By: Elizabeth Gaskell
Format/Source: Won a copy via Twitter giveaway contest held by Penguin Paperbacks
Ruth Hilton is an orphaned young seamstress who catches the eye of a gentleman, Henry Bellingham, who is captivated by her simplicity and beauty. When she loses her job and home, he offers her comfort and shelter, only to cruelly desert her soon after. Nearly dead with grief and shame, Ruth is offered the chance of a new life among people who give her love and respect, even though they are at first unaware of her secret – an illegitimate child. When Henry enters her life again, however, Ruth must make the impossible choice between social acceptance and personal pride.
In writing Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell daringly confronted prevailing views about sin and illegitimacy with her compassionate and honest portrait of a ‘fallen woman’.
Elizabeth Gaskell has been one of my all-time favourite authors, ever since I read her novel North & South (review) a few years ago. Since then I read a number of other works, including Wives & Daughters and Cranford, but I’m still getting around to the rest of her bibliography. Ruth was one of those titles I still had yet to read, but was bumped up the to-read list thanks to Penguin Paperbacks and the Twitter giveaway contest they held earlier this year 🙂
What can I say about Ruth? All the feels. Right from the very first page, I felt so sorry for Ruth and the circumstances she had been dealt with: she hadn’t seen much of the world at the beginning so she has this perpetual wonder to it, a sense of trust in other people, always meek and humble even when others are in the wrong or are taking advantage of her kindness, very simple in her wants. It was a little weird how totally innocent and ignorant she can be considering the conditions she has to work with and the people she works with, but given she’s under 16 and has more or less been sheltered (and I suppose the general society of the time), I didn’t think too much about it afterwards. It did however creep me out considering everything that happened to her afterwards.
Mr. Bellingham at first seemed like a dream, the guy who looked as though he really “saw” Ruth, the guy who could offer her a way out of her present situation and show her the world. Initially, I was sort of rooting for their relationship to blossom, work out, and live happily ever after, but knowing where the story was heading, who was I kidding? It’s nonetheless a kicker when the reader finds out the sort of man he is, and you read what he does, and you realise he’s a cowardly, selfish arsehole who doesn’t really think or consider other people, who doesn’t look beyond people’s looks, and in his selfishness takes advantage of vulnerable women who think otherwise. Mr. Bellingham also has a lot of mother issues–you don’t want to mess with his mother–which adds to Ruth’s later grief.
So I felt really sorry for Ruth hen she experiences the fallout of her relationship with Bellingham and he goes away, leaving her stranded and with child. And then I felt even worse for her because everyone thinks/says/believes/insert your action verb here that hse’s the one at fault without knowing full well what sort of person she was; I was raging on her behalf. But this attitude shows what society’s prevailing ideas were of such matters at the time; back then even as Mr. Bellingham was admitting to having brought Ruth astray and seducing her, everyone believed that Ruth was to blame for the indiscretion and resulting pregnancy. Pregnancy outside of marriage as a social and religious stigma is discussed quite thoroughly amongst the characters, and Mr. Benson raised a very good point about the baby and his/her role in all of this. A lot of the argument is of course rooted in the Christian values and dogma of the time–and their Dissenters/various sects had a very rigid stance on the matter at the time–focusing more on what’s proper and decent with a strict righteousness as opposed to mercy and compassion. The Bensons encapsulate much of the social reaction at first, but I’m glad they were able to look beyond Ruth’s situation and see her for who she really is and reached out to her. They proved to be such a good support to her through all of her hardships following Bellingham’s abandonment, especially as Ruth struggled to navigate her life and figure out what to do afterwards.
Volume I was thus a very gripping read, I was just compelled by Ruth’s plight and had to find out what was going to happen to her next. The story moved considerably slower in Volume II/after her son Leonard was born; I felt as though I was waiting for the other shoe to drop as Ruth looked for employment and cared for her newborn. The secondary plot that emerged between Jemima Bradshaw and Mr. Farquhar however kept things interesting; wow, talk about drama with their relationship/will-they-won’t-they/what-am-I-looking-for-in-the-other-person. Things would’ve been much easier and would’ve saved much anguish and confusion if they just talked about it from the start instead of conforming to the standards of the time *thud*
And then, of course, the drama picked up considerably towards the end of Volume II when Mr. Bellingham–under the surname of Mr. Donne now–re-emerges in Ruth’s life just as things were going great for her. At that point, a) I was rooting for Ruth because she rejected Mr. Donne’s advances and, while not completely repressing the past and admitting she was happy that time, she is aware–and told him so–of the pain that he caused her, and b) I couldn’t help but nonetheless feel sorry for Mr. Bellingham a bit. I think he really did/does love Ruth in the limited way that he could, but wasn’t selfless or man enough to have been able to truly care for her in the way she deserved. And despite of turning her back on his offers and his declarations, she could never really feel completely indifferent towards him, which is very human but also quite tragic on her part (especially considering how things turn out for her in the end).
Volume III was quite a nerve-wrecking experience to read as some of the tensions from the first volume come to the surface, not to mention the tragedy that hits the characters at the end (I suppose it wouldn’t be a Gaskell novel if nothing tragic happened (I’m excluding Cranford from that statement 😛 ).
Ruth overall was a very interesting read. It’s quite a powerful novel for its time considering the stigmas attached to unwed, pregnant women, and I’m equally surprised that the book was such a big hit with readers and that readers were sympathetic to Ruth’s story as opposed to judging her for her situation. I highly recommend this novel if you’re a reader of classic literature or books with feminist themes, but I do warn you that you need to be in a particular mood to read this book as it can be quite depressing. Nonetheless, I’m happy that I finally got around to reading it.