Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 860 words.)