“If a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she’s nobody, she had as good want them all for nothing but money now recommends a woman; the men play the game all into their own hands.” (Moll Flanders, Chpt 4)

Can a “fallen women” be also pure, innocent? A sinless sinner? Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth is the answer to these questions. Ruth is the angel that sins without even knowing the meaning and the consequences of her action, she is a pure ray of light that brightens the entire novel and gently glides over the greyness of Victorian prudery and moralism. Ruth is an orphan of about sixteen, who works at a sweatshop and whose uncommon beauty attracts the young and rich Henry Bellingham. They form a secret friendship, which is found out by Mrs Mason, the owner of the shop, who soon dismisses her for the sake of the reputation her business. Homeless and unemployed she consents to leave with Henry Bellingham to go to London first and then to Wales. This makes her a “fallen woman” at the eyes of society, the point is that she didn’t know the meaning of it:

” She was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice” (Ruth Chpt 3)

For her it had been natural to follow the man she loved and had offered protection; it was natural for to please him or entertain him; it is natural when you love. She couldn’t see anything wrong in her doings, but  the people she occasionally interacted with, oh yes, they could. Gaskell, here, is at her best when she depicts Ruth’s joyful and spontaneous world, made of expectations, true feelings and pure emotions, which strikes with the strict code of proper behavior of the Victorian society, which couldn’t but condemn the degree of moral corruption that all that meant. Only when a young boy, whose innocence had already been dented by the talks inside the family, shouts at her “naughty woman” – very likely without comprehending the meaning of his words – she catches for a moment a glimpse of reality, but she doesn’t figure it out fully. She’ll have to wake up abruptly from her dream of love, when Mr Bellingham’s mother, called by her son on the occasion of a fever, persuades him to abandon Ruth in Wales. She will remain alone with a 50 pound note and a kid on the way.

Elizabeth Gaskell never deceives her readers on the true nature of Ruth’s lover, he is a rake. Whatever point of view she uses, however genteel his manners may look or honest his intentions may be, there is always a fraction, a word that unmasks his real temper. Even when he seems to display a sort of heroic nature, saving the life of a child, we cannot trust him, in fact when he carries the boy back to his humble abode he is disgusted by the dirt and the smell of the place, and he openly says it with contempt, hurting the feelings of the boy’s grandmother.

Distraught and alone in a hostile world Ruth attempts suicide, but she is saved by Mr Benson, a Dissenting minister, who offers her comfort and decides to take her to his home town to live with him, his sister Faith and Sally their housekeeper. Being pregnant, she will be introduced in the neighbourhood as Mrs Denbigh, a young widow of only 16, to protect her from tittle-tattle. Years of sorrow and expiation will follow,  which she will be able to bear thanks to the love and comfort the Benson’s give her and, of course, her son Leonard who will become the only reason of her life.

So this “fallen woman” is given a chance to rescue herself and this is the novelty of this character. She will be accepted, loved, praised and be offered a job as governess, and when Mr Bellingham reappears in her life, she has become strong enough to be no longer seduced by his words and offers. Yet, her reception in that society was based on a lie, her being a widow, and when the falsehood is discovered, she is shunned once again, but she will not go away and she will endure with patience, like a Madonna, all the consequences for the sake of her child.

Once again she will redeem herself, and the occasion will be a deadly fever. Ruth volunteers to be sick-nurse for the townspeople, as no one else was willing. As a real Madonna she’ll work hard to comfort the sick and dying. It would seem the ultimate penance for her sin, but it is not. Mr Bellingham has caught the fever and even if she is weak and tired, she revolves upon attending him. She will catch the fever and die, while he will recover. I have to confess that his is the part I have real trouble to understand fully. Even Charlotte Bronte herself said: ” Why should she die?” and I would add: “why should she go?”  The turning of a “fallen woman” into a saint with the final sacrifice must have tempted her, but to find peace and her reward in the other world is not an end that can satisfy my more modern taste. I do prefer rewards in this world.



14 thoughts on “Ruth

  1. I’m guessing that Gaskell took some of her inspiration for this novel from the Biblical Ruth, an outsider who tended to others, but as I haven’t read this I’ve no real idea!

    The ending you describe is curious, confounding our expectations and perhaps those of Gaskell’s contemporaries, but possibly she didn’t intend a moral judgement, instead intending to inject an element of realism (natural justice being a human construct after all).

    • I checked about the Biblical Ruth, but I could find some analogies, but not that strong.
      As for the ending, in that period the idea that a sinner eventually could live the rest of her life happily would have been considered inappropriate, I guess. It was safer and wiser to reward Ruth in the other world.

      • I didn’t see perfect analogies in the Biblical Ruth’s story either, only wondering about what may have prompted the author to alight on the name Ruth for her protagonist.

        There’s also a strong hint of the Patient Grizelda folklore motif, one which definitely permeates Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in which a woman caught in adultery is subjected to hypocritical male judgement and castigation. Though she outlives the perpetrators of her misery there’s no sense that is entirely forgiven.

  2. Pingback: Ruth — e-Tinkerbell – Earth Balm Creative

  3. Cool post! Not a very creative comment, but I will certainly ponder your words. I actually really dislike the meme of the fallen woman who finds redemption but must die for the sins of the world. In a faith based context that is actually blasphemy, goddess worship really, because humankind already had a Savior,and nobody is supposed to be usurping that position and role.

    Methinks that meme smacks far more of male fears of sexual disloyalty and a propensity to try to punish women for their own sins. So Ruth must die for her sins and his,…..while nursing the rakish Mr Bellingham who has a get out of jail free card or perhaps a virgin sacrifice to offer up.

    • I guess, it might have been scandalous for a woman writer of that time to reward her heroine with a full reintegration in society. A stigma can’t be forgotten.
      You are right, a patriarchal society must be based on loyalty to work, all the exceptions to this system cannot but be shunned.
      In the South of Italy , where this patriarchal attitude was/is stronger, it was believed legitimate to wash away the shame of disloyaly with blood: ” il delitto d’onore”. 😑

    • . . . an uncultured slob, be I, so, yes.

      One of the first books I read was “Le Tigre di Mompracem” . . . It might be the first book I read but it’s at least the first I remember (I still have it).

      Regardless, it cursed me to being predisposed to action and adventure instead of human drama. Sandokan (IMNSHO) beats Darcy in all respects. And, I learned that cutting the tendons in the back of the leg of a rhinoceros pretty much incapacitates it. A good scimitar does the job nicely if you are strong and quick enough.

      It could be I might have read Austen and/or Bronte et al. in high school; if I did, my mind quickly dumped them from long-term memory as not offering worthwhile life-lessons. That’s also reflected in the books and stories I’ve written.

      No layers of human emotions and intricate sub-context in my stuff.

      • Hmm . . . I’m not sure what you’re basing your assessment on; I can only surmise it’s a conclusion based not on an objective comparison between the two, but rather anchored in misplaced admiration for Austen’s characters in general.

        I would argue my case, but I’d be trying to assail emotions with facts, and that never works because, you know, emotions don’t need no stinking facts.

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