Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)

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.

 

RuthI’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.

goodshep2

The Good Shepherd and the lost lamb.

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.

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Title: Ruth
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1853
Pages: 375

A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier (2019)

And now for something entirely different!

singlethreadAs most of you know, this blog reflects a passion for classic literature–in particular, my love for the 19th and early 20th centuries knows no bounds. Every once in awhile, though, I read a review on someone’s blog of a more modern novel that for whatever reason piques my interest. When I read Sandra’s (A Corner of Cornwall) review of A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier, something compelled me to read it.

I enjoyed the book immensely. It was just what I’d hoped it would be as a respite and a calm pause to break the day to day turbulence of the news cycle that I often get caught up in. The book is a wonderful character driven account of a subset of people engaged in activities that were new to me and a main character whose emotional journey truly captivated me.

But I enjoyed this book so much more for two items in the story making me realize I probably would never have recognized them had I not started this blog. But first, a brief review.

A Single Thread is a simple story of a woman’s loss and grief and the will to find meaning in a life she otherwise never would have chosen. The book opens in 1932 and centers on Violet Speedwell, an English “surplus woman,” grieving the loss of her brother and fiancé who both died in the Great War. Like many women of a certain age whose prospects for marriage are minimal due to the number of men who died, she is finding it difficult to construct her future. She lives with her mother, herself grieving the loss of her son, and their relationship is difficult and strained. Violet puts in for a job transfer to the nearby cathedral town of Winchester, where she finds herself drawn to the community of embroidering women who make kneelers and seat cushions for the church, which she comes to see as a way for her posterity to be marked.

Violet embodies the great emotional and financial difficulties of these single women within a society that is not sure where they belong or how to treat them, as she struggles against village gossip, physical violence and familial ignorance. In the end, Violet, as we would say today, ‘finds her people’ in the most unlikely characters and creates a family support system that includes biological family and neighborhood friends. For a much more in depth and engaging review, please go to Sandra’s post.

As I read I was surprised by two references that brought to mind some of the reading and writing I have created on this blog as I pursue classic literature.

While I have never been to the city of Winchester, I am aware of a special object mentioned in the novel that it is known for that I recognized from my participation in Witch Week 2017. The theme for that year, “Dreams of Arthur,” gave me the idea to do a piece on King Arthur’s Round Table. A model of sorts exists in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle, believed to have been made in about the year 1290. The table top is 5.5 meters in diameter, weighing in at about 1200kg. It is without its table legs and hangs on the west wall. The artwork on the top dates later, to the reign of Henry VIII and shows a Tudor rose in the center and Henry as King Arthur surrounded by the 24 names of Arthur’s knights. When I saw it mentioned in the novel, with a bit of pride I realize my contribution to Witch Week gives me a secret connection to Winchester Cathedral and its Round Table, whether I have ever been there or not!

winchester

 

selborne

The second reference is to a book one of the characters is reading, Gilbert White’s, The Natural History of Selborne, that celebrates the natural world around the town. Last summer I saw it sitting on a bookstore shelf and found myself immersed in his descriptions of the animals and plants of Selborne and although here, too, is a place I have never been, I was drawn to it as I am with one of my favorite natural histories of a place (I also have never been to), Aldo Leopold’s, The Sand County Almanac, a natural history around Leopold’s home in the state of Wisconsin. I bought the Selborne book laughing to myself at how odd I am, excited about my discovery and wondering if anyone had ever heard of it. Then to find it referenced in a contemporary novel, I was pleased, and the laugh was on me!

I don’t judge my interest in the past and whether or not it has relevance to anything important in the world or my life in the present. After all, I majored in Medieval history. And I don’t know why I am so drawn to the late 19th century now. But the pleasure of seeing these connections in my reading after over four years of concentrating on the classics, gives me a certain satisfaction that history is not a void, but full of threads that from time to time connect themselves into my present. And it is then I know all this immersing myself in a time period long gone is worth it.

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Title: A Single Thread
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Viking
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2019
Pages: 336

Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola (1867), #ZolAddiction2019

This life of alternating excitement and calm went on for eight months. The lovers lived in perfect bliss. Thérèse was no longer bored, and had nothing left to wish for; Laurent sated, coddled, heavier than ever, had only one fear, that this delectable existence might come to an end.

 

raquinThe premise of Émile Zola’s, Thérèse Raquin is simple: a man and a woman fall in love, but the woman’s husband is hampering their future plans, so they kill him, guilt ensues and they don’t live happily ever after. A rather common premise. But the way Zola tells it as he gets into the minds of Laurent and Thérèse and describes what lives there results in a thrilling narrative of lies, deceit and descent into depravity.

Thérèse was brought to her aunt when she was an infant by her father after her mother died. She grew up with her cousin, Camille, the only child of Madame Raquin. She has brought him up as a weak and sickly boy who she must always have near her. She decided early on that when the two grew up they would marry. Camille fights for some autonomy from his mother at the beginning of his marriage and decides he wants to move to Paris to find a career.

Madame Raquin uses the proceeds from the sale of her home to buy a haberdashery in what turned out to be a dark and dismal throughway in Paris, called Passage du Pont-Neuf, that she and Thérèse can work in to support the little family and to tide them over until Camille finds a job, which he does at the Orleans Railway Company. Thérèse, who at this point, does not seem to have a mind of her own accepts the fate of a life working in a dingy shop and a passionless marriage. Her outlook changes when Camille brings home his co-worker Laurent and he and Thérèse begin a fanatical love affair. In their overwhelming desire to be together, Thérèse and Laurent think murdering Camille will solve their problem.

One day while boating in the Seine Laurent strangles and pushes Camille out of the boat where it is presumed he has died. Laurent haunts the morgue for weeks hoping to find Camille’s body. When it finally shows up, Laurent realizes the sight of the bloated slimy body will always haunt him. For Thérèse, too, the murder of her husband did not have the effect she had hoped for and her nightmares and wracked nerves give her no peace.

Laurent and Thérèse finally marry, but the fervor that characterized the early weeks of their relationship is gone, because both find the presence of Camille filtering into their waking and sleeping life. In fact, they can’t even sleep together as both feel Camille between them in the bed.

The memory of Camille, his presence, his haunting their days and nights, the murder itself has the opposite effect of allowing their relationship to flourish as the shock and guilt of the crime has ruined any chance of a future together.

Laurent must work and Thérèse must tend to the shop, and neither are happy when together. When Laurent quits his job and rents a garret to further his interest in painting he finds no matter the sex or age of the figures he paints, they all take on the features of Camille; even the dogs and cats he paints reflect him. Thérèse, who is stuck in the shop with her mother-in-law can only go through the motions of serving customers.

When Madame Raquin suffers a physically paralyzing stroke Thérèse must take on her care as well as continuing the work in the shop. A second stroke renders her mute. And as the strain and toll of Camille’s murder wears on Laurent and Thérèse, they stop guarding their tongue in front of the old woman making it apparent they killed her son.

Unable to speak, Madame Raquin tries in the company of some friends to accuse the two and in a suspenseful scene struggles laboriously to lift one finger and begins to air-write the names of Laurent and Thérèse in front of her. But her friends think she means to thank them for their care of her. She is devastated that the murderers will go unpunished and that she is powerless to bring Camille justice. On top of her frustration, Thérèse has taken to making lengthy declarations of remorseful pleas of apology while she sits helplessly in her chair.

The telling of the story is riveting because of the way Zola lets the reader in on the thought processes of the characters. We are lead into the nooks and crannies of the minds of Thérèse and Laurent, but not in a heavy-handed manner. This is not a psychological study into what motivates murderers, even though Zola meticulously describes the phases of their mental state after the murder. These phases are quite damaging and wretched to Thérèse and Laurent as individuals as well as how they treat each other. But Zola describes their unfolding insanity as part of the narrative rather than discussing it as a treatise into the ‘mind of a murderer;’ the difference between a police report vs a psychiatric analysis. For me it is a chilling (and very effective) way to tell a story like this, where emotion is described, but not psychoanalyzed.

At first Thérèse is on top of the world after killing Camille. She spends more time out in the world, has an affair with a younger man, sits at cafes meeting people and starts reading novels which give her a window into adult relationships that she did not grow up with. She understands how her friend Suzanne, like the women in these novels, can accept the difficulties of living in a passionless marriage and still be kind to her husband. In other words, these novels showed her, “it was possible to be happy without killing your husband.”

Weeks and months go by proving to Thérèse and Laurent that getting rid of Camille isn’t giving them their hoped for ‘happily ever after.’ Their once demanding and insatiable drive for each other now fills them with a loathing. Murder is the bucket of cold water against desire.

The lovers made no further attempt to see each other alone. They never arranged a single meeting or even exchanged a furtive kiss. For the time being murder had cooled the voluptuous fevers of their flesh, and by killing Camille they had succeeded in slaking the wild and unquenchable desires which they had failed to satisfy even when crushed in each other’s arms. Crime seemed an acute enjoyment that made their embraces boring and sickening.

The slow deterioration of the couple makes it obvious they cannot go on together haunted as they are both mentally and physically by Camille.

As I turned the pages I could not for the life of me figure out how this was all going to end. If Madame Raquin died and the two were left alone together without her as a buffer or confessor, I couldn’t see how they could stay together without going insane. Maybe the ending is obvious to some, but it left me stunned.

Murder, which came to their minds, seemed natural and inevitable, the logical outcome of the murder of Camille. They did not even weigh the pros and cons, but accepted the idea as the only means of salvation.

But who murdered whom and who got the final vindication is yours to discover if you so choose to read the book?!

Personal Thoughts

I read this in conjunction with #ZolAddiction2019 a reading event of the life and work of Émile Zola hosted by Fanda at Klasikfanda. Thérèse Raquin was written early in his career and the matter of fact way he narrates this murder mystery really worked for me. I responded to his simplicity of describing the complicated descent into insanity, instead of creating a more complicated narrative delving into early life experiences, negative parental influences or traumatic events.

Another point I admire is the fairly self-contained space of the action which is mostly in the shop and the living quarters above it. Except for the scenes in Laurent’s garret and the river where Camille is killed, the characters are confined to these two settings. And if murder is a dirty business, Zola makes the setting fit the atmosphere. His depiction of the little shop Madame Raquin bought that Thérèse is supposed to turn into a money-maker is so viscerally descriptive as a prelude for the moral and physical decay of Thérèse’s future, that you know as a reader, things are not going to go well in any aspect of her life.

As Thérèse entered the shop that from now on was to be her home, she felt as though she were going down into a newly-dug grave. A sort of nausea seized her in the throat and she shuddered. She looked at the dingy, damp arcade, went over the shop, went upstairs, went round each room, and these bare unfurnished rooms were terrifying in their solitude and decay. She could not move or utter a word, but was chilled through and through. When her aunt and husband had gone downstairs again she sat on a trunk. Her hands were numbed and her breast was bursting with sobs but she could not cry.

Thank you to Fanda and to all the ZolAddicts for opening my eyes to a new author!

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My Edition
Title: Thérèse Raquin
Author: Émile Zola
Publisher: Penguin
Device: Paperback
Year: 1867
Pages: 256

#ZolAddiction2019