Ruth

 

“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.

 

Those Women !

 

 

A lot has been said and written about Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton, as no other character has been able to make vibrate the hearts of so many readers, all I dare say, to such an extent like them.These two men have often been considered quite alike, and not without reasons, in fact, I have to say that more than once, Elizabeth Gaskell seems to wink at Austen’s masterpiece in North and South. However, if we have motives to say that the two male protagonists follow quite the same pattern in the narration, the same cannot be affirmed for their wives-to-be, as they feel and act differently. Once overcome the question of prejudices according to the different settings and situations of the novels, Margaret and Elizabeth will eventually marry their chosen partners, of course, but only when we analyze closely those matches, we do understand how different the nature of the two heroines is.

I have already dealt with Miss Bennet in other posts, but I want to reiterate my interpretation having here the chance to make a comparison between characters.
Let’s start. Why does Elizabeth marry Darcy? For love? Maybe. For money? To be sure. Of course you’ll be turning up your nose at this point howling sacrilege and you would feel like reminding me the touching, explanatory letter that Darcy writes to Lizzy after he had been rejected, as the seed from which the flower of their love will grow and blossom and you would be right, but it is a seed and a very small one if compared to the sight of Pemberley. While visiting the grand house of the man she had so proudly refused, Miss Bennet is all of a sudden haunted by a thought, a fastidious fly that buzzes in her head :”I could have been mistress of all this“. That buzz does not seem to be willing to leave her. In fact, from that moment on, that hateful, disdainful, haughty, proud Mr Darcy will magically appear to her under a different, benign light and Miss Bennet will consent to be more yielding and ready to flirt. Would you call it love? Sort of.  But please, don’t get me wrong, I have the highest regard and even envy for those who manage to marry so well, I just wanted to remark that marrying Darcy with his 10.000 a year and half of Derbyshire, Elizabeth improves her station a lot and love must have found its way eventually, I am sure. The path was smooth after all.

When Margaret reunites to Mr Thornton, the latter is no longer a catch, he has lost everything (but his scowl) . Besides, Margaret in the meanwhile has become rich and has inherited Mr Thorton’s mill and house too, thus making him her insolvent tenant. This downfall reminds me of Jane Eyre’s pattern. Thornton like Mr Rochester must face the humiliation of defeat and loss. When  Margaret and Jane come to their rescue, they will do it as independent women, as even Charlotte Bronte endows her heroine with a fortune, a family and connections as well. They embody somehow a new prototype of woman, a modern character who is allowed to choose freely rather than hope to be chosen to secure status or reputation.Of course, in times when still the only way a woman could achieve a dignified and safe place in society was through marriage, an inheritance was that stroke of luck that loosed her laces and set her free. Free to marry even a man even in reduced cinrumstances like Mr Thorton that, at the time being, will have nothing to offer her but his deepest love and……..his mother’s resentment.

 

The Loss of Innocence

If one the typical characters of Jane Austen’s novels were to leave for any reason
the pampered life of a good, refined but secluded society made of balls, laces,
tittle-tattle, great expectations and shattered dreams to face the world outside,
well, very likely we would be reading one of the novels written by Elizabeth
Gaskell. Margaret Hale, the protagonist of North and South, could be in any way one
of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters : remarkably beautiful, intelligent, well
educated, young and therefore, ready to marry, but the pursue of a good match is
not the central theme here. Her perfect world will be smashed by her father’s sudden
decision to quit the church and move where the “dark satanic mills” have utterly
changed the landscape and the heart of people: the North. In Jane Austen’s books the
North has always been the remote place where the regiment was dislocated and
nothing more. There is never a hint about the profound changes the industrial
revolution was bringing about in the country. The arrival in the Northern town of
Milton will be felt by Margaret and her family as if they had been sunk into a hell
made of noise, dirt and machines. The verdant, peaceful, aristocratic South is only
a painful memory of the heaven they fear to have lost forever.

In the hell of Milton the Thorntons are the most distinguished family, and Mr Thornton is another Mr Darcy, a Darcy of the North, of course: a mill owner whose position has not been secured by breed, but by hard discipline and work .The educated but poor Margaret Hale and the rich but unrefined Mr Thornton are destined to follow the same love pattern of Pride and Prejudice: prejudice and misunderstanding at first, development of affection on both sides with a different degree of awareness, rejected proposal, smoothing of characters to a deserved happy ending. However, the context the two act, is harsher and more tragic than that of Pride and Prejudice. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s world there is pain, desolation, the desperate struggle to survive of the emerging, exploited classes working in mills and the brutal industrial plans of their masters. It is the real world which, nevertheless, allows the growth of genuine, sincere bonds and affections even among members of different classes.There is no time for frivolous deception and seemingly pointless conversation here, there is understanding and mutual support.

Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton share that scowl which actually hides a surprisingly sensitive nature, but Mr Thornton has deeper comprehension of people and himself. If we compare the two proposal scenes, for instance, Mr Darcy has no doubt he will be accepted. He is full of himself, after all, he knows who he is and what a good catch he would be for any girl. Elizabeth’s refusal takes him by surprise. Mr Thornton proposes not only because he is sincerely in love with Margaret, but because he feels bound in honour as Margaret’s coming to his rescue, while he was facing an angry mob, had been generally interpreted as a manifestation of her feelings for him. He knowns she doesn’t love him, that she thinks he is not good enough for her and that he won’t be accepted, even if she is in reduced circumstances. Despite her refusal, he will continue to offer his discreet support to her family in the many times of need.

Margaret’s love for Mr Thornton will grow, despite her initial prejudices, along with the understanding not only of the man but also of the dynamics of that part of the country he embodies. When  Margaret, after a great deal of tragedy, visits the house she was born and bred in the South, the happy and enchanted place of her thoughtless years,  she’ll be unable to revive those emotions that, however, are still vivid in her mind. That heaven like place does not exist any longer, because she’s deeply changed. Life had thrown her into the Blakean world of experience of the North and Helstone represents for her now that innocence she has painfully lost forever.

 

“That Woman!”

Amazing Sinéad Cusak as Mrs Thornton

I don’t know about you, but whenever I finish a book and particularly if I took pleasure in that read, I feel a sort of “dissatisfied satisfaction”, that is, I feel that I would have enjoyed a couple of chapters more not only to have that pleasure prolonged but to have all my curiosities answered. This happens more frequently, of course, when the narration focuses on the development of a love story, so when the longed-for happy ending comes, which often coincides with the very last page, you cannot help but wonder : “What will the wedding be like?”,” Will they live happily ever after”, “What did he/she do when…..”etc. , well, this kind of stuff.

Elizabeth Gaskell‘s “North and South” is somehow and exception. As when at the end of the book the romance between Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale comes to its deserved happy finale, well, I didn’t find myself speculating about the future of the now merry couple, not at all, but rather about Mr Thornton’s mother and her face at the sight of her beloved son in the company of his fiancée when they come back home to Milton. I may say that a couple of chapters more wouldn’t have been enough to explore the new family scenario, she could have written another novel at least about it.

The development of relationships is indeed very interesting in this novel as characters here work also as metaphors of nineteenth century England: the industrialized, productive north the Thorntons’ belong to and the charming, refined, aristocratic south Margaret Hale was raised in. These two worlds will inevitably collide, making first all their contradictions emerge to move forward then. However, what I found remarkably intriguing is the mother son relationship here. It is a solid bond which has grown stronger and stronger in time as they are, actually, survivors.The both survived the consequences of the storm of the suicide of Mrs Thorton’s husband and poverty, managing to achieve fortune and status with had work and discipline. Proud, cold and hardened by experience and now rich she wants the whole town of Milton to respect her family and her son in particular .

Despite Mr Thornton is about 30, his mother is still over protective and something more, I dare say: “she looked fixedly at vacancy; a series of visions passing before her, in all of which her son was the principal, the sole object—her son, her pride, her property” (2.1.5). Certainly, she is a woman with an infallible instinct as well, as, even before meeting Margaret Hale, she feels her as a threat to whom she considers her property.  For her it is enough to see his son back home to change his clothes before calling on the Hales, to understand that this unusual and unnecessary attention means something more : “Take care you don’t get caught by a penniless girl, John” (1.9.26) She is right to be alarmed, as page after page Margaret gains influence over Mr Thornton’s actions as he wishes to please her despite she rejected him. But why, is it only for love?

Now, if it is true that men end up marrying women who resemble their mothers  ( I am an exception, for sure), as this is a man’s very first relationship with the other sex, hence; I have to say that Mr Thornton is undoubtedly part of this lot. Margaret is, in fact, herself very proud, determined and speaks her mind very decidedly without fear of being contradicted just like Mrs Thorton. Furthemore, she is protective. She throws herself in front of an angry mob in order to protect him and she wants to prevent him from facing another financial disaster offering her love and support once become a rich heiress.

So, if I want to follow Sandy Welch’s amazing intuition for the finale in the adaptation for BBC and get on that train that goes northward to Milton with the happy couple, I often find myself picturing out a scene like Mrs Thorton waiting for his son at the railway station platform, Mr Thorton getting off with a radiant smile first, followed by…….. “that woman“! Do you think she would have thrown her arms round her neck? I have my doubts.