The daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to break when the right time comes–when an inward necessity for independent individual action arises, which is superior to all outward conventionalities.
I’ve spent the last two months reading Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. I am about one half the way through David Copperfield, but I put it on hold to read Gaskell’s, Ruth.
I picked up Wives and Daughters several weeks after my last post and it was the perfect book to read at a “snail’s pace.” Have you ever loved the experience of reading a book as much as you loved the book itself? As I spent long leisurely evenings on the couch or afternoons on the patio rocking chair, Molly Gibson stayed front and center in my thoughts. Molly really got to me and each morning I awoke wondering how her story would unfold. The richness of the narrative, the variety of characters and the complexity of their intertwined lives forced me to read slowly. When I finished I wanted more Gaskell and so I picked Ruth off my shelf and this did not disappoint.
Ruth Hilton is 15 years old when we first meet her in this seminal year of life-changing events. Her parents are dead and without anyone to care for her a guardian is appointed who sends her off as an apprentice to Mrs. Mason, a dressmaker. One evening she is sent to a ball to do repair work for ladies’ gowns and meets wealthy Henry Bellingham. In the succeeding days, playing on her loneliness and naivete, he gets her banned from the dressmaker when she discovers them in an illicit, but innocent outing. Without a place to go Bellingham takes Ruth with him on his travels where they end up in Wales. Bellingham becomes very ill and his mother, who has been alerted to his grave illness, comes to take him home. She forces Ruth away from his bedside and removes him in the middle of the night. The next morning Ruth is beside herself with worry and she becomes ill. When she is examined it is discovered she is pregnant. While in Wales she has befriended Thurstan Benson to whom she was kind when the neighborhood children teased him about his dwarfism and he takes her back home where he lives with his sister, Faith and their long-time housekeeper, Sally.
Soon Ruth is delivered of a son, Leonard, and though Faith and Sally are made aware of the circumstances of his birth and have wrestled with the morality of Ruth’s situation, both are struck by Ruth’s piety in wanting to protect her son at any cost and her pliancy and lack of willfulness in her behavior. They have devised a new identity for Ruth as the Widow Denbigh.
Ruth’s penance would last all her life for the “crime” she committed as a young girl by a man who took advantage of her. The morality of the world that tells her she is an evil sinner and her desire to mitigate her immorality in the eyes of God and man with the desire to keep Leonard safe fills her every waking moment.
I appeal to God against such a doom for my child. I appeal to God to help me. I am a mother, and as such I cry to God for help–for help to keep my boy in His pitying sight, and to bring him up in His holy fear. Let the shame fall on me! I have deserved it, but he–he is so innocent and good.
Ruth’s morality is based on her son’s purity regardless of the circumstances of his birth. Even when Bellingham appears in a coincidental situation years after disappearing and discovers the son they share; proposing marriage with threats of the power he holds over Leonard, she turns him down. A marriage would legitimize both her and Leonard, but she refuses him on the grounds that once leaving her he never sought to find her and that threatening to take Leonard make him a truly bad man, not fit to raise her son.
Ruth’s understanding of herself, that she may be doomed, but that her child should not have to suffer for it is at the very heart of what motivates her life. She is honest, simple and true in all her dealings and though the townspeople and the few friends she makes know nothing of the truth at first, she comes across as the most decent and trustworthy person they know. With the help of the Bensons she finds work as a governess to the two youngest girls in the prominent Bradshaw family. But her greatest achievement is in her selfless nursing of the townspeople when a terrible fever hits the village, so contagious that trained nurses refuse to see patients.
What is noteworthy in this story is not that once Mr. Bradshaw discovers Ruth’s true identity and fires her from his home or that once Leonard discovers his illegitimacy he is pushed into a tailspin. It is the way the townspeople come to an understanding of their own prejudices and religious training against a woman like Ruth who they are supposed to shun and how they come to treat her in the end.
Gaskell confronts the age-old question, how do we treat “fallen women” in society?, but instead of the typical reactions of hiding Ruth away or sending her into prostitution, she shows how such a woman can be returned to everyday life. This kind of portrayal of a woman bearing a child out of wedlock and her desire to become part of the community reminds me of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. Hester, though vilified at first, like Ruth, redeems herself through her good works and stays in the town and comes to be esteemed in the eyes of the people.
Mr. Bradshaw to Ruth: Do you suppose your child is to be exempt from the penalties of his birth? Do you suppose that he alone is to be saved from the upbraiding scoff? Do you suppose that he is ever to rank with other boys, who are not stained and marked with sin from their birth? Every creature in Eccleston may know what he is; do you think they will spare him their scorn?…you went into your sin, you should have thought whether you could bear the consequences or not–have had some idea how far your offspring would be degraded and scouted.
Mr. Benson to his sister Faith Benson: The world has, indeed, made such children miserable, innocent as they are; but I doubt if this be according to the will of God, unless it be His punishment for the parents’ guilt; and even then the world’s way of treatment is too apt to harden the mother’s natural love into something like hatred. Shame and the terror of friends’ displeasure, turn her mad–defile her holiest instincts; and, as for the fathers–God forgive them! I cannot–at least, not just now.
The Bensons are Dissenters, Mr. Benson being a minister in the church. As such, their practice of Christianity is in direct contrast to the legalistic framework to the Church of England that would condemn Ruth to a different kind of life. Yet, Sally is Church of England and though her first response after learning of Ruth’s circumstances is to leave the house, becomes one of Ruth’s fiercest defenders once she is confronted with Ruth’s humility and goodness.
The [Benson] household had many failings: they were but human, and, with all their loving desire to bring their lives into harmony with the will of God, they often erred and fell short; but, somehow, the very errors and faults of one individual served to call out higher excellencies in another, and so they re-acted upon each other, and the result of short discords was exceeding harmony and peace.
When Ruth was first published the reviews were surprisingly favorable toward the subject matter and how Gaskell chose to deal with it. George Eliot praised her style and skill with description; Charlotte Bronte said the book had a nobility and purpose, however she did not like the ending, “Why are we to shut up the book weeping?”
It would be trite to say this book is about redemption, but that is probably its central point. However, redemption or forgiveness, turning the other cheek, “there but for the grace of God’….is not only the journey of the one who ‘sinned,’ but the journey for any of us when our beliefs and morals are challenged, not by theory or what its, but when flesh and blood reality is standing right before us.
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Publisher: Penguin Classics