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.

 

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My husband, Oscar Wilde.

con1Whenever I think about Constance Lloyd  Wilde, and what she had to endure, all alone in an age when  it was important to be “earnest”, respectable and have the sense of decorum, I cannot help but wonder: what was her marriage like? When did she understand about her husband’s sexual behaviour? How did she feel? Let’s start from the beginning.

con4As far as we know, Constance first met Wilde at a party given by Lady Wilde for her two sons at Merrion Square in Dublin on 6 June 1881. Constance was a passionate reader of poetry and discovered soon that Wilde shared with her a deep admiration for Keats. On the following day, she wrote to her brother Otho:
“O. W. came yesterday at about 5.30 (by which time I was shaking with fright!) and stayed for half an hour, begged me to come and see his mother again soon…. I can’t help liking him, because when he’s talking to me alone he’s never a bit affected, and speaks naturally, excepting that he uses better language than most people.

The following months, she slowly grew attached to him, but her parents were not that impressed by Wilde’s extravagance and furthermore, the eccentricities of his parents were notorious.  Somebody asserts that Wilde was more interested in her family ‘s wealth than Constance herself, but some others, like Ann Clark Amor, believe that he just fell in love with her because:
“... she shared with Oscar a love of beauty and simplicity of form. Her high intelligence and deep knowledge of art and literature made her an ideal companion at theatres, art galleries and social gatherings, yet she combined this with a clinging trust in Oscar which was very endearing.”
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Certainly, she had her firm points of view. For example she disagreed with Wilde’s aesthetic view on the relationship between art and morality, in fact, she clearly explained in a letter to him that “... that there is no perfect art without perfect morality, whilst you say that they are distinct and separate things...”. On 26 November, Constance wrote to her brother, Otho, that she was engaged to Wilde “and perfectly and insanely happy”, and Wilde wrote to Lillie Langtry in December: “…I am going to be married to a beautiful girl called Constance Lloyd, a grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis “. On 29 May 1884, at 2:30 p.m., Wilde and Constance were married in St. James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, the witnesses including Lady Wilde and Oscar’s brother, Willie. Shortly after their marriage Wilde will write to her : “I feel incomplete without you” .
In the years before 1895, their relationship was based on their admiration of each other’s unique qualities, as Amor writes:
“He adored his shy young bride with her radiant beauty and slim form; he was proud of her, took infinite interest in her clothes (a rare quality in a husband) and loved going with her to choose more. He was her ideal mentor in matters of culture and taste, her professor in the art of love. He was the center of her universe, till death and no doubt beyond.
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The dinner parties at their Tite Street home attracted all the most important figures of the time. As a hostess, Constance was a success, though inevitably she was overshadowed by Oscar, as, indeed, almost everyone else was in his company. Constance’s pregnancies and births of Cyril and Vyvyan had an adverse effect on Wilde, for Constance was often unwell during this time, so they slowly become sexually estranged. His social relationships now tended to exclude Constance, who turned to her writing and participated actively in the Liberal politics of the day. It was about this time that the Wildes welcomed young Robbie Ross into their home. Robbie, a loyal friend to both throughout the rest of their lives, became Oscar’s lover. The situation had changed, and it didn’t go unnoticed  Oscar started to drop hints to various young men that his sexual preferences had changed, while Constance, with seeming innocence, welcomed them all as family friends. After all, she was just following the Victorian motto :”public virtues and hidden vices” .
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By 1892, a new lover was about to come on stage. Spoilt, selfish and immensely in love with what he believed was his own genius, Lord Alfred Douglas, better known as Bosie (the name derived from Lady Queensberry’s pet-name of “Boysie” for her third son) upset the Wildes’ life. Astonishingly, following Wilde’s break with his expensive, untalented young lover (Bosie’s translation from the French of Wilde’s Salome was so poor that it had to be rewritten by the embarrassed author), it was Constance who succumbed to Lord Alfred’s pleas. In February 1894, she invited him to return. Douglas incredibly wrote about her:
I was always on the best of terms with Mrs. Wilde. I liked her and she liked me. She told me, about a year after I first met her, that she liked me better than any of Oscar’s other friends“.
Wilde seems to contradict these words as he wrote to Douglas that their friendship had always distressed Constance. Still, whatever confusion existed in Constance’s mind before the trials concerning Douglas and Wilde, she was “wonderfully loyal,” Wilde told Robert Ross, adding: “She could not understand me, and I was bored to death with the married life”.
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Bosie was the cause of Wilde’s vertiginous downfall, in 1895, at the top of his fame:
It was Bosie who urged Wilde to prosecute Lord Queensberry for the infamous “posing Sodomite” card left, without an envelope, at Wilde’s club. It was Bosie’s careless gifts of suits, their pockets still filled with incriminating letters, that linked Wilde to the world of rent-boys into which his young lover had led him. It was Bosie who hurt Constance’s reputation most, by declaring her responsible for the failure of Wilde’s marriage.”
Harsh new rulings on homosexuality were introduced to England and Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labours. After Wilde’s imprisonment, Constance changed her and her sons’ last name to Holland to estrange themselves from Wilde’s scandal and forced him to give up his parental rights. The couple never divorced. Constance visited Wilde in prison and paid his expenses when he left it. She planned, as he did, for a reunion, but when Bosie resurfaced, Constance accused Wilde only of being “weak as water” and refused to sent him money.

In the meantime Constance had started to feel unwell. In 1894, she wrote: ‘I am alright when I don’t walk.’ A year later, her walking had deteriorated. Constance sought help from two doctors. One of them was a “nerve doctor” from Heidelberg, Germany who believed in treating patients with baths and electricity. The second doctor was an Italian, Luigi Maria Bossi, who somehow thought that neurological and mental illness could be cured with gynecological operations. She was therefore operated for uterine fibroid in 1895 and 1898, the latter of which ultimately led to her death.It seems that Constance was wrongly diagnosed, as the symptoms nowadays would be associated to multiple sclerosis. A tragic end to a tragic life.