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Classics Circuit Review: Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell

Today is my very first Classics Circuit tour review.  I’m loving all these posts, and have been very excited to host Elizabeth Gaskell on my blog today.  I’ve read and enjoyed three books by her, and today I’m featuring Ruth, a book to which I had a very different reaction.

When Ruth Hilton’s parents died, she was left one of many apprentices to a seamstress by her guardian, a man she only ever saw once.  Ruth, who is beautiful and kind, cannot help remembering and missing her parents, not to mention her country rambles and freedom.  When she gets to attend a ball as an amateur maid, she meets Mr Bellingham, a gentleman who is compelled by her beauty and asks her to call him friend.  Ruth’s inexperience with the world means that she accepts his friendship and somehow finds herself becoming his mistress.  His mother disapproves, and when Mr Bellingham falls ill, she seizes her opportunity and Ruth is left alone and pregnant in a Victorian world that is almost unbearably harsh on fallen women.

I am of two minds on Ruth.  The first is that I admire Gaskell’s plan for her novel.  She sets out to in a sense rescue the virtuous, repenting fallen woman from her sin.  The double standard in nineteenth century England was far more damaging and prevalent than it is today, when it seems impossible that anyone could really hate a woman simply because she was with a man before they were married, let alone torment the poor illegitimate child based on something that was not his or her fault.  I enjoyed the social commentary that this novel certainly was, and I went into it knowing that in its time Ruth had had a surprisingly strong welcome.  I knew it was exposing a crack in a changing society and in that way it was very interesting for me.

As a story, however, it wasn’t the most compelling book I’ve ever read, and I actually hope it will become increasingly less relevant as the double standard for men and women in terms of sexual activity fades away.  Most of the book really seems centered on the idea that Ruth is a perfect, virtuous woman and mother.  Had her parents lived longer and educated her on the dangers of men, it’s implied that she might have suspected what was coming when she went to London with Mr Bellingham, but as it was she’s completely blameless, not even realizing what she’s done until she is mocked on the street in Wales after she’d been living in sin for a while.  This also seems strange because her son, much younger than she was at the time of her folly, cannot have experienced the same level of education yet but is fully cognizant of Ruth’s mistake and what it means for him.  Things don’t add up.  I think the book would have been vastly more interesting had Ruth been fully aware of what she was doing, rather than seeming just a victim of a harsh society and an opportunist gentleman.

In other words, Ruth is just too perfect, and perfect in a very Victorian way, for a modern reader to sympathize with.  I even wound up liking Jemima Bradshaw better, despite the fact that she’s rich, sulky, and is jealous of a poor woman, simply because she has more layers as a character and actually believably repents of her negative emotions by the end of the novel, albeit after she is in a position of security.  I admire the fact that Gaskell was showing how a woman could make a mistake and still remain the woman she was before, that premarital sex didn’t make a woman into a despicable immoral creature, but Ruth did little else for me.

For a classic, however, this is a very easy read, and my edition was under 400 pages.  Things seem to move along at a brisk pace for the most part and it’s an interesting look at a society that has gone but still leaves its mark on our lives.  Regardless, I think I’d recommend North and South or Cranford above Ruth, if one is trying out Gaskell for the first time.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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