“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.