration is of slight benefit to the Bensons, her steadfast benefactors.
Slowly, Ruth regains public confidence on the strength of her quiet mission, and amid a highly contagious typhus epidemic she willingly attends the otherwise abandoned dying Donne, who never consciously, though evidently unwittingly, recognizes her. Nevertheless, their contact again spells doom, for she is fatally infected. This time, however, not shame but virtual beatification results. Leonard is taken on to be trained by the physician in charge of the epidemic, and the novel closes with the penitent Bradshaw, mindful of all of his flaws, consoling Leonard.
The reaction to unwed motherhood in Ruth may make the novel seem dated to later readers. Upon its initial publication, however, the novel, though it garnered many thoughtful and positive reviews, was greeted with widespread horror, censure, and private censorship. Although unmarried mothers and illegitimate children were familiar characters in English literature by the middle of the nineteenth century—for example, men had spun tales around them in Tom Jones, The Heart of Midlothian, and Oliver Twist—Gaskell’s Ruth is the first English novel to install the woman at the center of the narrative. Moreover, Gaskell uniquely, with sympathy and with an opportunity at reformation, focuses on the woman’s entire life following her seduction. In fact, although Ruth is often compared with its nearly exact contemporary The Scarlet Letter, Gaskell is even more daring than Nathaniel Hawthorne in that she begins her novel before the fall—that is, before her heroine’s sexuality has been awakened.
Gaskell acknowledged that she expressly chose to write about a subject that people were unwilling to discuss. She knew women who were suffering under the double standard of the day, and she set out to write a provocative, didactic novel to open the issue up, to launch awareness, colloquy, and action. Indeed, notwithstanding those who heaped calumny on the novel, there were many readers and critics who defended Ruth and who declared that it opened their eyes to an unfair public morality. Nevertheless, Gaskell’s later fiction turned from the moralizing toward the more aesthetic, indicating, as was the case, that she had fought enough public battles. Although for many years Gaskell’s audiences celebrated her quiet, provincial, episodic Cranford as her masterpiece, now scholars and readers are discovering the value of Gaskell’s more serious-minded fiction, and Ruth is acquiring a respectable reputation as a realistic depiction of an unmarried woman’s tragedy and triumph, and as a representative woman’s appeal for equality on behalf of all of her sisters.
Craik, W. A. Elizabeth Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel. London: Methuen, 1975. A sensitive, thoughtful study that sets Ruth within the context of nineteenth century English novels.
Easson, Angus. Elizabeth Gaskell. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Solid, comprehensive, and astute scholarship unifying Gaskell’s life and times with her works. Extensive bibliography.
Lansbury, Coral. Elizabeth Gaskell. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A good though somewhat sketchy overview of the novels and the author.
Lansbury, Coral. Elizabeth Gaskell: The Novel of Social Crisis. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. The first study to show that Gaskell’s Unitarianism was crucial to her writing. Regarding Ruth, however, Lansbury primarily summarizes the plot.
Pollard, Arthur. Mrs. Gaskell: Novelist and Biographer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. A major Gaskell scholar views Ruth as dull and the novel as contrived and manipulative.
Rubenius, Anna. The Woman Question in Mrs. Gaskell’s Life and Works. 1950. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1973. An early feminist interpretation of the social, political, and economic critiques in Gaskell. Sees Ruth as reformist concerning patriarchal sexuality, marriage, family life, and conditions of women’s work for hire.
Uglow, Jennifer S. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993. A thorough, graceful, informative work that is likely to become the definitive biography. The work contains rewarding, informed, and perceptive literary criticism.
Wright, Edgar. Mrs. Gaskell: The Basis for Reassessment. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. Sees Ruth as an argument that environment and upbringing dictate character.